The wind blew cool and crisp through the city, making people pull their coats a little tighter and walk a little faster. The trees' leaves had started to change, and I could see reds, and browns, and oranges mixed in with the now faded greens. If I could have shivered, I would have.
If I had a name, I've long since lost track of it. Also, I lack a body, which is a condition that has both ups and downs. I can go through walls, but I otherwise I look just like an ordinary shadow only a little bit more substantial and I'm not attached to any person or thing. There may be a better word for myself and the others like me (there are more of us then you might think), but I just tend to call myself a shade.
That is not to say that humans don't notice me. I know they catch glimpses of me out of the corner of their eye, but a glimpse is only enough to make them think it’s their imagination. I'm not imaginary though. I know that because I remember things. Like The Nighthawks, that painting by Edward Hopper: that was the first thing I thought of when I figured out what I was, because that is how I see the world. It's like I'm on the wrong side of a sheet glass, and either peoples back are turned to me, or they are looking at something else.
Lately though what I think about is Eliza Howell. Eliza is a precocious girl of about five. She has mousy brown hair, hazel eyes, and freckles, but just on the bridge of her nose. She is also a bookworm. I like to read over her shoulder. For a while it was nothing interesting. Just small stories, like Where the Wild Things Are or The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but she recently graduated to things like Madeline and Where the Sidewalk Ends. I can't explain why, but one of the things that I love the most about Eliza is that she loves Shel Silverstein but hates Dr. Seuss.
I found Eliza the day I stopped to feed on her parents. "You were sleeping with that whore again! Don't deny it. I found her text messages in your phone saying how much fun she had."
"You're damn right I slept with her! She at least can talk to me without screaming. Hell, she will at least touch me!"
Shadows need food like humans, and just like humans, we have our tastes. People who are in love, or having sex. That's like a rich dessert, full of fruit and chocolate. Your day to day stuff, like boredom or just the kind of numb feeling you get as people go through the motions of their monotonous work day - it's kind of like the bland pre-processed fast-food or that horrid cheese that you only find at government food banks. But anger is different. Anger is like spicy Thai or Mexican, and while I always feel guilty about eating it, I love spicy food.
They went on like that for a long time. Eliza never left her room, and I could see that Eliza had learned early in life that not all monsters hide under the bed. I'm ashamed to say that first night I fed off her. She was afraid, and that was mixed with a determination to stay out of the way. To be small. Unobtrusive. Determination is one of the best. It's like bacon, and fear is like salt in that it amplifies other emotions. So it was like having the perfect bit of bacon -- neither too crispy, nor too floppy.
If you are looking for a rhyme or reason for the way things taste, don't ask me why. No two shades taste the same thing for a particular emotion. Even if they are feeding off the same person. I know. I've tried it.
But that first night, as I was feeding, I felt something else in Eliza. The determination was not just for that night. It was for something larger. She had already decided to find a way to stay happy. If I had to describe it, I would say she is the optimist all other optimists aspire to be. It was such a bright thing and the taste! It was unlike anything I've had before. The only word for it is ambrosial. What is odd though, is that was the one and only time I fed on Eliza. It wasn't that I lacked the ability; rather, it was as if I knew that I had found a meal so exquisite that to try and recreate it would be to taint the purity of that one taste forever.
Still, I know what you are thinking. That I am leech. That I diminished Eliza when I fed off her. That we shadows are the reason that people lose their ability to smile and laugh. But that is simply not true. There are no tubes or bite marks. I don't suck out emotion like a mosquito sucks blood. It is far more simple. I simply pass through someone, and the emotion revitalizes me. It keeps me in the world. I am as solid as I can be at that moment. After passing through that child, I was more solid than I can remember.
After that I followed Eliza everywhere, and as I had sensed that night, she was a true ray of sunshine that brightened up all the dismal places she visited in the world. Her school. The house of her arthritic piano teacher. Everywhere, and I gorged myself on the admiration and joy she brought to other people.
