For a night, she could feel like a beautiful woman again.

More chapters from Night Side of Dark

A VG Serial: Night Side of Dark

Episode 46

Ambrose Lincoln was sitting on the foot of Celia’s bed when she quietly slipped back into the room. If the clock in his mind was correct, and it usually was, the time was sixteen minutes past four. The sun would rise in another two hours, but it would not shine on Krakau. The clouds were far too thick, packed with snow, and the color of gunmetal. The only light working its way through the window was faint and had been oddly reflected by the street lamp below. Cold had wrapped up the sounds of the night and buried them deep.

Celia heard Lincoln’s slow, measured breathing before she saw him.

She stepped back toward the door, startled. She reached into the pocket of her woolen coat and clutched the dead lieutenant’s Lugar.

Celia waited for the shadow to speak.

It remained silent.

“Who are you?” she asked.

No answer.

A form without a face.

That’s all she saw.

The darkness placed a veil between them.

His words tore it open.

“Where have you been?” Lincoln said.

His voice was soft and controlled.

Celia relaxed.

She brushed her hair back and smiled.

“Downstairs,” she said. “I don’t like new places. I don’t trust new places. We’re in a new place, and the hotel is crawling with German soldiers. I like to know where the exits are in case we have to use them.”

“See any soldiers?”

“A couple.”

“Did they see you?”

Celia laughed softly. “They looked at me,” she said. “They didn’t see me.”

“Are you sure you didn’t arouse any suspicion?”

Celia laughed again. It was harsh and without humor. “Women who look as I do don’t arouse any suspicion or anything else. I’m sure they thought I was some beggar woman trying to flee the cold and find some warm space to spend the night. I stayed out of their way, and they were quite happy to stay out of mine.”

Lincoln nodded.

“Did you find one?” he asked.

“Find what?”

“A way out if you need one.”

“I know where the stairs are,” she said. “And I know where the doors are. I know which ones are locked, and which ones I unlocked. I figured our best way out is to listen to feet running the hall and on the stairs, then go the opposite direction.”

“What are you afraid of?” Lincoln asked.

“Dying.”

“Why?”

“If I die,” she said, “the Germans win.”

“You can’t kill them all.”

“No,” Celia said. It was a whisper. “But one at a time works just fine.”

Celia sat down on the bed beside him.

Her shoulders were weary and sagging.

Her muscles ached.

The day had been early, long, hard, late, and without end.

Her feet had been numbed by the cold.

She pulled the blanket up across her lap.

She shivered and waited for the warmth to settle in around her.

“It must have been a terrible time for you,” Lincoln said.

“When?”

“When the Germans first came for you.”

Celia waited for a long time, trying to decipher the fears embedded in her mind, before she answered him. She had buried her past, but it lay in a shallow grave.

“My childhood was idyllic,” she said at last. “We had a good home in the country with a little farmland around us. We grew our crops, raised a few sheep, tended our milk cows, and didn’t have a care in the world. We didn’t have a lot, but I knew we would never grow hungry. My sister and I went to school in Kielce. It was not a large school, and we were not allowed to attend each year until the crops had been harvested. The work wasn’t hard, and I loved school, especially literature. I didn’t think I would ever leave Poland and knew of no reason that would ever make me leave Poland. I could discover the whole world in books.”

“The world is better in books,” Lincoln said. “There are wars in books, but the wars aren’t personal. People die, but they never bleed.”

“I had heard my father and mother discussing Germany at night,” Celia said,  “but I didn’t pay any attention to what they were saying. As far as I was concerned, war was a million miles away. I had a good home. I was in love. He was graduating, and I would be out of school in a year. I thought we would be married and grow vegetables and sheep on our own farm some day.”

Her voiced trailed off.

Lincoln waited.

“It was on a Wednesday,” Celia continued. “It was a day I can never forget. I have tried, but the sight of it all is as fresh today as it was then. I arrived home from school, and my house was on fire. My father lay dead in the yard. A gunshot to the head. My mother had been beaten to death and left in the kitchen to burn. A half dozen German officers dragged me and my sister to the barn and took turns with us until they were too tired to go on, and we were a bloody mess. They put a bullet in each of us and left us to die. My sister was the lucky one. She was gone before the sun rose. At first, I wanted to die, too. Then I realized I wanted the Germans to die even more. I walked twelve miles to the hospital in Kielce. A doctor cleaned me up and sewed up my wounds. When I left, I stole his pistol.”

Lincoln wrapped his arm around her and held her until the trembling in her shoulders stopped.

Again, he figured, it was the cold.

Lincoln took a worn bar of soap from his shirt pocket and placed it in her lap. “You’ll find hot water down the hall,” he said. “You’ll feel better when you wash the mud and blood out of your hair.”

He switched on the lamp and picked up the red dress and underwear he had confiscated from the brothel. He placed them on the bed beside her. “It may not be very warm,” he said, “but I think it’ll fit you.”

Celia stared at the dress, then cast her eyes up toward Lincoln.

“You are a strange man,” she said.

He shrugged. It was a description he would not argue.

“Why are you doing this for me?” she wanted to know.

“There’s no reason to live in the past,” he said. “It has come and gone, and we can’t change it. The only thing I can promise about tomorrow is that it will come and go as well. For these few hours between the past and tomorrow, you have every right to  feel like a beautiful woman again.”

“Thank you,” Celia whispered. She paused and watched the snowflakes collect on her window. “But the feeling won’t last long.”

“It never does,” Lincoln said. “Hold it while you can.”

He switched off the lamp and left Celia alone in the darkness.

He did not see the tears. Nor did he hear her cry.

From his coat pocket, Lincoln pulled the folded piece of paper that Ascher Bitterman had given him.  On it was a man’s name and an address.

He sat on the edge of his bed a few minutes until he had memorized them both, then tore the paper into small strips, lay them in an ashtray, and set them afire.

Chapters of Night Side of Dark will be published on  Saturday and Sunday.

Please click the title, Night Side of Dark, to read more about Caleb Pirtle III and his novels on Amazon.

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