9. Mysteries

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My first visit to Sawtooth County Hospital lasted eighty-four days, a time which I spent lying in bed, my legs in casts and my back in a brace. My second visit lasted one night, and I passed it under close observation, the doctors refusing me one second of sleep because of my concussion. Nip and Ash took a real scolding for bringing me there themselves, followed by a whole lot of praise for hunting me down in the first place, cutting school be damned. My nose was a mess and my skull had fractured the tiniest bit right above the left eyebrow, but luckily for me my brain was okay.

Well, okay as ever.

One thing.

One little thing.

The room was dark and I was dead-awake, my mind buzzing on whatever drugs the doctors had dosed me with to keep me conscious. My aunt sat asleep in her chair, her cheek smashed against one propped hand. My door was wide open. Except for the occasional soft beep of a machine, Sawtooth was quiet.

The moans started far down the hall. At first they were shapeless, stretched vowels and squeezed consonants. Then a word dragged itself up, wallowing, like a man from a muddy swamp. "Dioooooos."

And after that, "Stooooooop."

Two voices calling out in two different tongues and both speaking one language, the true language of the world, the only language spoken by men and animals alike:

Pain.

As the moans grew louder, more sounds joined them, softer and rhythmic. Footsteps. Marching.

"Míoooooooooo."

"Pleeeeease."

Vague shadows stirred on the wall outside my room and a heartbeat later, the men casting them marched past in three ranks of two. Within the tight-mouthed group rolled a pair of stretchers, white sheets pulled up over squirming bodies. The sheets were red in places. Because of the dimness it was difficult to be sure, but I could have sworn I saw straps fastened to the railings of those stretchers. Straps reaching up under the sheets. That bothered me, even in my medicated state. Doctors didn't tie down their patients. And they definitely didn't move in formation or provide escorts in the middle of the night.

"Dioooooooooos . . . míoooooooo."

"Make it . . . stooooooop."

The elevator dinged, the moans cut off, and I promised myself to forget it all by morning. But I didn't forget, not quite. I buried the memory deep underground in the dark, where it rotted until the day after the talent show.

It was not the only thing to dig itself into the sunlight that day.

You're missing something. You let a detail slip your mind. Or maybe you ignored it on purpose, willfully, the way Honaw would ignore so many things in that strange September. Remember the news report that came on in Ash's loft, and the men from Blackstone who were thought dead? The men who were later announced alive and in serious condition? An odd case of misinformation, that, though I suppose you could account for the error easily enough with all the chaos of the day. But ask yourself, which hospital do you think those two men were taken to?

And consider this as well:

Sawtooth has only one floor and a basement, and in that basement lies nothing that breathes or speaks.


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Author's Note:

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Coming up, Nip confronts Joel with a secret . . . and things that were once healthy begin to rot.



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