SEALING THE SHADOWS

 

Appeared in Made You Flinch: Stories to Unnerve, Disturb, and Freak You Out, Library of Horror Press, 2011; Great Jones Street Press, 2016

     

     From the spotted surface of his bedroom mirror, the tops of trees swayed in reflected silence. Rays of sunshine sliced through the branches, no doubt accentuating the vibrant colors that swell with a summer day. He knew this even if he did view the world in black, white, and countless shades of gray, only able to discern some semblance of color by the varying shades contained within each leaf, blade of grass, or moist petal of a blooming flower. 

     Since the day he was born he had lived in a world of shadows. 

     A door slammed and his image shimmered, like staring into a placid pond disturbed by a heavy drop of rain, each ripple of sound sending vibrations that shook his bones and pounded within his ears. 

     His parents were fighting again. 

     Jimmy Westover began to hum, drowning out the shouts that would surely follow. It soothed him, brought reassurance in the form of a comfortable buzz. 

     Rocking on the balls of his feet, he examined his features through dried spots dotting the mirror. Cocked his head to one side and tried to create an angle that would allow his eyes to come closer together, like those properly spaced on normal kids. He lifted at the tops of both cheeks, attempting to eliminate the perpetual sag that hung below each eyelid with infinite sadness. Neither effort at hiding these flaws appeared to work; leaving with him the shell he’d forever carry over the boy who lived inside—like dead skin refusing to shed. 

     “Retard,” he mumbled, repeating a word as common to his ears as the steady slaps and screams that existed outside his bedroom. 

     Conjuring thick mucus contents from deep within his chest, propulsion equaling the power of a cannon, Jimmy spat at his mocking reflection. Fresh spots glistened and fell like slow, yellow tears from the image that haunted him each waking day. He pulled at the skin below his eyes, stuck out his tongue.        It almost made him laugh. 

     Still humming, he smothered another vibration within his throat as heavy footsteps assaulted the hallway. His reflection shook, blurred, then remained still once again as footsteps stopped on the other side of his door. He tensed, stared into his very own eyes, alarmed to see how much they had widened and refused to blink; held open by the power existing on the door’s other side. So little protection between him and it. He pictured the door swelling at its center, threatening to burst with each huff and puff of an angry wolf. 

     A shadow, thick and pressing, leaked into the room from the spaces between the door and its frame, seeming to search for paths of least resistance—the quickest routes to his soul. The fluid darkness reached from the gap beneath the door with tantalizing strokes. Jimmy took a few tentative steps backward. 

     He imagined the shadow stretching, separating into cold, barbed fingertips, hooking into his flesh and pulling him through the mirror, through the closed door—jagged splinters and shards of glass tearing holes into his body as he clung fiercely to the walls with every limb. Delaying the inevitable, holding on until every appendage dislocated from their sockets and he was at last pulled through the door in a mushy mass of bleeding flesh and bone. 

     And stuffed into the mouth of a monster. 

     The doorknob rattled. His heart fluttered in response; breath mimicked his pulse with short, irregular gasps. 

     “Jimmmmmmy,” his father called in a voice so low, so calm—hypnotic. The end of a bottle hit the door with sluggish taps. 

     Humming again. 

     Louder still as his back came against the wall. And feet continued to push against the wood floor, trying to push the rest of his body into the yellowed wallpaper—into another dimension—where the monster couldn’t find him. The shadow waved under his nose with the stench of something horrid, revolting enough to force the suppression of a reflexive gag. 

     He slipped. 

     Defeated, destined for the pain to come when the door opened and the entire mass of the shadow entered, Jimmy slid to the floor. He hugged himself with quivering arms and squeezed his eyes shut to eliminate the shadowed presence with a darkness of his own. A shaking tear fell from each permanently saddened eye. 

     Shouts lulled to sporadic bursts of mother’s sobbing, eventually dwindling to sniffles, before he dared unglue his eyes. The shadow had retreated to the blackened depths of where it had originated, taking with it the fading thunder of footsteps. 

