What if you could see by looking at someone’s shadow, what type of person they really are? This is the story of a man who can. (Read more about the series here.)
“An excellent piece...very thought-provoking. I look forward to Episode Two.” –Greg Lusé
“I loved this and I will be looking for episode two.” –Kathy Rosson
“Totally fascinating... The part that got to me was the woman and her shadow. I felt for her, wishing she could see more and live more. Not to give up. Her heart was broken... Love the whole concept of it. And it will be fascinating to see where this goes. I most definitely felt pulled into the story and it is creatively brilliant. It makes you also think about the nature of people. And what we really do see and see not only with our eyes.” –Margie Casados
“I just finished reading it and letting it sink in a little bit. It has a lot of potential, and is well written. I like the premise as well as the little glimpse we get of the people and the world and its history as well as in present day. A story well worth following to the end in my opinion.” –Michael Koontz
“It was an awesome read, for some reason a shiver runs down me... a tale with many twists. I love the way you used your words and took me into the scene.” –Pastiche Able
“Wow, I am reading it now ... great stuff! You are indeed one talented author.” –Curtis Odom
“Wonderful read! Must reread and share!” –Mica Johnston“This is so awesome!! I am so glad that you got this spark! It was wonderful!! I very much want to know when the next part is ready!” –Michele Messenger
DISCLAIMER: This has coarse language in it - called for by the nature and personality of the main character, other characters and the real world they inhabit. If you don't like a few cuss words, including the "F" word then don't read it.
This episode is 4,057 words.
EPISODE ONE |When the Shit Hit My Fan
January 1, 2012
“Shit,” I grunted into my cell phone loud enough to draw glances from the latte, cappuccino, and frappe drinkers at nearby tables. I was the odd man out drinking a plain black coffee.
“Fuck me,” I told the lengthy message my sister left. The woman closest to me picked up her coffee and iPad and relocated. Understandable. A coarse looking man, huge hands, a roughhewn face and dark eyes who says shit and fuck two seconds apart with an angry look on his face might be someone to move away from.
“Damn it,” I notched it down. Brianna’s message said Daniel was dead. That didn’t bother me… I did not like Daniel at all and loved him only a little. In fact, my brother is... was... an asshole. A real dick. He was a dickhole. A word I’d coined when I was 16 and Daniel 18.
With a second, but not the last “fuck me” of the day, this one under my breath, I got up and headed to the street to find a cab to LaGuardia. Good luck with that here and now, Midtown East on New Year’s Day morning—and flying last minute on a holiday. That didn’t help with my cursing, something I was trying to stop or at least do less. Paula, my editor at work, gave me the stink eye when my mouth cut loose. One reason she disliked me, not that that mattered. In return, I didn’t like her.
Thinking of what was to come; it looked like a birthday gift was headed my way… or better said, I would be in the air headed to it. It was something I didn’t want but unfortunately had to face. Daniel had died in a car accident at 4:12 that morning in Los Angeles. I glanced at my watch, 9:34AM. I had to get to Los Angeles to my brother’s apartment and then see my sister. I only had 21 hours and 38 minutes before the load I’d thought wasn’t mine to bear, landed squarely on me.
* * *
I know I looked bad… but I felt worse. At least I wasn’t swearing. They frown on that at security checkpoints and TSA lines, in airports and on airplanes; odd looking guys, tense, sweaty and talking to themselves. That standing, sitting and waiting had given me time to reconcile my thoughts on what had happened and more importantly, on what was going to happen.
I sat in my brother’s apartment on a couch covered with boxes and documents. They contained everything passed on to my brother about the family legacy. It was now mine. I held a leather binder, four-inches thick, with each page full of text, front and back. I hadn’t seen it in twenty years. That was on my brother’s twelfth birthday, my own tenth birthday was the day after his.