One day I followed her to school, and as always she made the whole place come alive. In fact, as the day passed, I imagined her as some huge dynamo that gave energy to everyone, until by the end of the day, she was almost spent of her energy. I could tell that all she wanted was to go home. Of course, her father was supposed to pick her up, and I thought he would be my main course.
Predictably, Eliza's father was detained. An occurrence so common I could hear the principal mutter, "Ought to be ashamed of himself, the pig." The principal, a matronly looking woman with the eyes of a mole was soon calling Eliza's mother.
I could hear her on the other end of the phone saying "He didn't show. Again. He swore he would..."
"I really don't care about that," said the principal before the woman could build up any steam. "What I do care about is your daughter who is currently stuck here. When can you make it down here and pick her up?"
There was a pause on the other end of the phone. "I'm not sure. I'm in the middle of a meeting, and I have to get across town. Probably an hour. Maybe more."
"We are not a daycare Mrs. Howell..."
"Don't call me that! I'm Ms. Myron. I will..."
"Again," said the principal, " I don't care about any of that. I care that your daughter is here and that I can't get a hold of her father. Now, I know it is not something you planned for, but you need to excuse yourself right now. Then you need to come and get your daughter, and I do mean this instant. Do you understand?"
"Listen, I really..."
"It is a yes or no question. Are you coming or shall I call child protective services?"
"I'm coming. I'm coming."
"See that you do, and make it sharp." The principal slammed the phone down in the cradle on her desk, and I have to admit, just then, I did have a little Mexican feast. I also followed her as she marched towards the library, occasionally muttering words like "irresponsible," or "horrible" under her breath. But then she pulled up short.
Eliza was not in the library. The principal immediately started looking for her. Calling out her name and going between the aisles. But I knew she was not there. I could not smell her. I quickly backtracked into the hall and sniffed. It was hard to make out Eliza's scent as there were so many people who used that place everyday. But in the end, I managed to pick it up and follow it. It led out towards the play ground.
The playground was new, and had no metal in it at all. The swings were swings in name only; the nefarious monkey-bars were not present, and the slide was about five feet tall, made of plastic, and curved so kids would not go too fast. Normally I would attribute the emptiness of such a place to its many defects, but Eliza's scent was wrong. There was fear there now. No, not fear, there was terror.
Terror is different than fear. It does not amplify the rest of the emotions, it drowns them out, and it smells like a combination of warm Roquefort cheese, raw chicken that has been left out too long, and some of the more mentally disturbed homeless who have not had a bath since time immemorial. Personally, I've never tried to eat the stuff; although I have heard of a few shades that love it, and those of course are the shades that people know about.
Anytime you hear about ghosts or spirits or ghouls moving things and throwing things, well trust me, It's none of those things. It's just some shade that has gotten a taste for terror, and just like junkies in the real world, they will do anything they can to get their fix. Some even have figured out how to move things in the physical world. Most shades though never do this thing for one very simple reason: most of the time it will kill you. Well, maybe kill is not quite the right word. It's more like you fade away to nothing, As far as I know, no shade has ever come back from that.
I tried moving things once. I started small. Rolling a pencil across a desk. I was nearly so transparent after one rotation I looked more like a soap bubble than a shade, and it had taken me months to get back to any kind of proper state.
Currently though, the only thing that mattered was where Eliza had gone. Given this new smell, she was not hard to track, and I quickly found her. She was bound and gagged in a plain white van with no windows about a block from the school. A large man with hollow cheeks, mud-colored eyes, and a hair lip, was getting behind the wheel, while looking around furtively. But there was something else about the man that was wrong; namely that I could not smell him.
