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By Philip Umbrino
Her shadow had been very confident about everything since she learned how to make it talk a week ago. Her grandfather’s diary had been in a pile of old relics from their attic, and with nothing to do over the summer Arianna had read the entire thing. Tips on focusing her mind, paying attention to the world around her, the shadows that had their own little world apart from our own. She was able to tap into that world by sitting in the dark and talking, reaching out. Following her grandfather’s steps. And it had worked. Her image, a shadowy version of herself, had begun to converse. It even moved somewhat apart from herself. Though it never left her side. Like any shadow would.
When her grandfather had passed away a few weeks ago she was asked to go through the house and help her mother collect and organize the last of her grandparents’ belongings. When she came upon the pages about separating the shadow from the self and letting it do whatever you told it to do…well, she’d realized she needed that skill. Except the pages had been torn out.
Probably by Papa, her shadow said, in a faint voice that sounded very much like her own, only muffled somehow. Distant.
“I know, I know,” she said softly. “I’ll have to figure it out myself.”
He most likely got rid of them. Her shadow was always so sure of itself. Always knowing what to do. “There’s no proof of that,” Arianna said. She was lying down on her bed. Her shadow hugged the wall beside her, folding itself in a sitting position, as though it were ready to begin a debate.
You don’t need proof. He’s the only one who knew about it.
“I don’t think so. Maybe we should just forget it,” Arianna said.
You know we can’t. I’m the only one who can get into Eric’s house.
Her shadow was right. Her ex-boyfriend wasn’t letting her anywhere near his room where the photos were being kept. Even though he was showing up at her house every day like clockwork for the last two weeks since school had finished, dangling the thought of getting them right in her face.
“What time is it?” Arianna asked, staring up at the ceiling. Her shadow shrugged.
I can’t read the clock. It’s too dark in here.
“But the shades are open.”
Light and dark are the opposite for me, remember?
Beside her bed, on her nightstand was her cellphone, which began to vibrate. The entire wicker stand shook with the force from the phone. Arianna grabbed the device before it shook the lamp and the clock radio off and onto the floor. She held it over her face. Eric was calling.
“Hello?” she answered. Her shadow was still, perhaps watching her. “Yeah, now’s fine. My parents won’t be home for at least another hour,” she said. She sighed softly. “Okay. See you in a few.He’s coming over again.“Yes.”
He was at her front door, ringing the bell in a shorter time than she expected. Arianna opened it to see him standing there with the sunlight behind him. He was smiling the kind of smile that made her want to slap his face hard enough until it disappeared. In his slacks and button down shirt, he took his little badge off from around his neck and stuffed it into his back pocket.
“Just come from work?” she asked.
“It’s nice to see you too. But yes. Got to love the summertime hours. I get a few hours to kill before I need to be home,” he said, stepping inside.
“Don’t be upset. You used to love doing these things for me,” he said.
“Yeah before I learned you were a scumbag,” she said.
“Were the last two years really down the drain?”
“Let’s just get this over with.”
It’s all she kept repeating in her head while he was on top of her. Get it over with. Lying on the bed, her mind went back to the last couple of years, when they were still together in college, the couple that would hold hands on the way to the cafeteria or would leave campus and go to a real restaurant in town. The two lovers that would celebrate ridiculous milestones like three month anniversaries, that would take their time before rushing into sex, that enjoyed the moments and let the emotions guide their actions. The actions he demanded of her now were functional, step one to step two. When he finished, like a machine seizing up, he collapsed on top of her in heap of sweat, panting into her ear.
“Just like old times,” he said while putting his clothes back on.
“How much longer is this going to go on?” she asked him. She was under her bed covers, hiding herself from him as best she could. When he stood up she could see he still looked as good as ever: in shape, still tan. But it all felt false.
“Just be patient, Ari. I told you I’d give them to you and I will.” He leaned in for a kiss, but she pulled away.
“Just show yourself out,” she said.
He smiled and kissed the top of her head, not even saying goodbye before closing her bedroom door.
Arianna moved quickly to the bathroom, sitting in the tub with the shower head aimed directly on top of her. Hot water rushed down her head, dripping off her breasts, pooling around her legs. Her tears mixed into the water and disappeared down the drain.
I think we should practice a little more on separating, her shadow said, though she couldn’t see it.