My father held in his hand, that day, the sheaf of papers contained in the binder in my hands now. Closing my eyes I could still see my father’s desk, and sitting next to the humidor for the cigars he was so fond of, was a 431 year-old diary, a hasp-and-lock affixed, its aged leather cracked and scored in places. The sunlight shafting down through the windows behind the desk caught it just right and the cover and edges of some of the pages, seemed to have a deep scarlet stain.
“This,” father said that day brandishing the thick stack of paper in one large scarred hand, “is that,” he pointed at the old diary. “Typed out and clear of the blots and stains of your ancestor’s blood and tears.” He put it down on the desk and stepped to the high window, blocking the sun’s rays and casting a long shadow over me and Daniel as we sat wondering what this all meant.
Father turned, putting his back to the window, the scar on his face caught the sun and was highlighted for a moment. He faced us in the dimmer light, “I have to tell you what’s in the journal. Who we are as a family. Who and what you are…” He was talking to both of us but his eyes were on Daniel.
Afterwards, we’d thought it was just a joke; some trick father was playing or some way to teach us an obscure lesson. But it wasn’t any of those. Though, until today I never saw the family journal again, Daniel studied it daily with father. I saw how he changed, how fixated he became, and knew what father told us was the truth, which was much, much worse, than anything I could ever imagine. Blinking the memory away I flipped the binder open and read the first entry:
‘A biting wind sweeps through where I sit and the guttering candle spits wax on my sleeve and this journal as I write. My son was born this first of January, the year of our Lord 1562. Will my firstborn be cursed as was I? God has damned me for finding that witch woman and her dying in my arms thinking I killed her and in her confusion cursing me with her last breath.’
That’s where it started, in England, in Lincolnshire where the Humble River meets the North Sea. I’d been told it was a cruel place and cold people lived there. I’d never been there so didn’t know but my father was a taciturn man, he never let anyone close to him. Not even mother, though, that’s another story.
I looked at my sister; adopted right after my tenth birthday, but a real sister just the same, and wondered, for the countless time, why father had nicknamed her, Brownie. She would never comment on why. Unlike my own dark hair and eyes, she was light haired; her almost white hair seemed to glow at dusk and even more so in the dark, and she had the most startling emerald eyes.
“Why couldn’t this die with Daniel?” I asked. The glance she gave the papers in my hands was the only answer she would—or could—give.
“Okay, I’m ready,” I lied. Glancing at my watch, I had three minutes left and was scared shitless.
She put a hand on my arm and smiled, “Rick, I’ll watch over you.” She canted her head and leaned towards me. Her face caught the light from the table lamp, eyes and hair glinting, “You’ll be fine.”
We’d talked for hours, after she picked me up at LAX, about what I should expect but she still knew far more of this than me.
“I hope you’re right,” I said putting the binder on the table as I stretched out on the couch.
* * *
January 2, 2013
“A year, a whole year,” I muttered seeing the calendar as I set the unit on my desk. When it was holstered it looked like a foot-long flashlight, the kind cops or security guards carry—only thicker around. A bell shaped funnel at the business end with a long cylindrical chamber extending from the head for the power core and storage compartment. But, brother, your high-tech thingy here isn’t paying off for all your education and advanced study to invent and build the damn thing. Stroking the scars that ran down my right cheek I thought, sometimes it fails, or you get a strong one, a real bad-ass shadow, and have to go hand-to-hand; old-school, just like back in the day. I socketed it into the transfer dock and activated. A red progress bar on the base showed the transfer into the mass storage. Pressing the purge button destroyed its contents.
“Yeah, brother. Sometimes you have to take things in your hands,” I told my reflection in the mirror on my desk. Some of what Brianna told me a year ago had proven true. Some of what she hadn't told me, or didn't know to tell, often turned into the shit I stepped in almost every day. I touched my left cheek and felt the fresh scar that ran from the edge of eye down to the corner of my mouth. A week ago had been a rough one. It was up close and personal. Today was the first day back on my feet.
