“I ain’t supposed to be here, man,” Rust says. He can barely feel the hospital bed beneath him; so many drugs in his system it’s like the mattress isn’t even there. What it’s supposed to feel like, he knows that. Thin mattress, hard frame; when he lay in bed at North Shore he used to wake up sore all over, thinner and more fragile than the night before. He knows exactly how this bed should feel.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” says Marty.
Rust touches his bruise, his injured eye. He can see it in his reflection at night, when the outside world is dim enough that he can make out his own outline in the window. He can see his fingers probing the black, swollen flesh around his eye, but he can’t feel the sting. Not in his eye, not in his fingers. They look like twigs in his reflection. Like a man made out of structures, out of frames.
Like a devil’s trap made of broken branches and twine.
“I’m not supposed to be here,” he says again.
Carcosa stretches out before him: open stone tunnels and hanging blankets made of moss, intersecting grids constructed out of twigs. He told somebody once — he can’t remember who, but probably Marty — that when he sees and hears things, he always knows what’s real and what isn’t.
He’s starting to sweat.
It’s distant, but he can hear Childress calling to him. It’s an ugly echo of a voice, sounds and colors bouncing off the stone walls. A putrescent green color shimmers over Rust’s hand where he touches a devil’s trap as he walks by. He watches it crawl up to his wrist, eating his fingers and disappearing beneath his sleeve, and then he shakes it off.
He turns south, ducking beneath the low entrance of yet another tunnel. Cold water drips from the stone overhead, hitting the back of his neck and trickling down his collar, where it mingles with his sweat until he can’t tell what’s his on his body and what belongs to Childress. He can feel Childress’s voice like a flat, wet tongue against his skin, centered on his lower back. On the base of his spine.
He walks straight. The tunnel doesn’t bend; it runs straight and true — and yet when he emerges from the mouth, back into the sunlight dappled by nearby trees, he looks at the sky and understands that he’s come out of this southward tunnel facing east.
He turns, glances back the way he came. His shirt sticks to his skin with sweat; he blinks once, hard, as he steadies his gun, and he feels salt in his eyes.
Welcome to Carcosa, Childress says.
Down another tunnel, this one facing north, he reaches out expecting to touch the weeping stone walls. He hears Marty, voice distant — sound waves thrumming a dull black against the shadows — call his name.
Someone in the darkness grabs his hand.
“Let me guess,” says Marty.
They stare at the old TV. Maggie’s parents still have one like that, Marty said when they first sat down. Old school. He pronounced the words with relish, like he likes that, like he appreciates old school. But there was a hard cast to his eyes, a muscle jumping in his jaw. Marty doesn’t know what he likes, Rust thinks.
“You were seventeen,” says Marty, thinking it through. “Let’s see; that would have been what, ‘82? ‘83?”
Rust stares at the TV, says nothing. Static hisses and snarls; electricity skims the surface of the screen.
“What was popular in ‘83?” says Marty to himself.
“It wasn’t popular,” Rust says. “It was an old TV show. Re-runs.”
“Shh—” And as he says that, Marty’s hand slaps down on top of Rust’s, large and warm and casual. “—don’t give me any hints.”
So he waits. He says nothing. He starts to sweat underneath Marty’s palm.
“Andy Griffith?” Marty guesses.
The static claws its way into Rust’s eyeballs. He tucks his chin against his chest; he can see his flat expression staring back at him from the TV screen.
“Yes,” he says.
“You’re lying,” Marty says.
And he is.
The hand in the darkness squeezes his fingers. The static clings to him, still pressed against the surface of his eyeballs, still needling into his mind. He can feel it settling over the coils of his brain, warm and melting electricity that scrambles his thoughts, ruins his mind’s connection to his mouth.
He reaches out with his right hand, presses the barrel of the gun against the flesh of whoever’s gripping him. If he shoots, he takes their hand. He takes his left hand, too.
He works moisture into his dry mouth. He feels sweat trickling down the side of his face. The hand on his is warm and broad and damp — sweating, too.
He tightens his fingers around the unseen hand; he clutches it back, holds it tight, prevents the other person — if there is indeed a person attached to this hand — from pulling away.
He whispers, “Marty?”
“Let me guess,” says Marty.
The TV before them sits on a sleek, modern entertainment center. Maggie picked it out; that much is clear. There’s a PlayStation 2 hooked up underneath; maybe Audrey’s, Rust guesses, but maybe Marty’s, too. The VCR, that’s definitely the girls’. He can’t see Marty or Maggie watching many films.
He blinks, sees his reflection in the TV. There’s no static this time.
“Old school,” he says, staring at the new, high-def TV. He can’t say why. Marty doesn’t even glance his way; it’s like he doesn’t hear.
“‘82, ‘83?” Marty’s saying. “Bet you watched a lot of re-runs, huh? Let me guess: Gunsmoke.”
“Gunsmoke,” Rust repeats, his voice flat. He shifts his gaze to Marty’s hands. Wedding band on the left ring finger; cold beer sweating in his right.
He bites the inside of his cheek; maybe the pain will wake him up. He watches a strange green shimmer eat away at his reflection on the TV.