     All limbs intact, pulse at last a mere echo in the distance, only his hands jittered as though they contained the fading remnants of a toxin. He shook them hard before picking up a cross-stitching design still needing completion around a circular frame. 

     Rocking back and forth on the cheeks of his rear-end, Jimmy hummed, diligently counting the squares of a pattern splayed upon the floor. He inserted a needle with first one stitch then another, into canvas stretched taut across the wood frame. When the shade of a square changed, he knew it was time to select a different thread from the box of overflowing spools. This particular design was the most detailed he’d ever attempted, shades changing every other square, so often he didn’t know if he’d ever reach its end. 

     Still, he stitched; certain mother would admire his new creation. Another stitch, thread pulled through the backside and another through the top again—a continuous cycle. 

     They were gifts from his mother, decorating his room in dozens of framed designs. Her efforts fell dear to his heart and he displayed each creation prominently, adorning each wall, every shelf, and most of the floor like prize-winning black and white photographs to his own eyes, but artistic creations his mother always said burst with color and energy. Creations, she ensured, that displayed the beautiful feelings living deep inside him, mirrored images of their special creator. 

     At least, he originally thought they were gifts. It didn’t take him long to realize they were more for therapy than enjoyment, a way for him to pass the time when Daddy refused to let him out of his room. 

     He woke to the sound of neighborhood kids chanting outside. Venomous slurs sparked a feeling within his gut he didn’t quite understand—twisting, burning. 

     “Hey, Droopy, you gonna come out and play or stay in your room all day…again?” 

     Giggles seemed to squeak around flattened palms pressed against shameful mouths. 

     A different voice now, determined to trump the other: “Yeah…you…you…mon-…mon…Mon-go-loid!” 

     Laughter unleashed from the group then lingered as harsh echoes. 

     Wiping at the drool creeping down his chin, Jimmy crawled from his bed, peaking out of the tattered window screen. 

     And harvested an uncomfortable silence. 

     Four boys, sporting jeans cut off at the kneecaps, skateboards resting against their hips, stared up at him as if not knowing what to do, mouths agape. One of them toyed with something in his hands, tossing it back and forth, an occasional glance directed at Jimmy’s window from beneath the bill of a stained baseball cap. A rising sun made them appear taller than they were; like giant fingers seeking entry, their shadows reached almost to the frayed welcome mat of his house. 

     Jimmy smiled, waved. 

     Fell to the floor when a rock slammed into the center of his forehead. 

     White fire pushed any possible scream deep inside his chest, allowing only whimpers to escape between gritted teeth. Immediately, the tears began to flow, separating the room into dozens of incomplete images as he strained to look through them, around them. 

     He knew what water could do, mother had told him. Knew his tears could provide a prism capable of producing all the colors of the spectrum; knew if he was a normal boy, colors would enhance each of these images to no end. But around these images, shadows grew like tiny filaments, extending, reaching for his innermost being with probing tips. 

     Closing his eyes, Jimmy prayed for the tears to stop, for the pain to leave quickly; dared not touch the wound he felt stretching his skin with each passing second. 

     As skateboards met the pavement, he was alone. 

     Again. 

     Pulling himself up with the aid of the windowsill, he peered over its paint-chipped edge and watched the boys exchanging high fives in the distance, their shouts of delight painfully able to reach his ears. Silently, he wished he knew others like himself—others he could call his friends. 

     Jimmy waved again, fingers testing the air as if unsure if it was safe to do so, but went unnoticed, hidden behind shadows the sun had yet to penetrate and disperse. 

     A morning breeze provided some comfort and cooled the pain as invisible fingers stirred his hair and caressed his swelling forehead. He placed two cautious fingertips on the wound, wincing at its tenderness before walking to the mirror to investigate the damage. Not as bad as he thought, but something Daddy wouldn’t like. He pulled his hair down over his forehead, matted it down after sliding a quick hand over his tongue. Better. 