Suddenly, the man's head swiveled about and he looked at me. I have no doubt that he saw me as well. Partially because of the malicious grin that came over his face, but mostly because he said, "Get lost. The girl is mine." I didn't move. I only looked back at the face trying to figure out how it was that he could see me. Then, like tar bubbling up to the surface of the earth, the man laughed. It was a greasy, mirthless laugh and was followed by, "You're just another incompetent, insubstantial shade. You couldn't figure out how to get real power if you tried." Suddenly he pointed at me, and it was like a hook entered into my back. The man laughed again and then started the van and drove off, leaving me motionless in the street.
Eventually whatever the guy had done wore off, but not before I witnessed a cadre of police cruisers descend like locusts on the school. Eliza's mother showed up about thirty minutes later, and immediately started crying. She only stopped when her husband showed up. At which point she tried to claw his eyes out. Normally that kind of emotion would have been a feast for me, and I even saw several other shades flitter through the crowd.
Just about the time I thought I would be stuck forever, the hook in my back vanished. I was panicked in a way that I could never recall being as a shade. Something unspeakable was going to happen to Eliza and I didn't think the police would get there in time. I sniffed the air, and found her smell and I began to follow it like a bloodhound.
Along the highway, past strip malls, through a drive-through, into a gas station, and finally through a warren of back alleys I followed that putrid smell. Eventually the white van came into view behind a rundown, abandoned office building.
I drifted through one of the walls, painfully aware that I had no plan. I found myself in a run down room that had half the floor covered in dirt. Old phone books, broken staplers, and parts of chairs and desks littered the floor. The walls were peeling, and in places there were deep gouges where someone had come through and torn out all the old copper pipes. I moved through the rooms towards the back of the building until I found an old circular staircase that was coated in rust. I didn't need the stairs, but the man would if he were to go higher and they smelled strongly of Eliza, so I drifted up to the space above.
The second floor was a little more orderly than the ground floor. There was still the same damage to the walls, along with graffiti, but the floors were not covered in dirt. Instead moth eaten carpets that looked like they had once been blue stretched out through the abandoned rooms. Additionally, the furniture on this level, for the most part, was in one piece. I continued to follow the smell until I found a door where the carpet ran out. Passing through the door, I noticed that the floor was now a hardwood stained the color of coffee. On top of it was a badly cracked and yet still whole pane of glass that said "Employees only."
It was then that I heard the humming. It took me a moment to identify the song. "Ba-duh-duh-duh-Dum-Ba-Dum-Ba-Dum-Ba-Daaa-Ba-Daaa." If I had hairs on the back of my neck, it would have caused them to stand up and march right off my body, but as it was, it just made me move a little slower.
Eventually I came to the end of the hallway, and glimpsed the man with muddy-eyes in a room off to my right. But I could smell Eliza most strongly from my left. I quickly spotted a hole in the wall that looked like it had not existed when the building was in use and went through it.
I found Eliza tied up and dirty on the floor. Her shoes and clothing, except for her underwear had been taken from her. I could see that she was cold and afraid, but the one thing that she was not was bound or blindfolded, which in its own way was worse than if I had found her restrained.
I wanted to say something, but if the man could see shades, maybe he could hear them as well. I look around trying to figure out what to do when I saw it: There was another room just off to the side from where Eliza was, and inside it there were bodies. Lots of them, and what was worse -- they were all children. But perhaps the strangest thing was that in a place full of ruin, they seemed to have been preserved. In fact if I had not known better I might have said they were simply lifelike mannequins, particularly as they were hung by pieces of rope looped under their arms and tied around exposed rafters. I counted and quickly discovered there were thirty-seven children hanging in that place.
Suddenly I heard it. "Ba-duh-duh-duh" I tried to shut the song out and think. "Dum-Ba-Dum" What was I going to do? "Ba-Daaa-Ba-Daaa." How could I protect Eliza when I couldn't even move a pencil? "Ba-duh-duh-duh." Wait. What's missing from these kids? "Dum-Ba-Dum." This room has windows, but there are no shadows come off those kids. Not a one. Not anywhere. Why? "Ba-Daa-Ba-Daa." If this thing is after Eliza's shadow, could I protect that. And if so, would that protect her?