“But how?” she asked. Her words were barely audible behind sobbing and the water running down her face.
Maybe we should just check Papa’s attic one more time.
Arianna wanted very much to run up her grandfather’s stoop, stand on his porch and ring the bell. She wanted to see him open the door, stand there with his usual plaid vest, leaning on his gnarled wooden cane, and invite her in. But now he was gone. On one hand she was glad he wasn’t there. She would have had to tell him she took her grandmother’s book without his knowledge, and Papa Allan wasn’t someone you liked to disappoint. She was willing to suffer a little disappointment, she thought, just to get a little help.
Every house in the neighborhood was the same on the outside, but made different by the families living there. Some houses had fancy mailboxes; others had manicured lawns. Her grandfather’s house looked old and in disrepair. It was the kind of house that kids avoided when the evening came.
The sun felt hot on her back as she used the old silver key in the door. Her shadow stretched across the small house’s porch, and she watched it from the corner of her eye.
Even with the sunlight flooding in through the windows, the small living room they stood in wasn’t well lit. Shadows were flung across the floor and the wall, crisscrossed by sunlight through venetian blinds and old lamps that were left on, most likely by her mother by accident.
Let’s check the attic, her shadow said. The hallway upstairs wasn’t lit, and Arianna could hear her shadow make some kind of noise, like a sigh of relief. Tugging the cord that dangled from the ceiling, she pulled until the steps to the attic came down.
In the attic Arianna groped about in the darkness until her hand grabbed the little string that hung from the single bulb on the ceiling. The room was illuminated with one pull, the stacks of boxes surrounding and looming over her like a miniature city of cardboard.
Where do we start looking? her shadow asked.
“Where we found the notebook.”
She went through the boxes in one of the corners of the small room. There were stacks of her grandmother’s things in one area she had already cleaned: letters to her grandfather when he was overseas, old cookbooks held together with rubber bands, photos of herself and her grandfather.
“Hang on a second,” she said, staring at an old photograph in her hands. She moved to the center of the room and stood under the light bulb, holding the photo up. Her grandmother was standing on the beach in what would now pass for a full dress rather than a bathing suit, her grandfather next to her. She wore a broad smile on her face, his arm around her shoulders. But he didn’t smile. In fact, he looked miserable, Arianna thought.
What’s so important? her shadow asked.
“See the sand?”
Stretched in the background along the sand was her grandmother’s shadow. Her grandfather, however, wasn’t casting one at all.
Let’s keep looking.
Arianna shuffled through the rest of the items. Beneath a few more items was a small chest: blue with gold trim, about half a foot wide, with a tiny brass padlock on the lid. She hadn’t seen it before. It wasn’t too heavy in her hands.
Looks good for something, the shadow said.
“It’s locked.” She gave the lock a few tugs. Despite being old, the device didn’t budge. She upended the old cardboard box she found the chest in, but there was no key.
There’s probably something in there.
“What do you want me to do? I’ll have to pick it or something,” she said.
Just smash it open. The shadow seemed over eager. No one will hear the sound. Go ahead.
Arianna hesitated for a moment, then raised the chest over her head.
Go ahead. Smash it open.
Before she could bring it down to the floor her cell phone began to ring. She stopped in mid-throw and placed the chest on the ground beside her.
“Hello?” she asked, checking the phone. She thought she heard the shadow sigh. “Yeah, I’m at Grandpa’s. Yeah if you want me to. Alright Mom, I’ll talk to you later.” She hung up and grabbed the chest from the floor.
What are you doing?
“Mom needs us to get some packing tape. Help her file away some of the things we’ve brought home from here.”
But the chest –
"I’ll get to it,” she said.
Arianna lay on her bed after dinner, staring at the ceiling. She heard the soft sounds of her parents’ television through the hallway. Her father was already snoring. She sat up when she heard the door creak open, her mother in a nightgown peeking through.
“Going to bed soon?” her mother asked.
“Maybe in a bit.”
“Is everything alright dear? You’ve been awfully quiet the last few weeks.”
“I just miss Papa, that’s all, Mom,” she said.
“If you need help, we can arrange for you to meet with someone, Arianna.” The full name use, she thought. It stung a little bit.