     The flushing of a toilet signified Daddy’s routine at home coming to an end. Soon, the screen door would slam shut. Then the car would start (maybe) and sputter into the distance. Only then would he venture into the kitchen and watch his mother make his favorite breakfast: an egg yolk dropped into the center of a piece of bread, into a hole only big enough to harbor the yolk while the egg whites had no choice but to drip over and around the buttered slice. 

     Jimmy watched himself smile as the car did indeed sputter; in fact, uttered small explosions as it rumbled to the intersection before turning and fading into silence. 

     A silence soon replaced by the hiss of melting butter. 

     The sag under his eyes disappeared for a moment, buried beneath the brief lifting of a smile; but it was enough to see the hint of a normal boy existing beneath the flesh of someone he didn’t really recognize. 

     When he entered the kitchen, she turned away. 

     Quickly. 

     She breathed in a soupy mixture of tears and phlegm, spatula falling to the side of the frying pan as she abruptly went in search of a dishtowel to pat her eyes, slippers chirping on the linoleum in surprise. 

But not before he saw the fresh bruise—a splotch of glistening gray on a cheekbone that extended farther than normal—still shiny on her face. Above this, two leeches seemed to lie on each eyelid, hiding the sparkling orb beneath their bulbous bodies. 

     He almost fell as he skidded to a halt with feet only covered in mismatched socks. 

     “Mommy?” 

     He had seen them before, on different parts of her body at various times, but each bruise he had spotted stirred the same terrible feelings—no easier than the first time. He still didn’t understand. 

Her arms and legs had been first to display these nasty shades of gray, easily hidden beneath the sleeves of a blouse or a pair of slacks. But lately, the splotches were crawling upward like fading shadows from the legs of an invisible spider, coming to rest on her shoulders, her neck... 

     Her beautiful face.  

     With another slurp of nasal contents and a one-eyed gaze fixated on the salt and pepper shakers, she slid a plate with not one, but two of his favorite breakfast foods in front of him, tempting him with distraction. 

     “Eat your breakfast, love. Mum’s not feeling too well.” 

     Mommy? 

     And there it sat: a plate with two steaming pieces of toasted bread. Twin yolks beckoned from gray dilated pupils, just waiting for his fork to slide into their membranes and enable a languid escape through four tunneled paths. 

     The aroma made his stomach grumble, but his heart ached. 

     He couldn’t do it. 

     The beginnings of tears stung the corners of his eyes; throat began to tighten around a hardening lump. His stomach twisted in sorrow, all appetite squeezed out of it like tears wrung from a kerchief. Darting glances between mother and plate, lured yet repulsed by a breakfast he normally craved and emotions creating rippling shudders from skin to bone, he saw it. As though his senses were suddenly opened to another plane of existence, he watched it descend upon them like a thick blanket of unease. Felt it begin to suffocate them. 

     Darkness. 

     For a single moment, the air inside the kitchen was tainted a shade he had never seen before. Thick and murky, it sucked the breath from his lungs like the depths of a fetid swamp. As if a giant hand slowly passed in front of a candle, shadows slid from ceiling to walls and finally to the floor before disappearing into the deepest corners of the room near the side entrance of the house. 

     Mother quickly looked around the kitchen, for some reason opening a drawer as if to ensure nobody had stolen the silverware in the last few minutes then turned to look behind her. If she couldn’t see it, she felt it. 

     Then heard it...they both did. 

     In the form of the final sputter of an engine before the ignition was turned off, the slam of the car door, curses mumbled under an intoxicated grumble of discontent. 

     Staggering footsteps as a black silhouette began to cover the window. 

     Daddy was home. 

     Early. 

     Jimmy ran. 

     Fought to regain his balance as socks made him pinwheel on the wood floor of the living room. He grabbed the center partition, using the momentum to fling himself toward the stairs. When keys attempted to unlock the side door, he increased his stride from two steps to three, clutching the banister with one arm while bracing the wall with the other. The groan of rusted hinges forced a breath from his lungs he didn’t know he’d been holding. 

