CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 License.
The Fourth Way
The sun beats down on the back of Matthew’s neck as he bends over his tablet, pencil scratching against paper. He’s drawing today, and drawing is different from painting. For Matthew, it’s almost the opposite of painting. He paints when he knows what he wants to capture; he draws when he wants to see what he might find. Today he sits on a bench at Bridge Road Park and draws because he wants to decide, once and for all, if he’s going crazy.
Children shout happily in the distance as they run through Bridge Road Park, rambunctious and carefree, their parents looking on with deceptive indifference. He looks at his sketch—rather, at the series of sketches on the sheet, one at each corner and one at the center. The upper left is Bridge Road Park in the afternoon, with the children playing ball. The upper right is the shining chapel at night, a long procession of hooded figures making their way inside. The lower left shows the feral creature as it attacks him in the empty, pre-dawn park. The lower right shows six ragged creatures kneeling around a seventh, attending to its death. Finally, in the center, is the Manor as he first saw it that first night: the party, the people, the bridges, the pond.
“No paint today?”
Matthew looks up to see Deke standing before him.
“Hi Deke,” Matthew says. “No painting today. Here to feed the birds?”
Deke smiles, holding up a bag of birdseed. “Every day except Sunday. You mind?”
“Nope.” Matthew gathers up his things and scoots over to the left to give Deke enough room to sit.
“You look better,” Deke observes. “Stronger. Shine in your eyes.”
“I feel a lot better,” Matthew says. “I don’t remember ever being that sick, and I didn’t even know I was at the time.”
“Really sick people generally don’t know how sick they are,” Deke says. “That’s what Dr. Lancie says. He says most of the people who are really sick just think that’s the way it is for everybody until someone tells them different. So why no painting today?”
Matthew shrugs. “The craft store had a better selection of drawing supplies than paint supplies.”
“That’s a funny reason,“ Deke says. ”I saw what you did with those watercolors. It was good.”
“Thanks,” Matthew says, and wishes yet again that he knew exactly what had happened to it. He’s surprised by how attached he’d grown to it. “Today isn’t really a painting day, though. Today is a drawing day. It helps me think.”
“You don’t think when you paint?” Deke smiles, amused. “You just turn off your brain and go?”
Matthew laughs. “I wish. No, I guess it’s more about focus. I’m thinking when I’m painting, but all I’m really thinking about is the painting. There’s not much room for anything else. Drawing let’s my mind wander.”
Deke glances at Matthew’s drawing. “Not wandering too far, it looks like.”
Birds gather at their feet, cooing in anticipation. Deke looks down, chuckles, and scatters some seed across the ground. Immediately the birds respond, swarming around the seed as it falls, jostling each other for food.
“I looked you up on the Internet,“ Deke says.
Matthew snorts in grim amusement. “Don’t believe everything you read.“
“Oh, it wasn’t bad.”
Amusement transforms into a sly smile. “Still.“
Deke laughs. “I was just surprised by it. I spelled your last name wrong and you still came up. Someone even wrote a Master’s thesis on you. Called you a ‘new surrealist.’”
Matthew’s amusement fades to mild irritation. “I hate when people call me that.”
“Why?” Deke asks. “Sorry if I’m asking too many questions.”
“It’s fine,” Matthew says. “Truth in, not too many people ask me questions. They make assumptions and get angry when I disagree.”
“So why do you hate it?“
“Politics,” Matthew says. “Art politics, not country politics.”
Deke frowns thoughtfully. “Art politics?”
“Yeah…” Matthew grimaces and reaches for the large gummy eraser balanced on the top right corner of the tablet. “When I was just getting started, there was a little group of us. We all moved to New York together, because that’s what you just did…” He lightly brushes the bits of eraser away, picks up his pencil, and returns to work. “We all sort of broke in together, and we all sort of riffed off each other in our work, and some critic started calling us ‘the new surrealists’ and all of a sudden we were a movement, whether we liked it or not…”
“And I guess you didn’t like it so much,” Deke says.
Matthew shrugs. “It took a while for me to sour on it. I didn’t mind at first. It got us exposure! It’s hard to object to something that was getting people to look at your work, right? I mean when nobody knows who you are you’ll do a lot and put yourself through a lot to try get people to pay attention. It was good for all of us, it brought us closer together…”
“Kinda like a gang,” Deke says.
“Not in any of the cool, intimidating ways. The problem was we all found ourselves as figureheads in a movement.”
“And one day you didn’t want to be in that movement any more.”