I shrank back into the room with all the hanging kids, trying not to be seen until I could figure out a plan. It was then that I heard the humming stop and the crunch as bits of glass out in the hall where the hole was got ground to dust. "You aren't going to cry. The others. They cried."
I could not see Eliza so it impossible to say if she tried to look at the man, but I heard her, like a pure note that rings when you strike real crystal glasses, "No. I won't." And it was when she said won't that I detected the change in the way she smelled. The determination I had detected in her the first night had returned, along with something else. Outrage.
Outrage in adults and children is different. In children it is always because something is unfair or fundamentally wrong. That is not, however, true of adults. Adults get outraged by things not because they are unfair or wrong, but because they don't like them, like tax hikes. In Eliza though, it was cold, pure, and hard. Almost like ice at the north pole.
I heard the man move into the room, and again he uttered that mirthless chuckle. "You're braver than the rest of my dolls, but it won't save you."
I knew my time was up. I still didn't have plan, but it didn't matter. I went hurtling through the wall. I had just a second to process what I was seeing. The man was just standing in the room, but his shadow had changed. It no longer belonged to the mud-eyed man. Instead it looked both solid and like a soldier that you see in those old Civil War photos. If it had been a man, it would have had a head with thinned out hair on the top, but long flowing locks coming from below the forehead. The skin would have been old and wrinkled, while the eyes looked out at the world the way the point of a spear would view its intended victim.
I ignored the man and lunged for the shadow. For a brief moment I thought that I might win, but as soon as I collided with the thing, it simply turned its attention to me. The thing twisted until it was facing me, and suddenly it had its hands around my throat. I didn't know what to do. I'd never seen shades that would touch one another, much less fight.
"You again. I see you failed to learn your lesson the first time," the thing said, and out of the corner of my eye I could see that Eliza had heard it. Or at least she heard something, because suddenly her head whipped around and she was staring, open-mouthed, at the shadows on the wall. She ran.
As soon as she did, I felt the thing choking me become less solid. As it did, I saw the animation begin to return to the man. Somehow this shade was using the man as its puppet. But how? It didn't matter so long as Eliza got away, I guessed, but if she only had a small head start, nothing would change. I kicked out trying to harm the thing that had me in its grasp, and now, with its attention divided, I felt myself land a blow. The shade-monster I was fighting staggered. Encouraged, or desperate (though at this point I would wager that they were the same thing), I lashed out furiously, trying to pummel the malevolent shade with my free limbs.
In the meantime, Eliza had run. Her shadow ran with her, and suddenly I felt it fall over me. Whatever was trying to shred me into ribbons felt it too, and I watched as the shade-monster lunged at the Eliza's fleeing shadow. It managed to snag Eliza's shadow-arm, and as soon as it did, I saw her small frame jerked off its feet. Simultaneously, I watched as the mud-eyed man's arm snaked out and grabbed the real Eliza.
The real Eliza began kicking and fighting the puppet in the same way I was fighting against the shadow-thing, and for a moment there--as it let go of my neck so it could defend itself--I thought we were going to win.
The puppet reached out and grabbed Eliza by the head, and rammed her face into the floor, knocking her out. She stopped struggling. Her shadow stopped struggling, and suddenly the thing that had a hold of Eliza looked at me and uttered that mirthless laugh. Then it spoke, and when it did it both sounded triumphant and out of breath. "Lord. I've not seen a dust up like that since Antietam, and that was some time ago, to be sure. And you my friend," and the thing pointed at me in a way that had I possessed a human body my stomach would have dropped through my feet, "you have been far more trouble than I thought you would or even could be. For that alone, I'm tempted to kill you quick, but before I do, I'm gonna make you watch as I make your sweet little thing there one of my dolls."
