On the left side of Pulteney Street, nobody dies.
It’s more of an alley, really. It was named in a time when all the streets in town were dark and close. The town grew around it, and it stayed the same; same cobblestones, same tenants, same name. ‘Pulteney Street’ it remained, though there was barely enough room for the doors to swing open all the way without striking the righthand wall.
There was something about the tenants of Left Pulteney Street. Something off.
They walked with odd gait, as though weighed down by the years they carried. They smiled and spoke, but their smiles and voices didn’t stretch very far; worn, both, from use. Their skin was so smooth it looked almost false, as though they were beings sculpted of the finest wax among a town fashioned of crude tallow. They were not all lovely, but they were all proper. Some divine being had stretched down its hand and arranged their hair, the turn of their heads, the fall of their coats just so. Like bodies arranged for a wake.
The town tried to be kind to them, and when they couldn’t be kind, they were always polite. Some hoped they might gift their immortality to others, like a penny to be passed on. Some figured it was better to be safe than sorry, and undercharged them for that lace you wanted there, sir, ma’am. Some feared them, though without any reason but that strange waxen quality.
Every town has its oddities, they would say.
The tenants of Left Pulteney street never changed and never aged. One of the oldest men in town, outside of Pulteney Street, that is, swears on his life that they all look just the same as they did when he was a boy, and that his grandfather used to swear the same thing.
The town knew the faces of Left Pulteney Street well; they mixed with them, sold them groceries, and chatted with them nervously about the weather. But no one in the remembered or recorded history of the town had ever spoken to a tenant of Right Pulteney Street.
The difference was a simple one. The tenants of Left Pulteney Street were the ever-living. The tenants of Right Pulteney Street were the dead.
It was a fact, like any other. The sun was hot, the water was wet, and the people who lived on the right side of Pulteney Street didn’t live at all.
Smoke rose from their chimneys. Movement rustled their curtains. Sometimes, at night, when the rest of the town was snug in bed on wide and lamplit streets, they would leave their houses and walk. But they were dead, just as surely as their neighbors were living.
The town told bedtime stories about naughty children adopted by Right Pulteney Street and taken to live there among the embalmed. They told jokes, too, about what happened when the tenants of Left Pulteney Street got tired of living. Well, they said, they just pick themselves up and move across the street!
Stay well away from them, the town warned with these half-truths. One fate is not better than the other, and a little fear of Pulteney Street is a healthy thing.
No one asked the other question, the one they couldn’t quite make a joke out of. What happened when the tenants of Right Pulteney Street got tired of being dead?
Once a generation or so, a child would be bold enough to sneak out at night and catch a glimpse of a right side tenant. Partly it would be to impress their friends, but partly it would be curiosity, genuine and gnawing. Such a sight was the only way to know death before death came in earnest. Oh, they knew their death wouldn’t be exactly the same— they would be tenants in narrow streets below the ground rather than above it. But who could say if it would really be that different after all?
Pulteney Street was dark and thin as the crack behind your bed. It looked wary, like it would shrink even more and swallow itself whole, if it could. It was a dingy place; the street was dirty and the walls were blackened from a fire there, long ago. The doors would show, to those who squinted, a flaking, brownish color, like they’d once been painted red.
Slowly, creaking like old bones, the dried-blood doors would open, and the child would glimpse the things that stepped out of Right Pulteney Street in the shadows, by the half-light of a waning moon.
Some of the children fainted. One fell stone dead, or so the story goes. Some lost control of their faculties. Some lost their minds. But all, without fail, went very, very white, like they themselves were the corpses. If they were able, they backed away from the street and ran home. And they never told a single soul, living or dead, what they had seen in the dark on Pulteney Street.
That once-in-a-generation child was the only one who knew the answer to the town’s unasked question. They saw the stiff-limbed figures open their doors. They saw the waxy skin and the clothes arranged funeral-parlor tidy. One side of the street, they saw, looked no different from the other.
When the tenants of Right Pulteney Street got tired of being dead, they did just what left Pulteney did. They picked themselves up and moved across the street.