“Not this time, Mom.” Arianna felt her eyes begin to tear. She did miss her grandpa, but she wanted to tell her what had happened with Eric. But she couldn’t take seeing her face if she knew. Didn’t want to see the disappointment in her eyes over her poor judgment.
“Alright dear. Good night.”
Her mother exited the room. When the house had gone quiet, Arianna leaned over and pulled the small chest from underneath her bed. She set it down on her desk and began the process of getting the lock open. She fumbled with it, sticking her house keys in an attempt to catch the lock. Tweezers, a safety pin, nail files – all inserted into the lock with no success.
I’m no master thief, she thought to herself.
Just smash it down.
“And wake everyone up?” she asked. “Tomorrow. I’m exhausted enough as it is.” The shadow seemed to make some kind of exasperated noise. She stuck the chest beside the bed and tried to sleep, ignoring the sounds of the mumbling shadow.
Arianna woke late the next morning. She fumbled with eyes half open for her phone, the display on it reading three missed calls. All Eric. She checked her texts.
Were u asleep? Ill have 2 c u l8er then ;) – E
“Asshole, is the word,” she said.
When she dragged herself out of bed she stubbed her toe on the little blue chest. Smooth move, she thought. The house was empty. Her parents at work and a full day to herself ahead. She picked up the chest. It seemed even lighter than before.
Without pausing she took the chest and slammed it against the side of her desk. The little brass lock came off easily, snapped in one place.
She found several old pages from her grandfather’s diary inside. She sat on her bed and looked down at the handwriting, which had faded somewhat, the same curvy letters as the rest of her grandfather’s book. Her shadow once again appeared like it was sitting.
Well? What does it say?
“Here’s the instructions on separation,” she said.
Let’s try it.
“I’m barely awake. Let’s try it later.”
We should do it now.
“After I’m dressed.”
The shadow seemed pushier than usual. She heard it huffing and puffing while she was in the shower, almost heard it tapping a foot (or at least thought she imagined it) while she was dressing. At last she sat down on the bed and kept the sheets of paper in her lap, her eyes focused on the wall where her shadow was sitting. She was staring at it, where its eyes would be, just like her grandfather’s instructions said.
“Shush,” she said. “You should be focusing as well.” She strained her thoughts a little harder, picturing the shadow leaping off the wall, running circles around the room, completely unbound. Her eyes closed and she thought she could see the room around her still. In the darkness she began to see shapes, as though she were in a fog. Her bed was beginning to form, her nightstand, the lamp and the clock. Soon her entire room was visible, and she could see herself on the bed. Through her shadow’s eyes.
When she opened her eyes she saw normally, but things were darker. Like someone had thrown a bed sheet over her lamp. Her shadow moved from the bed and across the room in a leap, then leapt again from one corner to the other. It was tougher to see in the dimmer room.
“It’s so dark,” she said.
It worked though, the shadow said. I can move around. Its voice was much louder as well.
When Arianna closed her eyes again, she could see herself from across the room, sitting in her pajamas on her bed. Her shadow looked around the entire room, moving from one end to the other like it was stretching its legs for the first time.
“I can see what you see. And hear…it’s like watching a movie.”
Her shadow went over to her nightstand and tried picking it up, its hands on the clock radio’s own tiny shadow. To Arianna it looked like the little clock was floating in midair.
I guess it all works. So let’s do it. I know where he lives.
“Alright,” she said. “Can you get out?”
The shadow slinked along the floor and out the window through the cracks, resting on the front lawn.
I’ll be back soon, it said, its voice clear as day. Arianna lay back down on her bed and closed her eyes.
Her shadow moved along the street at a fast clip, the way a bird would move from tree to tree. There were few cars out because of the lunch hour, and so with plenty of clouds out her shadow had enough space to move without causing attention to itself. It went past house after house, each one looking the same, a little Suburbistan, making the occasional left or right turn at intersections until it came up to a smaller house with two cars outside of it and one bright red door. It slunk up the side of the house and to the window, peering inside.
Eric’s room was a typical boy’s room, she thought. The computer was on a messy desk, papers and pencils strewn about on top of DVD cases. Clothes were on the floor while pictures of bikini girls lined the walls. Her shadow found it could squeeze through the cracks in the window with ease. The room was cramped, but the shadow found a tall room lamp in the corner and had enough sunlight to use the lamp’s shadow to turn it on.
