Matthew Meacham’s body quaked, his mind raced, and his skin burned. He raked overlong fingernails down the tender flesh of his arms, praying for his eyes to adjust to the lightlessness. They never adjusted. After a time, he sat up in that dark space, feeling the elements of the world pressing against every inch of his body to inform him of where he was and what was about to happen.
What was about to happen?
“No,” he muttered, his lips unsticking with an audible smack. His tongue felt like a wool sock in his mouth. “Please, no…”
Nothing at first—except the distant plink plunk of a steady drop of water coming from somewhere. He rolled over on the hardwood floor and stood upon a pair of creaky legs. Large flies thumped against his face in the still and humid air. This man was thirty-five years old, but the things he had done to his body since his teenage years had come home to roost. His heart raced as he peered through that chamber of darkness for a sign of…
“Robert?” he said, his voice a brittle snap in that bleak, sarcophagal place. “Is that you? Let me see you. Let me see you. Let me see—”
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The smell of spent gunpowder crept into his nose, causing him to recoil.
Meach summoned what fading flicker of courage he had left in him and staggered through a dark gallery of hallways and corridors, Theseus without his ball of thread, lost but blindly pursuing some internal patter, some broach of contact from another place, beckoning, tantalizing…a figure he believed existed even if it did not. In a spark of clarity, he recalled where he was—his old friend Andrew Larimer’s childhood home—yet that realization did not help anchor him back down to reality.
He kept thinking, Robert? Robert?
That gunpowder smell only grew stronger. Another smell behind that one—more earthy, brackish.
And then he heard a voice, whispering in an almost singsong fashion: “One…two…three…four…five…”
“Yes,” he said, the word, hardly a sound, an expulsion of air that wheezed from him as he staggered out into the warm, thick summer night in pursuit of that voice, his pores expelling gooey bulbs of perspiration. He dug his fingernails into his arms again, scritch-scritch-scritch, then focused his bleary eyes across a moon-wan night toward a stand of trees. Something shimmered in the dark. The boughs of the trees were wet and droopy from a recent summer rain, and if he listened carefully enough, he could hear the raindrops plinking from leaf to leaf, plunking in puddles cupped by black soil. Was that the sound he’d heard upon waking? Plink-plunk, plink-plunk.
A shape moved beyond the trees, causing him to freeze, his heart galloping in his chest. There was a crackle like static electricity in the air, and he became distantly aware of some transference taking place. Or taking hold.
(please no please please no)
The voice again, maybe in his head, or maybe calling out to him from just within the confines of those nearby trees: “One…two…three…four…five…”
“What do you want from me?” he shouted hoarsely into the woods. “Why won’t you leave me alone?”
The voice repeated: “One…two…three…four…five…”
“Dig,” said the voice. And when he didn’t immediately oblige, the voice said again, more sternly, “Dig, Matthew.”
Something at his feet: he bent and drove his fingers into the moist soil, wiggling them around, feeling what was beneath the surface. Searching, searching. Nothing there. Nothing there. Searching some more. Thinking, This is it. This is the end. I’ve gone over the edge, like I always knew I would. Thinking of a boy who had once gone over—
But Meach did not go over the edge. This was not the end; more specifically, one might argue that this was the beginning of something, albeit something that owed its beginning to another time, another place. Whatever the case, tears dribbled down the waxen, pockmarked sides of Matthew Meacham’s face as he knelt there digging in the loose soil.
A deep, shuddery breath. Fingers working greedily in the dirt.
The thing that he found buried beneath the ground was very much like an umbilical cord. He tugged it out of the soil, uprooting it, and it came in segments, thuk-thuk-thuk, its wet, fibrous shaft thick as a powerline in his hands. He tugged at it with more authority, teeth gritted, but it would not uproot itself further. He took several steps forward and repositioned his hands along that slimy bit of rope, prying it out of the earth, thuk-thuk-thuk¸ the sharp little fibers bristling from the cord slicing through the soft meat of his palms, and Matthew Meacham, thirty-five years old, half a lifetime in and out of rehab and bars alike, his blood boiling with hepatitis, kept pulling, kept following the cord, kept pursuing his destiny.
It led him through a dense wood, where summertime trees, weighty with rainwater, bowed in supplication. He crossed beneath their boughs, forehead slapped by wet leaves, lacerated by pitchfork branches, blessed by the world around him, until he staggered out onto a muddy dirt road that overlooked the wide, black expanse of the Chesapeake Bay. He was suddenly standing on a platform at the edge of the world.
He paused for a moment, that taut umbilicus gripped tightly in both his bleeding hands, blood trickling blackly down his wrists. His lungs ached and his skin itched. His right eye was burning again, just as he claimed it had in the weeks after the incident back when the five of them had been teenagers. Beyond the road was a bluff that overlooked the tremendous expanse of the bay, ink-black and moonlight-shiny. It was a clear summer night, and even with his bleary, burning vision, he could easily discern the pulsating glow of the lighthouse out there, surrounded by all that darkness. The umbilicus was run like a powerline beneath the road, leading toward the edge of the cliff; Matthew Meacham tugged at it again, and it broke incrementally free of the earth in little staccato reports, pop pop pop, right through the muddy surface. It tunneled straight through to the opposite side of the road, toward the edge of the cliff overlooking the inky black waters of the bay. Still stubborn in its buriedness.
Matthew Meacham staggered toward the edge of the cliff. A dizzying euphoria overtook him, and he momentarily closed his eyes and swayed on his unsteady feet. His lungs, burning a moment ago, now felt heavy and full of some thick, viscous liquid.
Robert, is that you?
What do you want?
What is there to find?
And the voice responded: “One…two…three…four…five…”
The umbilicus grew taut once more, and he looked down to find it snagged between two large rocks at the edge of the cliff. He yanked on the cord, but it wouldn’t budge; his hands were slippery with blood now, and with whatever noxious fluid was seeping out of the cord itself.
No, not a cord.
A lifeline, he thought, for no discernible reason. Life—
The cord pulled back, and the next thing Matthew Meacham knew, he was tumbling over the side of the cliff, his heels carving trenches through the earth, then flipping forward, and he was airborne, head over ass, plummeting down, down, down…
In a flash, just before he struck the earth below, he thought he saw the figure of a teenage boy standing in the shallow water, watching him fall.
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