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Chapter 12: Good Bye, Jackie
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Friday, January 3, 10:50 A.M.
Mark wasn't sure how many times the phone buzzed before his mind was sufficiently alert to permit the simple tasks of walking and talking. At least ten. Finally he was able to stagger to his feet and walk over to his desk. "Hullo. Yes, Dr. Riley. They did! That's wonderf-- . . . Oh, no! No! What a rotten way to-- . . . Yes sir, I'll be right there."
A wave of horror sluiced through Mark's mind as he pulled on his parka and trotted down the hall. Cottage 4 was just a short distance up the mall so he left the Sprint in the parking lot. As he strode up the snow-covered drive his mind whirled with a montage of unanswered questions. How did it happen? Why did it happen? Could we have found him in time?
The news that Jackie Dark had been found frozen to death in the trunk of Jenny Farthing's big Olds 98 spread quickly among the on-duty employees. In the next hour, Mark's questions were asked and re-asked hundreds of times. There were no answers.
The 30 inhabitants of Cottage 4 were profoundly disabled and totally nonambulatory, both male and female. They were at the very bottom of the developmental scale in comparison to the overall institutional population. Not one could talk. Not one could walk or even maintain a sitting posture. Not one could raise his or her head from the mattress. Very few could establish eye contact with a person speaking, or visually track a moving object. Many had visual disabilities and hearing impairments to varying degrees. Quite a few lacked the elemental rooting and sucking reflexes. A gastrostomy had been performed on some which permitted a special nutritive formula to be introduced directly into the stomach. Two or three could grasp with their fingers. All wore diapers. No one ever laughed. Several cried on occasion. A few cried most of the time.
This group of totally helpless bits of humanity lived according to a very rigid schedule. It probably helped to keep them alive. Each meal consisted of a carefully balanced diet. Temperature and humidity were closely monitored and maintained within specified parameters.
Cottage 4 was staffed with 13 employees on the first and second shifts, 365 days a year. A registered nurse was in charge of each shift, assisted by 4 LPNs and 8 aides and technicians. The staff was distributed between two large open rooms with each room containing 15 steel cribs. The cribs were arranged around the perimeter of the room with open space in the center. Portable oxygen and suction equipment was available in each dormitory. Each dorm was fitted with a shallow tub mounted 30 inches above the floor where the residents got their daily baths.
The activities of daily living consisted of up to 5 meals per day, constant diapering, and one hour out of the crib on a mat table for physical therapy. Working under the general supervision of a Registered Physical Therapist, four PT aides gently lifted each resident to a waist-high mat table which was topped with four inches of vinyl-covered foam. While out on the mat each resident was carefully manipulated through a series of simple range-of-motion exercises under the watchful eye of the PT. Everyone knew that such ministrations would not lead to independent walking but there was a need to help each one maintain the degree of passive mobility which he or she already possessed.
When Mark arrived at Cottage 4, two burly State Police officers assisted by Hank Grant and one of his workers were carrying Jackie Dark's stiff body into the East dorm where they placed it on a foam-topped mat table. Jenny Farthing walked at the head of the procession of mourners which followed the body and every face was wet with tears.
As Mark stepped back and surveyed the scene he couldn't help think that perhaps poor Jackie was better off than the pitiful inhabitants of the cribs which surrounded the impromptu catafalque. Their existence was only a few shades brighter than the nothingness which now engulfed him.
Mark watched with compassion as poor Jenny walked to the far side of the mat table and looked down at her Jackie's body. Someone had covered him with a gray woolen blanket stenciled STATE OF NEW JERSEY. That simple phrase served as a silent but eloquent epitaph. Jackie Dark always had belonged to the State of New Jersey. He still did.
Mark suddenly needed a breath of fresh air and he silently left the circle of sobbing mourners around the mat table and went back outside. Two State Police detectives were carefully examining the trunk of Jenny's car, inside and out. He walked over to the one with the clipboard.
"Good morning. My name is Mark Marlow and I was pretty heavily involved in the search last night. You fellows have any ideas how this happened?"
The men shook hands. "Detective Craig. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Marlow. In answer to your question, I think we can rule out foul play, largely on the grounds of what Mrs. Farthing told us a few minutes ago about the deceased's behavior. Sounds a little far fetched, I'll admit, but I guess some of these people up here do some pretty strange things."
Mark started to say that plenty of people walking the streets did strange things, too, but decided to listen instead. Both detectives turned their attention to Jenny's ancient Oldsmobile as Craig continued.
