He was about as tall as Joy, but young – mysteriously, eternally young – strikingly handsome and strong, virile, wildly enchanting, somewhat frightening. Long, silky dark hair waved down over his deep, tanned-colored shoulders. His body was perfectly contoured. Indian? Middle Eastern? Latino? Joy didn’t know, but he stood at the gate of the gargantuan cage that imprisoned creatures that reminded her of the frenzied, animalistic-like characters in the movie I Am Legend, one of her favorites until she now found herself face to face with these monsters.
Ugly, revolting, brutal creatures issued forth blood-curdling screams, without pause, as they clawed and beat the side of the (thankfully) thick fencing. Joy looked up and could not see the top. She looked right and left, and could not see any corner. It was as if this strange compound was infinite. An up to date version of hell or purgatory, perhaps? The boy-man smiled at her as he placed his hand on the latch to the gate. Joy froze inside. Was he going to snatch her into that seemingly everlasting torment? Why? Was she being punished?
“Je, unataka kwenda?” he asked and smiled broadly. His deep, cyrstal blue eyes sparkled. His melodious, baritone voice practically danced in the air. None of the montrous dæmoniacs bothered him. In fact, it seemed as if they hardly noticed him, yet at the same time they kept their distance. They did not threaten him. Of course, Joy knew he was asking her something, but completely failed to understand. She couldn’t even make out the language, though it sounded to her ears vaguely African.
“Hola. Mi nombre es Joy Brighterday. ¿Hablas Español o Inglés?” She knew some Spanish, and dearly hoped he did, too, but then he rather surprised her.
“Mihi nomen est custos, et loqui linguis gratiam,” he spoke in Latin. It had been quite a few years for Joy, and Latin, being a “dead” language now, was one she’d actually only learned to read and, minimally, to write. Yet she managed to work out that his name, or title, was “guardian” and that he possessed the grace to speak languages, presumably many. What of English, then? Joy decided that being straightforward was her best and only option.
“Please, I don’t understand. I only barely speak Spanish. Latin is an exquisite, ancient language I learned to minimally read and write. Honestly, though, aside from also learning some Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek in seminary, I’m afraid I can only effectively communicate in English… And I’m frightened. Please … I’m scared.”
“Why are you here? And why are you afraid, Joy Brighterday?” the guardian asked. His eyes now bespoke affection and his slight smile nothing less than tenderness.
“I …” She started to say she didn’t know why she was there, but then suddenly realized she did. “I’m here to go to the other side,” Joy answered, knowing intuitively that the other side, whatever precisely it was, was most assuredly better and exactly where she needed to go. “And unexpectedly I don’t feel so afraid anymore. Strange.”
“Ah, well, this is a strange place, Joy Brighterday, with many strange sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams and nightmares, and so much more.” The guardian smiled broadly again and then laughed heartily. “You have nothing to fear, my chara. Come.” He unlatched the gate and held out his strong right arm for Joy. Joy immediately grabbed hold and he pulled her to his side. None of the dæmoniacs approached, although they continued screaming their gutteral, barbaric screams.
Chara? Dear? That’s right… my dear. Joy mulled over his latest spurt of Latin. But who is this guardian? My guardian angel?
As if reading her thoughts, the Guardian answered, “I am no angel. I am custos, custodis, et ducem; mlezi, mlinzi, na nahodha; guardian, keeper, and captain. And I am taking you to the other side, Joy Brighterday.”
Just then Joy looked over to her left and, deep in the bizarre, misshapen, fiendish multitude she spied Fen Sloughheart. He was pale with only splotches of hair atop his head. His eyes were bulging and vacant. He wore only tattered, filthy pants. His cheeks were sunken. Open wounds covered his body, oozing poisonous blood and grimy filth. His fingers were unusually long and shaped like claws. She could almost hear him, but he sounded like he his mouth was stuffed or his tongue overly thick. When he saw Joy, he threw back his head and screeched, then ran straight towards her like an insane Brahma bull.
“Acheni! Shetani kuchukua wewe! Mungu atakuwa na siku!” the guardian shouted. Fen stopped dead in his tracks, panting, growling. The odor from his body was noxious, putrid, rancid. Joy thought she was going to throw up, but the guardian pulled her even closer. She smelled something like clean linen with just a hint of lavendar. She breathed deeply, her arm still tightly intertwined with the strong arm of the guardian. Refreshing. There was no fear. Peace. Tranquility. Even in this imprisoning abyss. Safety. Assurety.
“You are alright, Joy Brighterday. Everything will be alright.” The guardian was looking at her much as a mother might reassuringly look at her little child. Funny. He was so much younger … or was he? Eternal youth? Eternal youth filled with the vibrancy of life … no, Life. “Let us be on our way again. This one has chosen his place of pain, and so shall he be left with his choice; yes, and no one will share his chosen place. Come.”
They walked some distance more; Joy had no idea how far. She didn’t care. So long as she was in the keep of this strange guardian, so wildly enchanting and strong and handsome … and otherworldly, she didn’t mind. He could take her anywhere and she would compliantly go, but she knew he was making a straight course for the other side. And what exactly would she find there? Where exactly was she now? In a dream? In a vision? Or had she, perhaps, died shortly after closing her eyes to go to sleep?
“What did you say to him?”
“Stop. The devil take you… God will have his day,” the guardian answered calmly without looking at her.
Finally, they reached the opposite gate and to her great surprise, she saw Splinterbit on the other side of the fencing. Splinterbit, shining brightly under the noonday sun. Radiant in splendor. Not the old Splinterbit, but Splinterbit nevertheless. The streets and parks and buildings seemed to be empty. She somehow knew the houses were empty, too, and the schools and library, yet there it lay … Splinterbit in bizarre, awe-striking glory. And they stood at the gate, but the guardian did not reach for the latch.
“My chara, I cannot open this gate,” he explained somewhat sadly. “This gate you will have to open, Joy Brighterday.”
“But I have no key to unlock the latch!”
“Ah, but you do, my chara. You have been given the key, and so you have the key, even now. You do not have to search long, far and wide for the key, Joy Brighterday; the key is already in your possession.”
Just then Morris Graver appeared in front of her.
“Reverend Brighterday, are you awake?”
“Huh? What? How did you… How did you get here?” She was feeling woozy and put her hand up to her head.
“Are you alright, Reverend? Joy?” Morris sounded concerned, maybe even worried. “It’s 10:30 but if you need to go back to sleep, I’ll understand. Are you o.k. though?”
“Uh … yeah, I think so,” Joy answered as the hospital room began taking shape around her. She batted her eyes a few times, then ran her hands over her face and looked at Morris. “Yeah … I guess I’m o.k. Umm … yeah, maybe.”
“I think you were dreaming.”
“Dreaming?” Joy asked with a tone of surprise. “Dreaming… Yeah, dreaming.”