Horrified, I watched as the shadow-creature's mouth distended. The teeth became like pikes, and I could see the air in the room turn cold, as suddenly Eliza's breath was visible. But the other shade was still pointing at me, as if to say Just wait your turn, and in that instant something changed. I lunged at it. My mouth open. I grabbed the hand pointing at me at the wrist and pulled it towards my mouth, until that finger was in my mouth. I bit down hard.
It was like biting into overcooked chicken gizzards: The finger was rubbery and tough, but I didn't really even stop to chew. I swallowed it whole, and as I did I felt myself grow stronger. At the same time I was able to see out of the corner of my eye that the puppet's finger dissolve. The flesh at the knuckle looked torn and ripped, like a rabid dog had taken it off.
I only just had time to see the puppet grab its hand before the other-shade started bleeding in my mouth. The blood tasted like someone had opened a sewer-main in my mouth and I almost gagged, which was something I didn't even know as possible. But I managed not to stop. I knew I couldn't.
I took another bite into the hand, and I felt the puppet-master drop Eliza's shadow, and saw out of the corner of my eye that the puppet had dropped the real Eliza as well. That emboldened me to stuff the whole hand up to the wrist in my mouth and bite.
Each time I took a bite, parts of the puppet vanished, but while the master's blood (honestly, I don't know what it was, but it oozed out of the shade I was fighting with the color and consistency of chocolate syrup) filled my mouth, the puppet's blood gushed out over the floors, covering Eliza.
Then suddenly, it was as if a great film was pulled away from the puppets eyes. The muddy quality vanished from them, and for a moment they were a plain blue. The man looked in fascinated horror at his stump of an arm that was bleeding out, and then passed out. As he did, the shadow-beast stopped moving. I could tell it was not dead. Yet. But as the blood seeped out of the puppet, I could see just a much leave the thing that had tried to kill me. By the time it stopped flowing the puppet-master looked more like a deflated water balloon than something that the terrifying shade I had just seen moments before.
Any hopes that I had that killing the thing would revive the "dolls" in the next room proved futile. They never so much as stirred. I guess some things can't be undone. By the same token, Eliza was alive but she was not the same.
I'm not sure what link bonded that shadow to its puppet, but whatever it was is different than what bonds a normal person to its shadow. Eliza eventually came around. She screamed into the night when she saw herself all covered in blood. Then she vomited. I couldn't blame her.
It took her over six hours to pick her way out of that place without any shoes and to find help. When the police came back, they had to bring her as a guide. They didn't let her into the building of course. But floor by floor, and room by room, hard-faced men looked until they found the hole in the wall. A few of them crossed themselves. Others swore. One even puked, and if I could, I would have told Eliza that even adults can't always handle the things life presents them.
I watched from a window in that broken down place as the police went back out to thank Eliza for being brave and showing them the building. They didn't believe her story of shadows fighting. It was something the put own to her age. Yet they could not explain what they found. In the end, they simply pronounced the blue-eyed man the killer of children and moved on. It was a way to give closure to the families of the dolls; although something tells me it didn't come close to providing what those people would need.
Then there was Eliza. I knew she would go back to her two parents. I hope this scare would turn at least one of them into a better guardian Eliza's sake. I watched her for a long time as she sat in the twirl of the police lights. For a while I just watched her face and wondered if those freckles would disappear as she got older. Eventually though my vision drifted to the one thing I knew I had to see.
Eliza's shadow came and went in the light of the police lights as if it were some kind of black strobe light. It was a lovely thing. Proud. Tall. And even though it was missing a hand, I could tell that it was still a shadow that needed and enjoyed the light.
I left the window, looking for my next meal among the police. Some of them were scared. Others were dumbfounded. Still others were just bored, which made me laugh. Apparently fast-food didn't care where it was eaten. But as I wandered among them, I found that I did not want to eat. That I was full. Eventually I drifted sway, having touched nothing on the plate in front of me.
And I drifted.
I faded away.
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