Matthew takes a minute to finish the bit that he’s drawing before he replies. No sense in screwing up the lines again. “It’s complicated. When we started to get bigger we’d run into artists who were in the same situation we were in, only they’d been placed in other ‘movements.’ Someone would look at what they did, compare it to the closest historical equivalent, and slap ‘new’ in front of it.’ So you’d have the ‘New Expressionists’ and the ‘New Cubists’ and the ‘New Realists’ and there were a few assholes—er, sorry, Deke—but mostly they were just other artists who were passionate about what they did, and were trying to get noticed, and were riding their horse just like we were riding ours. We all mostly got along OK, it was the art critics who did all the fighting. One of the other artists would make something new, and one of their critics would laud it to the heavens and one of our critics would tear it to pieces and so it went. Some of us took it seriously but most of us thought it was morbidly amusing. Until there was a ‘defection.’ That’s when an artist decided they wanted to try something that strayed from whatever ‘gang’ they were in.”
“Nobody liked that, I guess.”
“Nope.” Matthew clenches his jaw. “There was an artist in the ‘New Realist’ set… you want to see someone who can use watercolor, she was amazing. She could make it do pretty much anything she wanted… and after a while she started experimenting with her style, and started creating things that were definitely not ‘New Realist’ any more. Almost everyone came together against her. All the critics, a lot of the artists. It was vicious. She disappeared pretty quickly after that.”
Deke nods. “And that’s why you hate ‘new surrealism?’ You didn’t like the way the other artist got treated by all those little groups.”
“It just didn’t make any sense,” Matthew says. “But no, that didn’t do it. I was pretty pissed off at everyone about that, but I didn’t hate it yet, because it hadn’t happened to me yet.”
“I got you,” Deke says. “It was still treating you well, so you were all right with it.”
“I just didn’t think too much about it,” Matthew says. “What happened to Sarah was insane and it pissed me off and I didn’t understand why but I was also pretty self-involved so I didn’t make the connection. And I didn’t really think too much about our little group and what the critics thought we stood for. I just… when I started painting, what I liked most was that I could paint anything I wanted, no matter how weird it was. I spent a lot of time painting landscapes that were dreamlike and contradictory… sometimes they were nice dreams, sometimes they weren’t, but every time I’d finish I’d look at it and I’d feel this thrill go through me. Like I brought something to life.”
Deke spreads more birdseed on the ground in a fresh spot. The birds immediately swarm there.
“But I developed the same ‘problem’ Sarah did. I started to wander out of my lane. I got less interested in those images and more interested in the things that inspired them. And for a while I painted that. I did one of a mailbox, where the front and back were open so you could look through it like a tunnel. And on the outside of the mailbox you saw a house and a yard, but if you looked through the mailbox you saw a grassy bank next to a river, and across the river you saw the skyline of a little village.”
“Oh yeah,” Deke says. “I think my granddaughter actually has a print of that one hanging up in her room. That was you?”
Matthew nods. “It was the most realistic painting I’d ever tried at that point, but I guess the conceit was ‘new surreal’ enough to make everyone happy. They just called it ‘subversive.’”
“And you don’t do paintings like that any more,” Deke says. “At least, according to the internet.”
“Yeah… one day I was helping a friend move into an old house. Victorian house, or close enough. I was carrying a box upstairs, and at the end of the stairs was this hallway—dark and full of doors, all closed, except for one at the very end which was open, just a crack. And it made me shiver. I thought there was a painting there.”
“Like the mailbox,” Deke says.
“Yes and no,“ Matthew says. ”I was looking at the hallway, trying to figure out what it was trying to show me… and I decided it wasn’t actually showing me anything. Or more accurately, it was already showing me what I needed to see. It wasn’t that the hallway made me imagine something mysterious, it was that the hallway was already mysterious. I wanted people to see that.”
“So you painted the hallway,” Deke says.
“So I painted the hallway.“
”How’d that go?”
Matthew barks a laugh. “Pretty sure you’ve figured that out. I was run out like Sarah. The ‘new realist.’ I came back to Virginia to paint in exile.”
They sit in silence a while, Matthew drawing, Deke feeding the birds. A cool breeze blows across the park, granting a temporary reprieve from the muggy heat. Finally Deke closes up his birdseed and puts the bag in his suit jacket pocket.
“That’s all now,” he says. “Go away, birds, that’s all for now. You’ll get fat.”
Matthew laughs. The birds, unconvinced, crowd around Deke until he waves them off with his hat.
“Matthew.” Something in the sound of Deke’s voice makes him look up. The old man stares at him intently, eyes sharp and measuring. “Why are you here?”
He starts to reply, but Deke cuts him off. “I mean the real reason. I don’t mean because you can’t find your car, and I don’t mean because you were sick. Explain it to me like you explained that hallway you painted. Tell me the truth.”
Matthew blinks in surprise. “Give me a minute to sort it out.”
Deke nods. “Fair.”