Now, where do I look? Arianna heard the shadow say. She watched the shadow click through menus and folders in the computer using the computer’s own shadow, searching the files marked “Photos.” There were files for every year of college, from his days pledging his fraternity with his buddies, to others where she and him were dressed up for formal parties thrown by the campus. A few of the files even were of their summers together at home, two high school friends who traveled to the same college and finally fell in love. She wanted to tell her shadow to throw the damn machine onto the floor.
There aren’t any dirty photos in these files, the shadow said. But there was a file folder that said “Grandma’s Birthday” sitting beside the “2010” folder. When her shadow clicked it, it led to one folder, then another, until finally the photos were there. Pictures of Arianna and Eric in erotic positions. Photos she remembered him promising would only be for the two of them. A promise that rang hollow the following week when he dumped her, right before they graduated.
The shadow deleted the last trace of them.
“What is that?”
Eric’s mother entered his room.
“Hide or something!” Arianna said.
The shadow jumped back from the computer and hid across the wall. His mother looked around the room and righted the lamp that looked as though it had fallen on its side.
“He’s got too much crap in here,” she said. She exited the room shaking her head.
Arianna let out a sigh. The shadow looked about the room and then headed for the window, stopping when it saw Eric’s car pulling into the driveway. Arianna and the shadow saw him get out and head into the house.
“Let’s see what happens,” Arianna said. The shadow headed onto the ceiling and hung there like a spider about to attack. There was sound coming from out the bedroom door, voices talking, growing louder and someone came closer.
“…Just coming back to make a sandwich, Mom,” Eric said. He came into his room and saw the lamp slightly out of place from earlier. “I thought I turned that off.” He headed over to the desk chair, the shadow and Arianna watching him from above. His eyes peered at the monitor, and they widened when he looked at the open folder where the pictures had been.
“Wait a second. What?”
He sat in the chair and began clicking, scrolling through files at a faster pace. The light of the computer screen stretched his shadow against the wall. “Where the hell are they?” The shadow slithered under the window and back down the house into the driveway, the sounds of his cursing the last thing it heard from the house on its way home.
Arianna had spent the rest the day smiling, one eye on the shadow to make sure it didn’t stray too far while she enjoyed dinner with her parents. Her mother didn’t look too happy, but not upset either. Perhaps off guard by her own cheery mood, Arianna thought.
She didn’t sleep well until her shadow decided to rest, matching her movements in the bed the way any normal shadow would and she could finally close her eyes without seeing what the shadow saw. When the morning came, she didn’t feel well rested. The world still seemed dim, like she was always wearing sunglasses. But the vibrating on her phone that stirred her from her restless sleep made her smile when she saw it was Eric.
“I’ve got some free time before work. Do you?”
Arianna looked at her shadow, which was standing on the wall across the room.
They’re gone, trust me.
“Sure,” she said.
“See you in a few minutes.”
You want him to come over still?
“I’m going to tell him off in the best way,” she said.
She showered and dressed quickly. When the doorbell rang Arianna almost threw the door open. He was there in his work outfit like last time, but his grin was gone.
“We need to be quick, I need to get to the office soon,” he said. He started to step through when she put her hand on his chest to stop him.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be quick – get the hell out of here. And don’t come back.”
“You heard me,” she said.
“Arianna, you know I have those pictures. Unless you want me to send them to everyone I know, I think we should stick to our deal.” But he didn’t sound too confident.
It’s a lie, her shadow said from behind her. Eric didn’t react to the shadow, Arianna noticed.
“I know you don’t. You already proved yourself a lying sack of crap,” she said. She shoved him slightly backwards and started closing the door until he stopped it with his foot.
“You did something to my computer, huh? Was that you?”
“What do you mean?” she asked. But she never was a good actor, she thought. Her smile was the same as his just a day ago.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I know some tech nerds. They’ll find the files in there. Whatever you did…they’ll fix. We’re going to have many more times together,” he said. And then that grin she hated returned. He moved his foot from the doorway and headed down the driveway to his car. Arianna watched him get in and drive off, peeling out and speeding down the street.
“You think he’ll be able to get the photos back?” she asked.
He’s slime. He’ll find a way.
“What do we do?”
I’ll pay a visit tonight.
