Estimated reading time — 6 minutes
They move again tonight. I lay and watch them, seeing as it’s all I can do. They slip and slide through the street lamp window curtain shaded light and I know my eyes have begun to fail. Or perhaps the eyes are fine and my mind is finally going from the pain and boredom. Dying is a lonely business.
The shadows dance me to sleep and I dream again of Eileen. It starts out well, more relived memory than dream. I see her bent over that diner counter in a light pink poodle skirt pointing to a slice of warm pecan pie and I laugh a little (It sounds like my present-day laugh, a harsh, phlegm filled bark) as the same old thought rolled through my head. What an ass on her.
People act like we were all chaste and proper back then, but hormones never change. My domineering thought in those days was the best way to get her, or any girl for that matter, into the back seat of a ‘57 Chevy. She turns, her curly, carrot-colored hair slipping down her shoulders and I scream myself awake.
I cough up a lung and try to blink away the vision. Her face wasn’t young and clean as it should’ve been, as it had been all those years ago. Instead, it was dark, ruddy and rotted, as I imagine her to be now six feet down and moldering.
The door opens and the creak sends a chill down what I can still feel of my spine. My breath stops, held. It is only Joan, my home hospice worker, and not dear dead Eileen that steps through.
“Everything alright, Mr. Jenkins?” She asks.
“Well,” I mumble (God, when did my voice get so damn weak?), “I’m seventy-nine, my legs don’t work, and it’s quite possible I’ve shit myself. So it’s a resounding no.”
She chuckles. I always could make the girls laugh.
“I’ll check you,” she says, “Time for your meds anyway.”
“Whoopee,” I replied, “Make it a double.”
Joan does her business of cleaning up my business, jabs a long thick needle through the thin skin of my arm and disappears. I close my eyes, but sleep doesn’t come. My eyes pry back open and I catch my breath. The shadows have moved again. I know, I know, shadows move. I’m old, not crazy. At least not yet.
The darkness pools into the center of the ceiling, no light to cast them that way. They stretch and form into a humanoid shape, tall and amorphous, like a thin man in a shroud. Like death, I realize. I wonder if this is it. If so break out the scythe. I’m too old to fear the reaper anymore.
No scythe comes. Instead, the figure cocks it’s head to the side, like a confused child then swirls into a ball again. I watch, confused as a child myself, as the shadows split. I realize a scene is taking form in silhouette. A flat straight line of shadow runs across the ceiling. Other shadows rise from it, forming little more than stick figures, but people just the same. More and more lines move out and I smile. I know what I am seeing now, what the shadows form, even if it is just a drug or dying induced hallucination.
There was the ringmaster, top hat and all. He gestured to the right, to a lion in caricature, a man with a whip made of darkness dancing before it. There was the trapeze, a stick man (or woman I suppose, don’t ask me the sex of shadows) flying through the air with the greatest of ease and cannons and clowns and little stick shadow monkeys and laughter like I hadn’t heard in ages. The wracking coughs come to remind me that all things, even laughter, require payment. The circus packed up as I wheezed, the cloak back, cocking its head again at a different angle, almost one of concern.
The coughing wouldn’t stop, the ache in my guts growing steadily worse from the strain as Joan threw open the door, the light from the doorway causing the shadows to dart to the corner of the room. We never used the room light unless absolutely necessary. It hurt my eyes. She pulled me up into a sitting position and the coughing finally subsided.
“Th-thank you,” I wheezed as she eased me back down onto the bed.
“That’s why I’m here,” she said, “Now you try and rest.”
I barely heard her. I was looking at the ceiling, at the shadows. The shadows encircled her head as she leaned over me, but there was no laughter now, no ringmaster. It had been replaced with writhing monstrosity of ink-black tentacles around a gaping mouth filled with jagged shadow teeth. Centered in the mouth was Joan’s plain-faced, mousy-haired head.
I wheezed out “No!” as loud as I could, but it came as nothing more than a whisper. The mouth began to close. I had no idea if the shadows, or whatever they were, could hurt her, but I wouldn’t let them if I could stop it.
Joan just smiled said, “You rest now,” and turned to leave, undevoured. I concentrated on the shadows as she made her way across the room. They seemed to draw back from her presence, as if in fear, the monster turning to a cowering boy, it’s arm extended, pointing as if in accusation.
“I don’t understand,” I whispered. The ball of shadow roiled, a move that made me think of frustration, and did so until sleep finally took me.
* * * * * *
I lay waiting for the day to pass, same as all days now, filled with hot broth and bad t.v., but this day also held anticipation. I didn’t know if I would see the shadows again, but I hoped. Even if they were just the symptoms of an old, dying mind.
Finally, the sunlight crept its way out of the window, the only muted light left that of the streetlamp outside. I sighed and closed my eyes, waiting for something I was sure would never come. I dozed off, a half hour or so before I opened my eyes again.
The shadow ball shimmered on the ceiling. The shimmering seemed to grow more intense as I smiled up at it. Then it split, a new scene for a new night. A western this time, with stick figure saloon girls and dueling cowboys, even a stagecoach robbery. The shadows recoiled as the door opened, spilling a crack of light into the room. Joan entered, syringe in hand.
She said something, but I didn’t hear. All my faculties were focused on the ceiling. The shadows swirled around her again, careful of the beam of light from the hallway. The monster was back, it’s mouth a silent roar aimed at Joan. Then the monster became the cloak of death, its silhouette head staring down at me, two open spots of ceiling for eyes. The image shook and I realized it was moving back and forth as if it was shaking its head no. A hand reached from the dark mass, skeletal in its thinness, and pointed at Joan, and at the syringe that slid effortlessly into my arm.
“What… what is that?” I asked her.
“Just medicine,” she replied. “Just what the doctor ordered.”
“Sure, sure,” I said, and watched her leave.
As whatever it was coursed through my veins, I took a deep, rattling breath and let it all go.
Dying is rough. Being dead, not so bad, to be honest. At least not here. I’ve heard talk of somewhere else, somewhere I never want to see. There are lots of things on this side, not just people, but things that have never roamed our world. Eileen is here, and the baby we lost so long ago. And there are things here that just like giving the dying a few moments of happiness, even if they’re taken before their time, like I was. Though it’s not easy to communicate with the other side, we can see and hear it all, if we want. As I watch Joan’s trembling hands tie the noose, as the shadows on the walls around her cast reflections of horrid, sharp-toothed things, I realize I don’t hate her. At least not for the arsenic she pumped into my system. I was old and missed my wife. She probably did me a favor. That’s not why the shadows and I did this, drove her to this. See, I wasn’t her first and I wouldn’t be her last. Time is funny here. You can see it, if you look hard enough. Even the future, possible ones anyway. And whether Joan had stayed in hospice, or like in so many futures went into neonatal care, it was always the same.
See, I wasn’t her first, but I’ll make damn sure I’m her last.
Credit: R.D. Smithey
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