Where the living don’t live and the dead can’t die.
February 23, 2014
A VG Serial: Night Side of Dark
Ambrose Lincoln smiled at the cackling woman who had lost her cackle. Her eyes dimmed and turned a translucent shade of pale. The man she feared most had come to take her away. She wanted to protest. She tried to protest.
She cried instead.
Lincoln had heard them before.
The dying all sounded alike even when it was not their day to die.
He knelt beside the woman and took her hand in his. He squeezed gently, and his smile was filled with compassion, which surprised even him.
“No, Mrs. Gertner,” he said softly, “I am not the undertaker.”
“But you know the undertaker.”
“Does he know my name?”
“He does.” Lincoln shrugged. “But he doesn’t know where you are.”
“You won’t tell him, will you.”
“It’s our secret,” Lincoln said.
She took a wrinkled handkerchief from her pocket and began twisting it with her hands. It was a man’s handkerchief. On a frayed corner had been embroidered the initial O. G.
Orren Gertner, Lincoln guessed.
It was the only piece of their marriage she had left.
On some nights, it was almost enough.
The cackling woman was no longer afraid.
“Did Orren send you?” she asked.
Lincoln shook his head. “I am here at his request.”
“Is he waiting for me?” she asked.
“He’s been waiting a long time.”
“I guess he’ll have to wait a little longer,” she said.
“I guess he will, Aliza.”
The cackling woman caught her breath.
Her eyes opened wide.
Her shoulders tensed.
It was the first time she had heard her name in a long time.
“Nobody calls me that anymore,” she whispered.
“What?” the little man asked.
He sat cross-legged on the bed.
“Aliza,” she said.
“what do they call you?” Lincoln asked.
“We have numbers here,” he said.
“What’s your number?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I think it ends in an eight.”
“Eight is a good number,” Lincoln said.
“I think so,” the cackling woman said. She smiled. “I’m told it is a number of extreme importance.”
“Only the very special have it,” he said.
Her smile broadened.
“I thought you were coming to get me,” she said.
“Not today, I’m afraid.”
“It’s a good day to go somewhere,” she said. “I was out this morning. The flowers were blooming, especially the purple ones, and the sun was so hot I almost melted, and I waited in the garden beside the marble statue and watched for Orren, but he did not come today, and he had promised to come today, but only the birds came, and the big one looked like a vulture, and I was afraid of the black one.”
She paused and glanced up nervously at the window.
The day had grown darker.
“The black one took Orren away,” she said. She pressed the handkerchief to her face. “And didn’t bring him back.”
Lincoln watched face turn from self-pity to stone.
She sat her jaw firmly.
There were tiny embers burning in her eyes.
“I will kill the black bird,” she said. She knotted her tiny hands into fists. “With God as my witness, I will kill the vulture.”
The cackling woman’s mind was like the shadows.
It came and went.
Splintered memories, a shattered life.
The present had been forgotten.
Only the past counted.
The past was real.
The present was a delusion.
The past was a dream.
The present a nightmare.
Aliza looked so frail.
The years had betrayed her.
They years had stolen her mind.
Maybe it not taken her conscience.
Lincoln was wrestling with his own.
It would not be fair to lie to her.
A lie might forever rupture the final fault lines of her memory.
He did not want to lie to Aliza. Someone so misplaced inside the bitter shackles of life deserved better.
Lincoln had no choice.
He took her hand again. “Orren could not be here today,” he said softly. “The weather would not permit it, so he sent me.”
Aliza’s eyes brightened.
“Is Orren all right?” she asked.
“He will be better when he sees you again.”
“He has my picture,” she said.
“He sleeps with it under your pillow.”
“He still has my pillow?”
“It is with him always.”
“I’ve changed a little since the picture was taken,” she said. “Do you think he will recognize me? He always thought I was the prettiest one in the room.”
“He still does.”
Aliza didn’t cackle this time. She laughed, heartily and out loud, and Lincoln figured it had been years between laughter and doubted she even remembered what it sounded like.
She put her hand to her mouth.
Her shoulders trembled.
And she laughed again.
The pitch rose.
He waited for the cackle to begin.
“Orren is looking for his painting,” Lincoln said cautiously.
“Orren was always surrounded by his paintings,” she said. “He liked the trees and the oceans and the impressionists. I liked the purple ones.”
“The painting he wants me to bring him is special,” he said.
“It has a religious theme,” he said.
Her frown deepened.
He could see Aliza searching her mind and finding only a formidable and barren landscape.
“It is a painting of the door that Christ walked through when he left us.”
A tiny thread of light touched Aliza’s eyes.
“Oh, yes,” she said, “that was always Orren’s favorite painting. But you have it all wrong. That wasn’t Christ going through the door.” She lowered her voice and glanced around to make sure no one heard her, not even the little man who had fallen asleep on the bed. “It was the devil, old fire and damnation himself. Christ came. The devil left. Good came. The bad was gone. Then the vultures came. I think they came through that old door. I think they want to drag the rest of us back through that old door with them when they go back again to the other side.”
“What is on the other side?”
“You don’t want to know.” She was adamant. She pounded her fist against the arm of her chair to make a point. “It’s a place where the living doesn’t live and the dead can’t die.”
“Orren says you have the painting,” Lincoln said.
He was gambling now.
“Of course he does. He gave me the painting,” Aliza said. “I’ve always been the one who has it. Orren told me to protect it with my life. The vultures, they wanted it. The vultures kept chasing Orren and trying to steal it away from him. He told me to hide it where no one would ever find it. So I did, and no one has ever found it, and no one knows where it is, and I’m the only one, and I’m not telling.”
The room grew colder.
Silence slipped with the wind through the window.
The little man woke with a start. Fear had crawled into his eyes.
Lincoln heard the sound of hobnail boots marching down the hallway.
Storm troopers, maybe.
If they were coming for someone, they were coming for him.
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.