Matthew takes the minute, going back to that night in the car, watching the ghostly trees through his windshield. “I was driving. Long drive, and I was really angry about something that happened at an art show in Richmond–” he cuts off that line of thought and refocuses on the drive. “I was starting to cool down, all that anger sort of got lulled by the drive. 29 used to be this incredibly lonely road for long stretches. There’s a lot less of that now, you keep finding little shops or clusters of buildings where there used to be just nothing, but there are still a few places where the trees are thick enough and stretch long enough so that, for just a little while, it feels like it did. Just you, driving alone through a thick forest. I got to one of those stretches, and it was like the hallway all over again. Only this time I didn’t want to paint it. I wanted to be in it.”
Deke doesn’t reply.
“So I pulled over,“ Matthew says. “Stopped the car. Got out.”
“And here you are,“ Deke says. He sounds sad.
“And here I am,” Matthew agrees. “And so far, not a single person in Daylight will tell me why that’s a problem.”
Deke leans over to glance down at Matthew’s drawing. He points to the lower left corner, the sketch of Matthew being attacked. “That you?”
Matthew smiles slightly. “Which one?”
Deke ignores him. “That happen today?“
“Why do you think—?”
“Your face is all bruised up,” Deke says.
Matthew touches his face and winces. It’s still tender. “Yeah. That’s me.”
Deke stares at the picture for a moment. It’s the most complete of the five drawings. In it, Matthew lies on his back, one arm pinned to the ground while the creature grips his face. Deke sighs.
Matthew tries not to remember the feel of the thing gripping his face. “Does Daylight have a homeless problem?”
Deke shakes his head. “Not like that. That thing ain’t homeless.”
Matthew looks at him sharply. “You know what this is?”
“No,” Deke says. “No one does. Most folks don’t even know they’re around. The ones that do, well, we don’t talk about it much.”
Strangely, the biggest emotion Matthew feels to that reaction is relief. “So I’m not crazy.”
“Not yet,” Deke says.
Matthew’s laugh is hollow and very self-conscious. “So… want to tell me what’s going on, then?”
“Not especially.” Deke sighs again, then shakes his head. “But I’m pretty sure you ain’t going away, and I’m pretty sure you’re eventually going to ask a question that’ll set someone off. Already happened, almost. So you need to know something.”
Matthew waits. Deke furrows his brow, thinking.
“I believe God created every man, woman, and child different,” Deke says. “But when it comes to things happening in Daylight, experience tells me that people really only take it one of four ways.”
“Four ways,” Matthew repeats.
Deke holds up his right hand and extends his first finger. “First way—the most common way—is disbelief. They’re just ghost stories, is all. There may have been an Old Man Simon at one point, but he was just a normal man who got harassed by ignorant locals, or he was a mean old man who deserved what he got. Either way, the point is, it happened back then and it’s just a story now, a fun story on Halloween and that’s about it. They live their whole lives not seeing anything, and shaking their heads at ignorant folk who believe there’s anything more to it. They’re the lucky ones. Sally, and Dr. Lancie, they’re like that.”
Deke extends a second finger. “The second way–call them a ‘significant minority’—they think there’s truth to the ghost stories. Sometimes they see shadows out the corner of their eye, sometimes they hear things they can’t explain, see lights that don’t belong. They feel things that don’t make sense, that just seem… wrong. They know the old stories, and they feel if there’s smoke there’s got to be fire. But they never find the fire. In most cases, they’re too scared to look. Sheriff Dobbs is a good example of this one, though I think not for too much longer.”
Deke extends his third finger. “The third way. Me, a few others. Only a handful. We actually see things. One day a month, they arrive. Before they arrive it gets cold, even in the middle of summer. So cold you can see your breath. Then you hear the most beautiful singing you ever heard in your life, and if you’re in the right place at the right time you see them walking across the bridge from the other side. You know the rest of that part.”
“Then,” Deke says, “a few days later you wake up in the middle of the night, and you hear something screaming. Something is hurt. Hurt bad. And if you look out your window, you might see shapes.”
Deke points at the picture of the six creatures surrounding the seventh.
“You might see those gray raggedy men. You might hear more screaming. Then, after a silence, you might hear them crying to the sky. Like mothers who have to bury their children. You might hear that, but you don’t talk about it, most of the time.”
“Why not?” Matthew asks.
Deke stares straight into Matthew’s eyes. Matthew is surprised by the fierceness in that gaze. Very slowly, the old man extends his fourth finger.
“Because of the fourth way,” Deke says. “Some people are different. I already told you. Not different bad, but restless. Dreamers. Poets. Artists. People looking for something they can’t always explain, not just once, not just from time to time, but their whole lives they’re looking. And they notice the strangeness. They don’t just notice, they feel it, they’re drawn to it. They see what we see and they ask why, and they’re not satisfied with the answers, and they’re not satisfied with not knowing, so they keep looking. And pushing. And looking. They go a little crazy, in the end. And one day they just up and disappear.”
Matthew shivers. “What do you mean?”
“What I mean,” Deke says, “is that one day I will wake up and you will be gone. Nobody will know where you are. No one will know why. You won’t leave a note. And you’ll never come back.”