     Heartbeat drumming chaos at his temples, he fought to dampen the din with a strangled hum. Refuge existed ahead at the open door to his room. If he hurried a bit faster, he’d make it before the shadow crawled up the stairs and nibbled at his toes. His shin slammed against the final step, but the pain was dismissed beneath a baritone wail that jolted his hairs on end. 

     The monster was venting. 

     Quick, heavy breaths now made his arms and legs tingle. Jimmy closed the door—gently. Forced his breathing to slow when wispy tendrils tasted the edges of his vision with slithering tongues. 

He closed his eyes and couldn’t help but listen... 

     To pots and pans bouncing off the walls; to muffled thuds and drawers being yanked opened, contents raining upon the kitchen floor; to the sharp squeal of his mother trying her best not to surrender. 

To the roar of a hungry lion loose of its cage. 

     When Jimmy’s lower lip refused the added restraint of his teeth trying to contain his misery, he slumped against the door, lip protruding with each convulsive exhale, twin streams flowing down his cheeks. Like the distant points of a constellation, pinpricks of red combined to create a distant galaxy upon his flushed face. 

     The urge to open the door a fraction of an inch existed only until the shuffle of slippers met the staircase he so recently had vacated. 

     Mommy’s coming! 

     One of them must have fallen off—he heard the slap of flesh against the landing, followed by another shuffle of a slipper. He imagined his mother’s shining aura of innocence as she came to his rescue, but refused to let materialize the expression that must have enveloped her face. The darkest of shadows, he knew, followed close behind with steps able to shake the foundation. And a blackened maw ready to suck her untainted radiance into its void. 

     Suddenly, like so many times before, the door to his parents’ bedroom almost splintered within its frame, the eruption so violent as to remain until the very last shard of this deafening syllable fluttered to the ground. 

     His heart dropped. 

     Back against his own bedroom door, knees drawn against his chest, Jimmy listened intently as the air succumbed to a heavy silence. A chill danced across the surface of his skin with nimble steps and a lingering touch. Like listening for the loud crash of thunder following the flash of a lightning bolt, he waited, unconsciously humming to lessen the blow. 

     And then it came. 

     As though the air were building up its charge with an audible crackling, the grating sound of metal sliding upon metal and the shattering of glass as the gun cabinet door slammed closed were presented as its equivalent. Both instances mere rumblings from an overcast sky, the storm still yet to arrive. 

     As the knob above his head began to turn, Jimmy cringed and raised the pitch of his humming to disguise the rattle of the knob within its housing. A panicked squeal escaped from his throat as he pushed against the door with all the strength his sock-covered feet could obtain against the wood floor. 

     The shadow had returned. 

     Cold arms seemed to wrap around him with a grip that bled straight to the base of his spine. He forced his jaws apart when his teeth began a feverish chatter. 

     Feet slipping, slipping. 

     In the space of time it took to prepare what he thought a final gulp of air to hold, cherish, and ultimately submit to the wrath of an overwhelming presence, his mother’s shriek provided a final straw of hope of which to grasp for. 

     Mommy’s here! 

     Tears at once began to dry. 

     In his mind’s eye, he groped with fingers spread wide, searching. Then lost any hope of purchase as the shriek of despair faded and brutal sounds of flesh upon flesh assailed his ears. Each loud snap sent brilliant spikes of pain to the center of his still-swollen forehead, setting his teeth on edge. A prized creation fell to the floor as someone banged against the wall. 

     As much as he forced himself to believe he didn’t want to know who was hitting whom, he had to see.      With slow and deliberate movements, Jimmy managed to get on his hands and knees and finally lay on his stomach, head pointed toward the door. Dust tickled his nose. He struggled against a building sneeze. 

     Peering through the gap between the door and floor, he saw shadows collide then separate on the dusty wooden slats of the hallway, only to blend together again as a struggle ensued and a storm found the proper mix of emotions to brew a maelstrom. As though fatigued, they soon slowed, resembling a waltz of disparate entities then separated again. 