"It seems that the lock mechanism on this trunk lid is defective and if you hit the lid with your fist, right above the keyhole, it opens without the key."
Craig's partner had just finished dusting the lid and surrounding paint surfaces for prints and the lid was now closed and latched. "It works like this," and Craig struck the trunk lid with the heel of his fist." Sure enough, the lid popped up. "See that? Apparently what's-his-name--"
"Jackie. Jackie Dark."
"--this Jackie Dark found out about this and used to get a kick out of opening the trunk by himself. Mrs. Farthing says that a couple times she found him playing in the open trunk. One time he even pulled the lid down and hid in there while the staff went crazy looking for him all over the place. Never latched the lid with him in it, though. Just pulled it down and held it closed with his hand. Last night, the weight of that snow piled on the lid might have made the difference this time. Don't know for sure, yet."
"Mark had the picture without further explanation. Last night at supper Jackie had gotten peeved because he couldn't have seconds due to his weight reduction diet. He acted like he was going to the toilet but instead, he went outside and hid in Jenny's trunk. Only this time, when Jackie pulled the lid down to hide, it latched and there he was. Apparently Jackie wasn't as adept at opening the Olds trunk from the inside as he was from the outside. Trapped in a frigid prison belonging to the one human being who cared more about him than anyone else in the world. The pitiful irony of it brought fresh tears to Mark's eyes. He blew his nose and then turned back to the detective.
"How did he come to be found?"
"That part of this case is a real bummer," and even the gruff detective seemed moved. "This Mrs. Farthing was getting ready to go home and catch a little nap. Been up all night helping with the search, as you know. Well, her sister, a Mrs. Campbell, works here in Cottage 4, first trick. On the way out the gate, Mrs. Farthing stopped here to get some steaks out of her trunk to put in her sister's car. When she opens the trunk, there is Jackie's body, frozen stiff. Right where it had been all last night. I guess she passed out right there in the snow."
Again Mark had to cope with tears as he turned wordlessly and walked back into Cottage 4. Inside, the scene was relatively unchanged. Jenny still stood beside the stiff body, great sobs racking her stolid frame. Then, as everyone watched, she slowly leaned over and rested her tear-stained cheek on Jackie's blanket-covered chest.
At that gesture, a flood of bitterness soured Mark's soul. Why, God, why? Why did it have to happen to Jackie? What did he ever do to deserve to die such a horrible death? And Jenny, what about her, God? All she ever did was love Jackie to the point of indiscretion. Now she has a horrible burden of guilt to carry to her own grave. God, if you're there, and if you care, just tell me why!
At the conclusion of his unvoiced soliloquy Mark Marlow glanced up at the clock which was visible above the pitiful tableau in the center of the east dorm. It was 11:59 and the red second hand was climbing the final 30 seconds to the top of the hour and high noon.
Suddenly Jenny stood bolt upright from her position of leaning over the corpse. Her mouth opened wide and her eyes were round with an emotion which Mark couldn't fathom. Her bosom heaved spasmodically and her eyes locked with Mark's across Jackie's body.
Without knowing why, Mark wrenched his gaze from Jenny's face and watched the red second hand crawl past the eleven and touch twelve.
And then the clock stopped.
In the first millisecond after the clock stopped Mark thought the power had failed. But in that same miniscule speck of time, he was conscious of a strange light which filled the room--in addition to, or perhaps in spite of, the twin rows of florescents which ran the length of the ceiling. In some inexplicable way the strange light seemed to have substance, almost as though some sort of other-world fluid filled the room. Whites seemed whiter, colors seemed brighter, and everything was totally and evenly illuminated. No shadows, no shades, nothing but pure unadulterated light.
At the same time Mark became aware of the strange light he was conscious of a strange sound filling the room, also. Not sound in the conventional sense of the word, but something more than sound. Again the analogy of fluid filling all air space raced through Mark's mind as he struggled to associate what his ears were hearing with some previous experience.
In that first fragment of a second when the sound began, Mark had thought it sounded very much like a single trumpet blowing a sustained tone. But not like the earthly sound produced by the best trumpeteer. This was a clarion call so pure, so sweet, so flawless in execution that its sheer beauty generated a persuasiveness beyond anything Mark had experienced.
And then the trumpet note began to swell. As the swell intensified, it took on exciting overtones of brilliance, with this newly-added brilliance blending subtly but beautifully with the earlier characteristics of purity and clarity. Under normal circumstances this sound would be well beyond the threshold of pain. But there was no pain, no discomfort of any kind. Only that strange and persuasive exhilaration which grew in measure with the intensity of the sound.