* * *
Six days before…
The single knock at the door, a demand not a request, was Oscar, the building super, coming to collect the rent. Her head rested on the door before opening it. The years had worn away her beauty leaving only a mechanical competence and calluses on knees and heart. But, being good at certain things wouldn't replace the soft curves she once had. If it did, she would have a better room than this. It was how good the car looked not how well it rode that mattered to most.
Done with Oscar she looked around the room no longer seeing the traces of past occupants; their stains on the walls and floor. In the corner a shabby artificial tree still stood... looking forlorn. Worn ornaments reflected peeling paint and water stains around the window that looked out on the garbage pit that was the alley. Except for the rust stains in the sink, it was the only color in the barren room.
She went to the bathroom and looked at the blanched face in the mirror. Thin as a piece of tissue paper, she seemed hardly there—a flesh-fabric indistinguishable from the pile of ragged pillows, worn sheets and stained comforter on her bed. A long time since I took comfort there, she thought. Her dark hair framed a pale skinny face with large deep-set eyes of washed out blue. The nose too sharp and lips a narrow line with too little flesh. The smiles to soften them had long run from the scene of the crime.
Muffled by the shower curtain, the sounds of leftover holiday music came through the rattling speaker of her radio. The songs brought no joy. Memories of listening to them over the years, as empty inside her soul as the room she was in, were a sickening spoiled milk taste in her mouth. As hot as she could get it, the tepid water sluiced over flesh laid thinly over bone. She savagely scrubbed parts of the body you should treat gently. She never felt clean.
"Today will be the coldest so far this winter. Heavy snow and a low down in the teens and near zero with the wind chill. If you’re going out you need to..." Banging the radio off as she went by, cutting short the weather report, she dressed in her best clothes. The frayed light sweater, a hole at the right elbow, padded her; hanging down and covering the bony ridges of her hips. The pants shiny in the seat and knee hadn't seen an iron possibly ever. The creases ran like branches of a tree full of vines running around her legs. For a moment she recalled, ‘Sara Hartley-The Prettiest Girl in Oakmont.’ She had wanted to be an artist and her parents were very proud of her. That girl was lost with her mom and dad, she thought. Their car wreck killed her too it's just taking twenty years more to do it.
Leaving her coat in the room, she came onto the street and met the wind scything between the buildings. Ice needles carried on the wind bit her face making her wish for a scarf she would never have. Crossing the street, she stepped in gray slush. It collected in piles as if excreted from some urban animal that roamed this asphalt and concrete pasture. Her low thin-soled shoes let in as much of it as they kept out. Large flakes of snow were coming down fast as she walked the ten blocks to the park. Someone had taken the beat up trashcans, shaped and flattened them to create a crude nativity scene. Baby Jesus a bundle of rags, his manger made from a lid bent into a U shape. The angel's wings made of plastic bags and coat hangers flapped in the wind. A new bench like a shiny button on a dirty ragged coat sat cocked to face them and the winter stripped trees. Wind and fresh snow added to the drifts around the cans; piled higher on the windward side. In the lee of the manger lay a crushed paper cup; a whiff of grain alcohol as she knelt beside it. Someone's libation to the blessed child. She heard music carried on the wind but could get only a hint of the song.
Sitting there, the past settled in her bones and on her heart. So tired, she thought. I think I’ll rest. Heavy blowing snow now surrounded her. Time slipped by as the sounds of the world quieted and the wind stopped. The snow heavier since the wind no longer carried it away. A good place to forget about bad things, she thought. She lay on the bench and remembered as a girl how she enjoyed drawing angels at Christmas time. As time passed slowly, so did her life run down, memory by gritty memory.
* * *
I found her there. Seeing her shadow, on the ground beneath the bench, I picked it up, taking from it the things that haunted her. I then raised her body in my arms and walked until I came to an open restaurant. Carrying her inside, I didn't give a shit about the looks I was getting, she came alive as I set her in a booth and slid in across from her.
