Where had they gone, or were they simply dead?
September 7, 2013
A VG Serial: Night Side of Dark
Ambrose Lincoln glanced at the sign above him. There were no words, only a big number 444 painted on metal and hanging from a narrow rectangular window at the top of the room. Those around him looked as if they had walked their final mile and had no interest in going any farther. Their faces were calm, their eyes dull. He had seen the same expressions on men the week after a doctor had scraped away the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The procedure, Lincoln had been told, was used only to rid certain patients of obsessions and delusions and ragged nerves that had worn down like the rotting rubber of a scrapheap inner tube. Surgery alleviated the suffering, the doctor had said. Lincoln had seen it alleviate a man’s thoughts, turning him into a walking cadaver who had traded his nightmares for peace of mind, then lost his mind.
No one ever tinkered with the frontal lobe of Ambrose Lincoln’s brain. They often talked about it after dark, over whiskey, and behind locked doors. They settled on the electrodes instead, and Lincoln discovered that a man’s mind could be erased time and again, but some fragmented memories still hung like frayed remnants on the backside of his brain, mostly obscure, mostly dark, mostly elusive.
He had slowly been putting them back together again.
Some of the pieces didn’t fit.
Some that did concerned him.
Not even the electrodes could eliminate the fear he had seen in a man’s eyes when the poor bastard knew life was ending, and the only friend he had left in the world was a specter called death, and death had not come riding in on a black horse. Death arrived haggard and barefooted, wearing the clothes of a beggar who only heard the voice of someone begging not to die.
Death was deaf.
Death never heard the shot.
Death only claimed the remains, even those it did not particularly want. Death had no other choice. Death took what it was given – the good and the bad, the guilty and the innocent, the saint and the sinner alike.
The great stone walls surrounding the room were awash with silence and varying shades of gray, from pale to black. It was as oppressive as the inside of a tomb.
Even the blonde had stopped laughing.
It felt as though Lincoln was standing in a sacred place.
A holy place.
No one to hear his prayers.
Ambrose Lincoln had not prayed nor had any reason to pray for a long time.
“Where do you think we are?” the captain whispered.
“The blonde said we’re dead.”
“The blonde’s crazy as a loon,” the captain said.
“She scared the hell out of me.”
“I’ve been here before,” Lincoln said.
“Recognize anything?” the captain asked.
“I know about the compartments,” Lincoln said. “And I know what goes inside.”
“Is it as grim as the rest of this place.”
“Depends on the dice,” Lincoln said.
The captain frowned. He looked around him, and his face grew dark. He watched two men in white cotton pajamas walk together, side by side, into the compartment ahead of him.
Dragging their feet.
Right out of the grave.
The gunshot startled him.
It came from right outside the door.
A second gunshot, and he jerked back around to stare at the compartment.
Only one man walked back out.
Shoulders still slumped.
Dragging his feet.
“I don’t like the odds,” the Captain said.
“The odds are honest,” Lincoln said. “And that’s we can hope for.”
“We could leave, old man,” the Captain said.
“They won’t let you out of here.”
“We could try.” The Captain squared his shoulders. “The light brigade, you know. Just the two of us,” he said. “Charge to the right of them. Charge to the left. I’m game if you are.”
“Hear the gunshot outside?” Lincoln asked.
The Captain nodded.
“Someone tried to leave.”
“At least they had the balls to try.”
“They didn’t make it.”
“How do you know?”
Lincoln grinned through clenched teeth. “I didn’t make it,” he said.
“I think you and the blonde have a lot in common,” the Captain said.
“You’re as crazy as she is,” the Captain said.
Lincoln and the Captain were pushed along as the line of humanity behind and ahead of them moved like the condemned, walking toward the gallows, slowly making their way to the red line that someone had painted in broad splashes across the floor. It had begun to fade in places, worn down by the shuffling feet of the weary and the wicked.
Lincoln felt a hand grab his arm and squeeze.
He looked around.
It was the blonde.
Her eyes were like cracked marbles with splotches of green and flashes of amber. She was breathing heavily. Her face had tightened and grown taut. She had bitten her lips until they were stained the color of blood.
“I don’t care where we are,” she whispered. “I just want to know why we’re here.”
“Do you remember London?” Lincoln asked.
The blonde shook her head.
“Do you remember the bombing?” he asked.
“Do you remember the gunfire in the streets?”
“No.” Her voice had been sanded down to a whisper.
“One day,” he said, “you won’t remember this either.”
The blonde sighed, her face relaxed, and she forced a smile.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
Lincoln wrapped his arm around her shoulders and hugged her. It was a useless gesture. It had absolutely no meaning. But it made her feel better.
Lincoln turned away. Maybe it had meaning after all.
He and the British Captain had reached the red line.
A Controller was standing beside a desk, wearing a green woolen uniform and an even broader smile. His teeth were white. Even in the dark room, they were white. He lifted a stack of cards and held them up. Lincoln reached in the deck and drew one. The Captain took another.
“Friends?” the Controller asked pleasantly, his eyes shifting from one man to the other.
“We’ve just met actually,” the Captain said.
“I noticed you talking.”
“Just passing the time of day,” the Captain said.
“There will be plenty of time to pass,” the Controller said.
Lincoln noticed three things about him that were totally unnatural. His skin was without blemish. His fingernails were as white as his teeth. His eyes had black dots but no corneas.
“Where are we?” the blonde asked, anxiety rising in her voice.
“Home,” the Controller said.
“But I live in Oxford,” she said.
“Oxford wasn’t home,” the Controller told her. “It was merely a temporary place to reside while you were on your way home. Congratulations, my dear, you have arrived.”
His voice had a mechanical quality, hard without being harsh.
“I would prefer the train back to Oxford,” the blonde said.
“I’m so sorry,” the Controller said.
“The train doesn’t run to Oxford anymore.”
Lincoln glanced at the card in his hand.
It was marked 8.
The Captain was straining to look over his shoulder. “It seems as if I have the same number,” he said.
Two minutes, he thought.
Then they would never see each other again.
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.