During the second millisecond--or so it seemed--after the clock had stopped, Mark had tried to look around the room and locate the source of the strangely compelling sound. He was astounded to find he was totally immobile. His eyes could track perfectly, from the left extremity of his peripheral vision to the right. But every other part of his body was frozen in some mysterious state of non-animation.
Frantically he swung his gaze back to the center of the room and looked again into Jenny Farthing's eyes. The earlier blend of confusion, terror and incredulity was still there. And she, too, seemed to be locked in the same state of immobility, with her mouth still forming a capital "O".
Quickly Mark tracked his vision up and down the length of the dormitory which had become filled in the last five minutes or so with the curious as well as the mourning employees of Walnut Valley Colony. Every single person in Mark's field of vision appeared to be held in an identical vice of motionlessness.
Once again Mark returned his gaze to the midpoint of the portion of the room which he could see and looked at Jenny and the still form lying between them.
And then, if Mark had been permitted to do so, he would have fallen forward on his face in a dead faint.
Something was happening to Jackie Dark's body! First he was aware of a halo of softly shimmering light which was slowly lowering down over the frozen corpse until it completely circumscribed it. Then a new form began to rise up inside the perimeter of the halo, passing through the gray State blanket. Gradually it assumed substance and attained a standing posture on the mat table. The form, without a doubt, had human characteristics and as the evolution continued it was possible to discern that a human was taking shape before the widened eyes of the onlookers.
Mark's frenzied mind had thought "human male" but he realized that the term human might be inappropriate. The form standing on the mat table and facing east did have the general configuration of a man. And yet, he was like no man anyone in the room had ever seen.
He was dressed in a lustrous robe of royal blue which swirled softly in an unfelt breeze. His facial features were molded in a beauteous perfection never known to earthly painters and sculptors. The line, symmetry, and proportion of his body were beyond compare.
And then he moved. Slowly he raised both hands toward the eastern sky above and beyond Cottage 4 and stepped lightly to the floor. The rigid form beneath the gray state blanket was gone!
Although his body was being held immobile, Mark's mind was fully alert and racing at the speed of light. If there was no corpse of Jackie Dark under the blanket, the creature who had just stepped to the floor must be some sort of reincarnation. What kind of other-world metamorphosis had accomplished the astounding change? Mark couldn't begin to guess. But without a doubt the magnificent personage who now stood looking down at Jenny's immobile form was a reborn Jackie Dark. Talk about being born again. This was the ultimate!
Gone were the mongolian features so characteristic of a person afflicted with Down's Syndrome. Gone was the protruding tongue. Gone were the squared, stubby hands. And as Mark caught a fleeting glance from the crystal blue eyes of the new Jackie Dark, he also knew that the severe mental retardation of the old Jackie Dark had been replaced with a mentality as flawless as the beautiful body which now held everyone's attention.
In the next instant the reincarnation was confirmed. Slowly the creature reached out a robe-draped arm and touched Jenny on the shoulder. At once she was released from her trance and was able to turn and look into the face of the creature standing before her. Swiftly Jenny's pudgy arms encircled the new Jackie's waist and she buried her tear-wet face in the soft folds of his lustrous gown.
His arms responded in kind and they stood thus for a long moment of quiet bliss. Then ever so slowly the beautiful creature gently removed Jenny's arms from his waist. He placed his hands on her rounded shoulders and looked into her face with a look of such infinite sadness that Mark felt his own heart rend from the intensity. Then with a smile of more sorrow than joy, he leaned down and softly kissed each lined cheek and then repeated the gesture with each work-reddened hand. With another sad smile, the new Jackie Dark stepped back a pace and the instant his touch was removed, Jenny returned to her earlier immobile state.
Throughout the exchange in the center of the Cottage 4 dormitory the trumpet note had been growing in brilliance and intensity. Its message of "come" was so overwhelmingly persuasive that Mark longed to violate his own rigid state and soar to where it beckoned.
The new Jackie Dark knew no such limitation, however. At the increased intensity of the trumpet note he turned back toward the east in a movement of fluid grace and again lifted his arms toward the eastern sky.
With a mind already strained to the breaking point with a succession of the unimaginable, Mark noticed that the perfectly-molded feet of the splendid creature had left the utilitarian carpet covering the dormitory floor. In fact the new Jackie's entire body was slowly lifting up through the beautiful light of the room in the graceful angle of ascent known only to birds and aircraft.
With a sudden burst of acceleration, the creature atomized through the vaulted ceiling of Cottage 4's east dormitory and was ...
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