CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 License.
He stands in the middle of a vast field of dead, withered grass, watching dust fall from the sky. It covers him like ash, clinging to his skin; he feels it settle on his eyes yet he does not blink. It clogs his nostrils, yet he does not choke.
The early morning sky shines dull gray as the slightest hint of the sun rises in the distance. As it climbs slowly over the horizon, a stale wind blows half-heartedly across the field, dead grass rustling slightly as it passes. It grows warmer as he stands, motionless, and eventually the tepid wind dies altogether. Gray light shines through a gray sky, illuminating a dead, brown landscape.
*Somewhere in the distance he hears a cry, lonely and keening, a wail that cuts through him. He moves, hesitant at first, lurching and lumbering in that direction. His movement is stiff, his steps awkward, but as he gathers speed it all falls away, and soon he lopes toward the sound with a predator’s grace.
The wail grows in strength, increases in urgency. Soon he hears another joining in, then another, then another, until the air is full of keening voices. It is no longer a lament: it is a call to arms. Deep within himself, something stirs to life, and he adds his voice the multitudes…
Matthew blinks, squints, and waits for his eyes to adjust to the stark white light of hospital lighting.
“Come on, wake up.“ Henry’s voice gives him something to focus on, and in a moment his vision clears. Henry Lancie stands over him, with another man standing just behind.
“Hi Henry,” Matthew says. “Sorry. Was having a weird dream.”
“Was afraid you’d gone and relapsed on me,” Henry says. His cheerfulness is only slightly forced.
“No, I’m just… tired,” Matthew says. He yawns and stretches. It feels good to stretch. “I guess I just dozed off.”
“Who untied you?” The other man is thin, with thinning gray-brown hair and thick-rimmed glasses. Worry lines are etched across his face like trenches on a battlefield.
Matthew stares at him blankly. “What?”
The man–one of the doctors, Matthew assumes–gestures at Matthew’s wrists. “You’re not in your restraints.”
Matthew looks at his wrists in surprise. It’s true: his arms are no longer tied to the bed, and his legs are free as well.
“Now, that’s odd,” Henry says. He looks at the restraints, still closed, and frowns. “Did Buck get you off those? I thought he’d know better.“
“No,” Matthew says. “Buck left not too long after you did. Sheriff Dobbs came by a little later, and I did ask him but he told me to wait for the doctors. Then I—”
A sudden flash of memory—a gray-clad creature leaping on his chest—makes him lose his train of thought.
“Then you what?” The doctor asks.
“Huh? Oh. Then I… fell asleep, I guess.” Matthew shrugs, trying to look unconcerned.
“Well,” Henry says, “I guess one of the nurses did it while you were napping. Anyway, Marty, can we put a bow on this? I know when a patient is going stir crazy, and this one is going stir crazy.”
The other doctor harrumphs and tells Matthew to lie back. Matthew settles back as the doctor gives him a quick examination. When he finishes, the doctor harrumphs again.
“He seems better. Strong pulse, regular heartbeat, temperature normal. It even looks like that sprain is almost gone. Henry, if I hadn’t seen him thrashing around like I had I’d accuse you of sending me to the wrong room.”
“What was wrong with me?” Matthew asks.
“Don’t know,” the doctor admits. “Blood infection is my best guess, but we didn’t find anything to confirm it. At any rate, I suppose you’re recovered enough to be discharged. I’ll have the nurse bring your clothes. I believe they were washed.” He turns to Henry and glowers. “I’m going to have a talk with the staff, though. I should have been here when his restraints were removed…”
With that, he nods to Henry and Matthew and shuffles out of the room, still muttering darkly to himself.
Henry grins. “That’s Marty Baum. Good man. Doesn’t like surprises.”
Matthew grins. “I noticed that.”
Henry chuckles, his eyes crinkling at the edges. “Well, let’s get you discharged. I’ll drive you back to your hotel, if you like.”
“I appreciate it,” Matthew says. “Sorry for being so much trouble.”
Henry waves the apology away. “You’re the most interesting patient I’ve ever had. Not that I expect you to appreciate the distinction.” He winks. “Now let’s get your things and get you out of here. I don’t like hospitals much. They’re full of sick people!”
Half an hour later an orderly wheels Matthew of out of the main entrance in a wheelchair. The air is warm and humid. It’s late afternoon.
“Can I stand up now?”
The orderly nods, so Matthew stands, reveling in the sensation of supporting his own weight.
From the outside the hospital doesn’t really look like a hospital: it looks more like a library or dormitory. It’s an old brick building, built in the 40s or 50s maybe, and small as far as hospitals go, not more than three stories tall and taking up only half a block. Institutional windows dot the walls, some with window-mounted air conditioners buzzing frantically as they battle against the summer heat.
He wonders if maybe the hospital had been something else at one point–it doesn’t appear to have any of the access roads typical to hospitals. The lone ambulance parked outside is parked along the side of the street, just like any other vehicle.