“Why were you just lying there?” I asked as I beckoned a reluctant waitress over.
She looked at me with eyes just beginning to show a spark—something they hadn’t in years, “When there’s nothing to live for, there’s not much else you can do.”
“There’s always something to live for.”
As she filled up on hot soup and warm bread, I drew her story from her and got the address of her room. Leaving her with cash for the meal and much more, I walked the several blocks. The sky had cleared, the snow stopped and as I walked a bright yellow sun was framed by a bluing sky. As I approached the tenement I saw a big man, standing at the entry, squinting into the sun.
“You Oscar?” I called to him.
“Yeah, what’s it to you?”
I came up to him… close… and could see the shape and substance of the thing trailing behind in the sunlit entry way. “I’m going to talk and you’re going to listen.” He was at least six inches taller than me and heavy set. Seeing what was in my eyes, back stepping into the doorway, Oscar retreated, “But first I have to do this…” and I reached for what was inside him.
* * *
Bleeding, Rick sagged in the alley just around the corner of the tenement where Sara had lived. Blood poured from a gash in his left cheek, but worse was the jagged rip in his chest, running vertically parallel next to his heart. The edges of the torn flesh were turning black as if already decomposing and rotting away.
“You need some help, mister?” asked the man; bent and leaning on the cane he gripped in one hand with its other end firmly planted into the ground. Rick saw the man’s shadow flowing towards him sharply distinct as if the black edges were just a shell. The pain held inside showed flickering red, but at the shadow’s center, was the real man, a small ball of light that pulsed with a golden glow. That was the last Rick remembered until waking.
* * *
“Where am I?”
“Well, you can tell it’s not the Waldorf,” chuckled the old man sitting in the chair next to the bed. Creased and roughened, his face was white and eyes red-rimmed. “I don’t know what tore you up but you were a mess young man.”
I could see now how old the man was, probably in his 80s. “Why did you help me?”
The man’s laugh was bitter, “I’m not the best man… once not even a good man… but I couldn’t let you bleed out in that alley. Nasty, foul place, that it is.”
He stood to fill a glass from a pitcher of water on the night stand and handed it to me. “I couldn’t leave you lying there in your own blood.” He looked me in the eye. “You begged me not to call anyone, not 911, and not to take you to a hospital. I know about hiding… and about secrets. So I did what you wanted.”
I touched my left cheek to feel a gash almost fully healed. Pulling away the bandage on my chest I saw the same for what had been a ragged tear from above my left breast to near my waist. The old man watched me closely as I put the bandage back in place and sat up.
“Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” he shook his head. “You were ripped open and infection had already set in, though you were still bleeding. I got you inside, stretched you out, and here you’ve been for near a week.” He walked to the small kitchen got a glass from the cupboard and came back to the bed. “I got you cleaned and stitched up, dressed the wounds and got some soup into you from time to time.” He poured a glass of water for himself from the pitcher. “But mostly it was your body that healed itself. Never seen anything like it,” he shook his head, again, staring at me like I was a two-headed frog.
Seeing I wasn’t going to comment he continued, “You raved about shadows with teeth and claws. The darkness inside some people. I’d of thought you were crazy but I knew a man once who claimed that, too.” He took a sip of water, “He was my best friend and I believed him.”
Not wanting to talk about me, I asked, “What happened to your friend.”
The old man’s face aged years he didn’t have left, “Bobby was killed. We served in the Army and fought together in Korea.” His voice drifted and his gaze turned inward to something and someone only he could see.
“He died in combat?”
The old man looked back at me and shook his head, “No. We were on what would be our final patrol, just before the truce, and one of the new men, a guy I didn’t like much and Bobby even less, would stick his bayonet in any Korean or Chinese bodies we came across and then laugh. An animal’s cackle. We told him to stop—Bobby shoved him away from the bodies—and the Sergeant got on him and he finally quit. But he looked daggers at Bobby and Bobby faced down that stare. That night Bobby must have needed to take a leak. At dawn we found his body by the latrine. He was ripped apart from stem to stern.”