“No,” he says through numb lips. “Not Gunsmoke.”
It’s green like the color of decaying flesh. He remembers the boy and girl he and Marty carried, side by side, back in ‘95. He remembers the boy’s head tilting back, lips parted, mouth open. The green of his gums, the black of his teeth.
He watches the static shift until it eats his reflection’s eyes.
“Not Gunsmoke,” he says again. “It began with a C.”
Black is the absence of all light — the only color that can exist in nature without any light at all — and there’s no light in these tunnels. Rust moves quickly but blindly, willing to run into a stone wall if it means getting to Childress faster; he can’t even see the glint of his gun in his hand.
The property can’t be more than twenty-five acres, Rust estimates.
He’s been walking for almost five miles. He’s no genius, but he can do the math in his head. Even if he’s walked all twenty-five acres — not possible, not without at least emerging from this tunnel and entering another, or passing the house again — that’s only sixteen thousand feet or so, as the crow flies. Those numbers don’t add up.
He pauses in the darkness, chest heaving, breath coming fast. Gingerly, he reaches out and touches the stone wall. When he starts walking again, he moves slower than before, feeling for hidden alcoves — entrances — along the way.
Waiting, he realizes, for someone to grab his hand. Childress, maybe. Maybe Marty. He hears Marty’s voice more often than Childress’s now, echoing all around him in the tunnel, bouncing from one stone to the next. Without any light, Marty’s voice is all he can see. Black on black.
“Rust?” he hears in the distance, far behind him — maybe five miles off. “Rust, where are you?”
He sees the tunnel entrance, not three feet away. Light glints off the barrel of his gun.
He stands stock-still, not breathing.
“Rust?” Marty calls again.
“I’m here,” Rust says.
They sit in Marty’s new apartment, on a cheap faux-leather couch with lukewarm beers in their hands. The images on the flatscreen TV flicker and solidify, but Rust still can’t tell what he’s looking at. Despite the beer, his mouth is dry; his eyes are hooded; they feel like they’re burning, like he hasn’t closed them in days, but he can’t force himself to blink.
He hears Marty’s teeth click against the beer can as he takes a drink.
“Let me guess,” says Marty on the exhale. “You were seventeen, you said?”
Rust doesn’t answer. He’s been here before. He knows he has.
“So if you were seventeen,” says Marty, “it must’ve been — what? ‘82? ‘83?”
Panic swells up, like a ball of nerves forcing its way from Rust’s chest to his throat. He tightens his lips to keep it all inside.
What does it matter? he wants to ask. What does it matter what he saw when he turned on a television set for the first time? What does it matter what the name of the show was? Why does Marty even think he remembers?
His eyes shift sideways. He watches a layer of pure black develop over Marty’s eyes. It bleeds into his lips, into his teeth. When Marty turns — when he meets Rust’s gaze and smiles — a wave of dizziness forces Rust to finally close his eyes.
“What’s wrong?” says Marty, and he grabs Rust’s hand.
But it isn’t the comforting, black void Rust sees behind his eyelids. It isn’t Marty’s voice he’s hearing, with its familiar, ever-present lack of light. He sees a putrefying green, the color of decaying animal tissue and rotten fruit.
It isn’t Marty’s voice. It’s Childress.
“This isn’t where this tunnel started,” Rust says. Dazed by the sunlight, he can feel Marty’s fingers around his — too warm to be comfortable, but neither of them are letting go — but he can’t see Marty’s face. He hears his own voice, cracked and hoarse and thin; he sounds like he hasn’t spoken in days.
“I’m here now,” Marty says. Matter-of-fact. Dependable. Unconcerned, or at least unconcerned with the tunnels. It’s like he doesn’t see how strange they are; how the wooden structures seem to shift position when Rust isn’t looking. How the stone walls constrict and expand — just slightly, barely noticeable — as if they’re breathing.
Marty’s grip on his hand tightens. With his eyes adjusting now, Rust can almost make out Marty’s face.
“Let’s go, man,” Marty says. “We gotta catch this guy.”
And he pulls Rust forward, to the mouth of another gaping tunnel, this one facing west.
“Let’s go,” he says again, and quieter — a voice beneath a voice, like a whisper or an echo, Rust hears Marty say:
You ain’t supposed to be here, man.
He touches his bruised eye. He feels the swollen flesh around his stitches, the skin itching as it heals, his hospital gown less protection and more of an irritant.
He looks at his reflection in the window across from his bed. He looks at the open door, at the nurses’ station just a few yards away.
At the dark mouth of a stone tunnel just beyond.
Rust turns back to his reflection and sees black ichor seeping into his mirror image’s eyes, eating his pupils, turning his face into a mask. He watches, waits for it to turn green. He isn’t sure he feels comforted when it doesn’t.
Black, the absence of light. Or if you change your point of view, the presence of every color, all at once.
He sees a gun in his reflection’s right hand. He looks down, flexes his fingers, examines the intersecting lines on his empty palms.
He settles back, watches the blackness gnaw away at his reflection, and waits for Marty to come.