A car horn honks. Matthew sees Henry’s car turn on to the street and pull up to the curb. He walks to the car and notices with some satisfaction that the pain in his ankle is mostly gone. He hops into the passenger seat, hastily grabbing for his seatbelt as Henry cheerfully roars off without bothering to check for oncoming traffic.
“You’re looking better, now,” Henry says.
“I feel a lot better,” Matthew agrees. “Sprain’s almost healed, too. I don’t think I need that cane any more. You can take it back if you want.”
“I wonder where it is,” Henry says. “Probably still in Buck’s truck. We weren’t really keeping track of it at the time.”
“Speaking of keeping track of things…” Matthew flushes slightly. “This is going to sound a little silly I guess, but do you or Buck have the watercolor I was working on that day? It was probably on an oversized clipboard. It’s not really important, but I spent most of the day making it. It wasn’t with my things, I figure I left it in Buck’s truck when I, ah, introduced myself to your parking lot.”
Henry laughs. “That’s a pleasant way to put it. You know, I vaguely remember a clipboard on the asphalt next to you when I ran up, but we didn’t take it with us and I didn’t see it in the parking lot when I came back the next morning. I guess it blew away. Sorry.”
“It’s no big deal,” Matthew says, but he’s surprised at how much it bothers him. He really had liked the painting.
“You’ve had the worst luck since you got here,” Henry says. “I’m afraid you’re going to think this town is cursed.”
“Not really,” Matthew laughs. “it’s more likely y’all are going to think I’m a plague carrier.”
Henry frowns slightly.
Matthew cocks his head inquiringly. “Henry?”
Henry sighs, then shrugs. “You’re not too far off the mark. With some folk, anyway—not everyone. Not even most. But I’ve been getting calls—I guess the sheriff has too—from ‘concerned citizens’ who are worried you might be carrying something nasty. You fainted in the middle of the day, and word got out about how bad that turned. Don’t know from who, though if I had to guess I’d say it was my secretary, or maybe one of the paramedics.”
“Something ‘nasty.’” Matthew looks out the window just as they turn on to Church Street. Seven churches—Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Church of Christ—sit on one side of the road. On the other is a wide grassy field littered with picnic tables and barbecue grills.
“Nothing to fret over,” Henry says. “Daylight’s a friendly place. Mostly. But we do have a few folk who don’t like strangers, and they’re always looking for excuses to complain about something.”
“I guess I’m a pretty easy target at the moment,” Matthew says.
Henry laughs. He turns the car on to Bridge Road, and they pass the little park where Matthew spoke with Deke.
“The morning I got sick I met someone interesting,” Matthew says. “He came in to Sally’s—tall, old black man. Everyone called him ‘Deke’ except Sally.”
“Julius Marshall,” Henry replies promptly. “One of the city luminaries. Lived here all his life, deacon at First Baptist for most of it, too. Retired a few years back. He’s definitely an interesting man. Had a hard life, and overcame a lot.”
“How so?” Matthew asks.
“Well, he lived through some pretty rough times. His older brother was lynched.”
Matthew’s eyes widen. “Lynched?”
Henry nods. “Not Daylight’s finest hour. When he was just into his teens, there was a rumor his brother was sweet on a white girl… in those days, just a whisper of that would set people off, whether it was true or not. Proof not required, either. Some of the white boys his age made threats, and one day he just… disappeared. And so did one of those white boys. The rumor was they killed him, hid the body, and the ringleader skipped town. All well before my time.”
“So what did Deke do?”
Henry’s voice goes flat. “Turned the other cheek.”
Matthew frowns. “What?”
Henry shrugs. “That is the official story of Julius Marshall. He turned the other cheek. There’s obviously a hell of a lot more to that story, but this is one of those situations where the city of Daylight is embarrassed about its past so it talks about it as little as possible. So people say ‘Deke saved the city’ and people say ‘Deke turned the other cheek like a true Christian’ and whatever Deke actually thinks of the situation, he doesn’t talk about it. And nobody talks to him about it, except maybe old Toby and Rick.”
“And who are they?”
“They,” Henry says, “are the reason I am convinced there’s a lot more to the story than ‘Deke turned the other cheek.’ They are two of the boys who are suspected of being involved in the lynching of Deke’s brother.”
Matthew doesn’t know what to say to that. He just stares.
“Exactly,” Henry says. “The three of them, they’re thick as thieves. No one knows exactly when they became friends, but it’s been that way for a long time. Toby even made Deke the godfather for his second boy, which was something of a quiet scandal at the time. And here we are…”
Henry slows the car and pulls into the motel parking lot. Matthew unbuckles his belt and stretches as Henry rolls the car to a stop.
“Got the key to your room?” Henry asks.
Matthew fishes around in his jacket pocket and pulls out a tiny copper key.
Henry nods, satisfied. “Take care of yourself, Matt. You’re an interesting case, but I’d rather you not be a repeat customer.“ He winks.