He was quiet for a moment then continued, “The other man—the one we’d had trouble with was missing. No one, to my knowledge, ever saw him again.” He looked hard at my chest. "Bobby’d been torn open just like you.” He glanced at my hands, “He had scars and fresh wounds on his hands, just like yours.”
I thought about that; so there are others like me. I didn’t know what to feel about it. “Are you a doctor?” I touched the bandages on my chest and noticed my pants and jacket, cleaned and folded at the foot of the bed.
“I was, once upon a time,” he grimaced looking around at his shabby room, one he’d obviously lived in for a long long time. “Been a long time since anyone called me that.”
“Why? What happened?”
He took a long drink. “Do some people have shadows that show they’re evil or just plain bad?”
I didn't say anything as he took his empty glass to the sink.
“When we weren’t on the line and got leave or a weekend pass, we’d get drunk and we’d plow what furrows we could find—if you take me meaning.” A slight grin of a far younger man flashed on his face. “Drunk, Bobby would talk about seeing what was inside people—knowing what type of person they really were inside no matter how they acted or what they looked like on the outside. And inside some was evil… primal and always dark through and through. Those were the ones that scared him—real bad he said—but also made him want to take them on. Stand up to ‘em”
I looked at him to catch and hold his eyes, “Are we going to exchange stories, here and now?”
“I've told you a bit of mine. The rest I'll keep to myself.” His face become sterner, a tightening of skin erased some of the lines and creases of old age. “But I figure you owe me some of yours, and some answers young man.”
“What you just told me sounds crazy,” I said hoping to get off the subject.
“It sounds just like what you were babbling about young man.”
I swung my legs off the bed so I could feel the floor under my feet. I kicked something and looking down saw my boots. “Let’s try this; instead of young man, my name’s Rick Blackerd. What’s yours, or do I have to keep thinking of you as the Old Man I need to thank?”
“Walter. Walt Hedgewood. Don’t worry about thanking me. Now, we’re introduced, you going to answer my question? Do some people have shadows that show they’re evil or just plain bad?”
I decided, what the hell. “Yeah, but some people can hide it real well. They control it. But sometimes they slip. Then they show all the baser emotions: jealousy, greed, hatred and other things more petty… all the ugliness buried deep inside but is really who they are. If you know them long enough they show it by what they say and how they act. Especially, how they act when it seems no one’s watching them. Then you really know. I’m someone who can see these things immediately in their shadow.”
“What about others?” At my questioning look he clarified, “Normal people, those who have a grip on who they are—good people with a solid center. Can you tell them from the bad?”
“With decent people, yeah.” I took a big gulp of water. “Their shadow shows the true them, too… clean lines and lightness inside their shadow, at the core.” I leaned forward to hand the empty glass to him. “Seeing that leaves you with a sense the world will never be lost as long as people like them are in it. Special people... and sometimes it shows more. What potential they have....”
I paused, because the hardest thing I’d learned to deal with since my brother’s death, and the change in me, was how I felt and what I had to do when I saw a shadow that showed a true monster. “It’s tough when someone’s got something at their center that makes them truly evil.”
“And you have to do something about it,” Walt said. “Just like Bobby.”
“Yeah.” I replied, grabbing my pants and pulling them on as I stood. “It’s my duty to help the good and deal with the bad. And with the truly evil—it’s my responsibility to destroy it—to kill them.” Sockless I shoved my feet in my boots. My chest hurt too much to lean over. “Fuck it,” I told the laces as I snagged my jacket.
“I’ve been in this world a long time and know about human nature,” Walt rasped, head down, too heavy to look at me. “God help you, son,” he told my back as I left his room.
“Yeah, right...,” I said closing the door behind me. Slipping my jacket on I zipped it up to my throat to hide bare skin and bandage from the cold world outside.