The day dragged on forever. Arianna had put off finding a summer job when her grandfather passed away, and she’d planned on starting soon enough, but too much had gone on. She watched television, read magazines, but she couldn’t focus. She couldn’t help feeling there was some nerdy tech guy at Eric’s house tinkering around with the hard drive, clicking the mouse and typing a few magic keys that would suddenly make the photos resurface. She couldn’t even eat dinner, staying mostly silent during the meal with her parents until they finally gave up trying to cajole any conversation out of her. They finally all finished and she retreated back to her room.
“Just get in there and trash the computer this time,” Arianna said to her shadow when the hour had gotten late. “Throw it out the damn window! I don’t care. Just smash it. It doesn’t even matter if anyone sees you.”
Is that really going to be enough? her shadow asked.
I’m going to do what you told me, it said, but don’t you want a more permanent solution? The kid’s not going to leave you alone. And he’s scum. He deserves something worse than a broken hard drive.
“I guess so.”
So let me fix it, it said. He won’t be able to threaten you again.
The shadow made its way back towards Eric’s house, though the light was off in Eric’s room this time. The shadow snuck inside and moved into the hallway of the house, hearing the TV on in the den downstairs. It was invisible in the darkness, able to hear the TV being turned off, able to see him coming up the stairs in the darkness, walking somewhat skewed. In his hand was a beer can. He burped under his breath when he walked into his room and turned the light on, sending the shadow scurrying into one of the corners so it could stay out of sight.
Eric sat down at his computer and turned on the screen. He took another swig of his beer, sneering at the machine when it was finished booting up.
“Stupid Ari,” he said under his breath.
“Do it now,” Arianna said.
Her shadow moved behind him and wrapped its hands around his own shadow’s neck. The beer can hit the floor and spilled its contents onto the already stained shag carpet. Eric grabbed at the invisible hands around his throat. The room was going dark as the air wouldn’t go through his lungs
“What are you doing?” Arianna said.
This is a much more permanent solution, the shadow said matter-of-factly.
He hit the floor when he tried to stand, her shadow never letting go. His legs kicked the air and hit nothing. When his hands reached out to his bed, all he grabbed were the blankets that came loose and fell on top of him. The shadow didn’t let up until his struggles grew weaker. Arianna wanted to yell, to make the shadow stop. But she just watched, feeling as though it were her hands around his throat. She could almost feel his neck pulsing beneath her palms, feel his struggles go slack while he fought off the invisible predator.
Finally Eric lay on the floor, his eyes open in horror, blankly staring at the ceiling.
The shadow took one more glance around the room before sneaking under the window again and heading home.
The world seemed to her to be in the midst of a continual solar eclipse. The sky was dark, the world quieter than it used to be. Birds were outside her window but their chirping sounded distant and muffled. It was early in the day, a Saturday, with her father at work and her mother inside putting the last of her grandparents’ things in boxes. She assumed the coroner wouldn’t put out any news yet about Eric’s death. Or the police, either.
Arianna sat at her desk with the chest in front of her. She ruffled through the other papers that were sitting inside, their writing almost indecipherable between the darkness and their own old age. She turned the light on and held them up to bulb in an effort to read what other secrets her grandfather had decided to hide away. One page was folded in four, forming a little square. Carefully she opened it and tried to read, but the ink had faded or been worn away in too many places. The rest of the pages were unreadable as well.
Arianna sat silent. Not sure what to say or ask. She would have liked to turn around and ask her shadow if it was acting on its own the night before. But she didn’t.
“How do I get it to go back to normal?” she asked aloud. “Why isn’t there a page for that?”
What’s wrong with this? the shadow asked.
Arianna felt her chest tighten. She wished it had gone away. Her mind turned thoughts over rapidly.
“I should have known it would lead to more problems,” she said. “And now it seems I can’t even blame you.”
What problems? the shadow asked. He won’t be blackmailing us anymore. Do you think anyone will ever know it was me? That it was us?
Arianna didn’t answer.
He was scum, after all, it said.
Don’t you think he deserved it?
Arianna looked at the shadow. It seemed more fully featured. She thought there was the outline of eyes, the faintest hint of a nose. Even something like looked like lips that moved when it spoke.
So let’s not worry, it said. Sometimes you have to go a little farther than you want to.
“He did sort of force it on himself.”
Exactly. Besides, the shadow said, think of all the problems we won’t have to deal with from now on.