“Amen to that,” Matthew says. “I’ll do my best.” He opens the door and steps out into the lot. He waits until Henry drives off, waving at his car as it speeds up the street, then looks around, feeling restless. he wonders if the sheriff has any new information about his car. Probably not… it couldn’t have been more than a few hours since his visit. It’s still afternoon, and he doesn’t have anywhere to go, but he doesn’t want to go to his motel room just yet. He wonders if Buck is home, and considers calling him.
No phone, dummy. You dropped it in the middle of those trees.
Then he remembers the last piece of conversation before Buck left. Daylight still has phone books. And payphones!
Across the street from the motel is a little grocery store, and set into the outside wall is a genuine payphone. He remembers them from his childhood, but the ones he remembers were broken, and they never had an intact phone book. This one, though: it isn’t just intact, it’s clean. And it works–he hears a dialtone when he picks up the receiver. And the phone book, though dog eared and creased in the spine, is completely intact.
It’s like he stumbled out of the modern age and fell into the 80s. The only concession it makes to modern times is that it has a credit card swipe attached to the base.
He pages through the phone book and finds that true to Buck’s claim, there is only one Gardener in the phone book. He fishes out his credit card and starts to dial the number, but halfway through he remembers the sheriff’s conversation, hangs up, and dials a different number entirely.
A woman’s voice answers the phone. “Randall Morgan’s office. Mr. Morgan is away right now. Can I take a message?”
“Hi Lois,” Matthew says.
“Matty!” Lois exclaims. “I can’t believe it. Is that really you?”
“The one and only.”
“Matty, Randy has been worried sick.”
“Yeah… sorry about that.” Matthew shuffles nervously. “Look, is he really out?”
“He is. But he told me to call his cell the moment I hear form you. Where are you? Hold on, I’ll get him.”
“Wait…” Matthew looks around. “You’re not gonna believe this, but I’m calling from a payphone. Let me give you the number, and have him call that.”
“A what?” Lois sounds perplexed. “I thought all those went away.”
“Me too,” Matthew says. “But here I am. Look, it’s kind of a long story and I’m paying by the minute. Get him to call me at this number…”
He rattles off the number, says goodbye, and hangs up the phone. Five minutes later it rings.
“God damn it, Matt, where the hell have you been?” Randy is in rare form, and Matthew holds the receiver back an inch or two out of self-preservation. “I’ve been going out of my goddamn mind here. If I hadn’t heard from that sheriff I’d still be thinking you were dead!”
“Sorry,” Matthew says, but he can’t get another word in before Randy starts up again.
“Sorry, my ass! You leave the show the way you did and then you disappear off the face of the earth, what am I supposed to think? Jesus, that night I thought you were either going to be found in a ditch or be arrested for murder. Oh, and then I try to call you, and you don’t answer your cell and—”
“I don’t have my cell,” Matthew interrupts.
“What do you mean, you don’t have your cell? Did you lose it? Did you—” Randy’s voice cuts short. When he speaks again, it has a tinge of suspicion. “You on drugs, Matt? Because I never took you for a—”
“No,” Matthew insists, “but I have been sick. And it looks like my car’s been stolen, and I lost my cell, and…”
He tells Randy about getting out of the car, wandering around the woods, getting sick, and winding up in Daylight. He leaves out all the parts that would convince Randy that he’s finally lost it, and focuses on the tangible things: getting sick for the second time and being hospitalized. By the time he’s finished, there’s dead silence on the other end of the phone.
“Uh… Randy? You there?”
“Yeah,” Randy says. “Yeah, yeah, I’m here. Look, are you OK now?”
“Think so,” Matthew says. “The doctor at the hospital thinks it was a blood infection, but it looks like whatever it was cleared out. I feel pretty clear-headed now. I don’t know when it started, but it was probably building up on the trip back from Richmond.”
“Richmond!” Randy exclaims. “Richmond! Matt, we gotta talk about Richmond.”
Matthew sets his jaw. “I don’t want to talk about Richmond.”
“No, not—look, Matt, we gotta talk about that, too, OK, but that’s a conversation for later, when I’ve got you tied to a chair so you can’t run off in a snit. This is something else. You did good at the show, Matt! Real good! Like, good enough to postpone the tied to a chair conversation for a while.”
When Randy talks about “doing good” it usually means one thing.
“I sold something?”
“You sold more than something. You sold two somethings, and it wasn’t just any somethings either. You sold the big ones! At your asking price, no less!”
Matthew’s eyes widen in amazement. “Just so we’re clear on what the ‘big ones’ are…”
“Church on the Rock and Ocean Sentinel.”
Matthew takes a moment to let that sink in. “At my asking price?”
“At your asking price!”
“Randy, I wasn’t sure I wanted to sell those two. I overpriced the hell out of them.”
“Hey, you don’t have to tell me,” Randy says. “I was not happy about that. But the buyer, she didn’t even try to haggle. But Matt, here’s the really weird thing, OK? She lives there.”
“There, dummy,” Randy says. “When I got the call from that sheriff I thought it was a hell of a coincidence. She lives in Daylight. The lady who bought the paintings lives in Daylight.”