Finding not a free seat among the row in the waiting area, fourteen-year-old Matthew decided that the guy with the shaggy dark hair was the more harmless looking among the bunch. At that moment, he needed harmless the way a thirsty man needed water.
Nothing about the man looked remarkable. Compared to the strung out, the worried and the miserable waiting to get in to see a doctor, he was almost a model. Matthew guessed him to be about twenty-eight; he dressed well but not wealthy, and had a pair of round-lenses sunglasses on.
Matthew took the free seat, and glanced towards the triage desk. Fifteen minutes since his big brother had been admitted. They wouldn’t find a damn thing wrong with him. Not physically. Matthew knew that Dale’s recent behavior had less to do with medical distress as it did something far deeper and darker. But good look telling his parents that. They hadn’t seen the kinds of things that Matthew and Dale, and their cousin, Alyssa, had. Adults always looked the other way until it was too late, like in the movies.
“You’re shaking like a dry leaf in a hurricane, dude.”
Matthew started. The dark-haired man had his head turned slightly. His glasses were so thick against the bright light of the setting sun that it was impossible to tell if he was looking at anything whatsoever.
“I should mind my own business,” the man went on, “but everyone here is kind of in the same boat.”
Matthew swallowed. “My brother...he’s in the ward.”
“Not the maternity ward, I suppose.”
For the first time in a long time, Matthew allowed himself to laugh.
“No. The, uh...the psychiatric ward.”
The man’s brows creased. “I’m sorry. I’ll shut up if you want.”
Matthew rubbed a hand over his face. He didn’t want to address it; saying it out loud would impress the reality upon him. But he had to say something. Nobody else was listening, after all.
“He shouldn’t be there.”
“A lot of people who end up in those rooms shouldn’t be there.” The man’s lips thinned. “It’s where the unexplained go to be shut up. Nine times out of ten it just makes things worse.”
Did he understand? Matthew didn’t think so. How could anyone know the terror that had plagued his family since they’d moved into that damnable house? The sounds, the sights...the attacks. Even the feeling of oppression—of something unseen prowling around with hateful intent.
And that doll...the one that had shown up in Alyssa’s room when she’d come to stay. She’d gotten strangely attached to it for a girl of sixteen; and when Dale had smashed it to bits with his slugger, Mom and Dad had finally had enough of his “odd behavior.”
They didn’t know that something had seized him in that moment. Something foul.
Several minutes ticked by. A group of people—likely a family—were called to visit someone in one of the rooms. Matthew stared at the linoleum. Perhaps being here wouldn’t be so awful. Anything to get out of that house. And yet he knew deep down how much that was wishful thinking. It had followed him to school, after all, and that was when it hadn’t been wearing Dale as a skin suit. No telling what would happen here...all these people, being born and dying...it was like setting an anaconda loose in a rat lab.
“You’re probably not going to believe this,” the man said at last, “but I’d like to help. You seem like an alright kid to me.”
“I don’t think there’s much you can do.” Matthew rubbed at his eyes. And because he wouldn’t see this guy again—because it might get him locked in the ward where he could at least help his brother—he abandoned caution. “Unless you believe in ghosts.”
The man smiled, and Matthew figured he’d lost him.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Well, Matthew, my name’s Chris. And it just so happens that I believe in ghosts, and then some.”
Matthew stared. Was Chris pulling his leg? If only he could see behind those dense glasses. Maybe once the sun went down, if Chris remained in the waiting room, Matthew would be able to see.
“It’s not...ghosts,” Matthew said cautiously.
“Of course not,” Chris sighed. “It never is.”
Matthew sat up straighter. “But you...you believe me, right?”
“If what you’re talking about is what I think you’re talking about, then yes. It was a long time ago...over ten years. But me and my sister and mom...” Chris smiled mirthlessly. He rubbed at his wrist; Matthew noticed a tattoo in the shape of a sword running up under Chris’s shirt sleeve. “Something came after us, and we turned to the church.”
“Did they help?”
“Not as much as my mom did. But they gave us a baseline. Kind of catapulted me into some, shall I say, investigative adventures of my own.” He turned to Matthew, his gaze inscrutable from behind his glasses. “If what you’re going through is half of what we did, then you have my sympathy and my support.”
Matthew swallowed. “I never believed in anything like this before.”
“I didn’t, either, trust me.”
“You’d be a damn fool not to be.” Chris smiled again, this time much more pleasantly. “They won’t win.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you’re God’s gift. That’s what the name Matthew means, right?”
Matthew scowled. “I’m fourteen-years-old. I don’t need to be babied.”
“No, but you need faith.”
“What good is that? How is that supposed to help when it can just waltz around doing whatever it pleases?” His voice began to shake as his throat choked with emotion. “There’s evil all over the place, and I’ve never seen any of the other side.”
“But it does exist. And there are people who fight for it.”
Matthew shook his head. As if he had the power to repel sheer evil; as if his parents would spend the money on charlatans who’d bleed them of their savings, and then tell them their woes were the result of leaky plumbing.
Chris sighed. “You’ve been bullied before, right?”
“Yeah. Who hasn’t?”
“You know how bullies start lashing out when they’re losing?”
“Yes,” Matthew said. He wondered, then, if Chris were blind. That would explain the sunglasses. “I’ve noticed.”
“That’s why they act the way they do,” Chris went on. “That’s why they’re so cruel, and why they seem so powerful. Because they’ve already lost, and they know it. They’re like cockroaches: scuttling around in the darkness because they know that they’ll be stepped on any moment.”
“What do you think?”
Matthew blinked. “Angels?”
“Angels.” Chris’s smile widened. “Oh, they’re real. And they’re everywhere. But we can’t usually see them. They work with us and through us. There’s folks out there who can harness their kind of power. But it takes a lot. That’s why they’re called warriors.”
Matthew sighed. It would be quite nice to see an angel after everything he’d had to witness.
As if he’d read Matthew’s mind, Chris said, “You’ve heard the expression ‘terrible beauty’ before?”
“You never want to see an angel, Matthew. Not the way you see demons. Demons are meant to terrify—like I said, they pull out all the stops because they’re fighting a losing battle.”
“I think I can handle a person with feathers.”
“That’s not quite what they look like. Best avoid asking to get a look at them.”
And then Chris faced Matthew, and lifted his sunglasses to his forehead.
Matthew’s breath caught in his throat. It wouldn’t have been justified to say that Chris was blind. Being blind referred to eyes that could not see; eyes white with cataracts, or out of focus from optical damage. Chris didn’t have any eyes whatsoever—just skin covering what had likely once been empty chasms in his face. And yet Matthew couldn’t find it appalling. Perhaps he’d seen too many morbid things these last weeks. Or maybe it was because he found Chris to be perfectly harmless.
“Because is you look at an angel, it’ll burn your eyes right out of your sockets.” Chris gently slid his glasses over his face once again. “Not that they mean to. But demons are fleas compared to the almighty beauty of true angels.”
Matthew swallowed, not knowing what to say.
“You’re going to kick ass, Matthew.”
A voice called over the waiting room intercom: “Chris Garcia, please. Chris Garcia.”
Chris reached into the pocket of his jeans and withdrew a small business card. He got to his feet, retrieving a white and red collapsible cane from the space between his seat and Matthew’s. With a smile, he handed Matthew the card.
“Look them up,” he said. “I wish I’d had them back when I lived in Los Angeles.” And with that, he walked away.
Matthew turned the card over. For the first time in a long time, Matthew didn’t feel so dreadfully afraid:
Ed and Lorraine Warren