     Huddled next to his door, the edges of a lighter shadow trembled beneath the strength of a larger, more solid presence that darted across the floor with quick, paralyzing movements. Jimmy reached for the quivering edges of this shadow that appeared to be losing its substance even as his fingertips entered its fragile borders. 

     Mommy? 

     His brain told him to pull back from the intense cold of the shadow covering his fingers, but a part of him knew it was weakening, as though his hand were getting used to the cold, adapting to a new existence. 

     He also knew it was something much worse. 

     He let his hand remain, fingers kneading the shadow, milking all that was left of its substance, trying to capture any minute fragment of the life it contained. 

     It’s going to be okay, Mommy. 

     The falsity of this thought tore open a fathomless sadness and brought fresh tears spilling with a vehement burning. The freshest of which burst from the confines of his eyelashes when a monstrous detonation rocked the very walls around him, creating a furious ringing within his ears that his shaking hands couldn’t muffle. He rolled away from the door—screeching, but unaware—the constant ringing clouding even his own thoughts. 

     Jimmy sucked in a deep breath, ready to release a blistering scream of agony, when another explosion made him swallow the potential outburst like a tight ball of barbed wire. Instead of covering his ears, his arms went to shelter his head as if the entire house might teeter on its delicate frame and tumble around him. 

     Curled into a fetal ball, body trembling around its own shaken frame, Jimmy tried to pull himself into the deepest recesses of his mind, quickly closing doors to hidden passages and secret rooms he had never had to use until now. 

     Deeper, deeper… 

     The smell.  

     It’s what penetrated the invisible shield of his own creation, what allowed each door he’d closed to creak open against resistant hinges. It’s what made him peek from under his imaginary shell; peel his eyelids away from the protective blackness they provided.  

     And stare toward the door at a thick pool of shadows creeping in like the froth of a rising tide. It swallowed the floorboards of his room with its advance, so deep and dark were its contents. Unlike the time he ran from the chilling advance of the Atlantic, this encroaching ocean only brought Jimmy completely out of his shell and pulled him closer. 

     Close enough to fill every pore with the sharp stench of copper, he breathed through his mouth, almost gagging at the way it still clung to the back of his throat.  

     He looked at the doorknob—unmoving, silent. 

     Peered again through the space below the door where a distant shadow stewed within its own stagnant pond of blackness, alone. 

     Daddy? 

     Couldn’t resist dipping his hand into the thickness of the pool now trying to surround him in a loving embrace, and marveling in shock at the warmth it could still provide. 

     As he stared at the black fluid dripping between his fingers—liquid shadows stretching, devouring—only one thought spread through his mind like an incurable disease. 

Mommy’s gone. 

     His chin barely cleared the surface of the floor.  

     Jimmy dragged his hands and knees, finding no strength to lift at their sudden weight as he crawled to the cross-stitching design that had always been a means of escape.  

     Humming a woeful melody, rocking on the cheeks of his rear-end, he pulled at the needle still embedded within the canvas until the thread snapped and frayed at its tiny end. Then selected the darkest of shades from inside his box of spools and snapped what he thought a proper length. Tongue jutting from the corner of his mouth and one shimmering eye concentrated on the tiny eyelet of the needle, he passed the new thread through with the ease of someone who had done the same many times before. 

     Tying a sufficient knot at one end, he was ready to begin.  

     With first one stitch, and then another, thread pulled through the top and back down again in a continuous cycle, Jimmy sealed his eyes shut against the shadows, creating an impenetrable darkness. 

     Where shadows couldn’t exist. 

     Lids cinched into wrinkled seams not even the smallest shaft of light could penetrate, pain numbed by an immense sorrow, Jimmy finished with his masterful work. 

     The needle still dangled from the corner of one eye on a shortened piece of thread and caught a ray of sunshine as it twisted and twirled, twisted and twirled. 

     And shone upon his latest creation: the most horrific patterned arc of a rainbow still yet to reach its empty pot of gold. 

     But something mother would have cherished.