SHADOWS PAST

by George Solomou

As published in In Focus, Vol. 9, No 2, June 2012

The mist-covered street obscured my vision even more; blood was running down my forehead, and I was running aimlessly in any direction possible. Three figures were trailing me, three shadows with no discernible features, other than the knowledge of fangs and teeth the size of railway spikes. They were getting closer; with every breath I took more mist seemed to fill the air and I knew I couldn’t keep up with it any longer, and it was true for I stumbled on a wall finally, and the fog obscured everything else. All noises stopped. I tried swallowing but couldn’t. My back was against the wall, my naked hands touching its warmth and as soon as I felt it, some sort of reassurance filled me, enough to thwart the dark away but by then it was too late and the creatures were closer than before so I turned against the wall and grabbed it as hard as I could as if it was a door to somewhere else, gripping it tight, trying to become one with it, one with the warmness, and I could feel a torrent of tears ready to explode from my eyes, and then she shook me awake by telling me that I’m hurting her.

For a second I did not stop clinging whatever I was holding; it was too dark and I was still in that alley. Then I saw her shape below the blankets, her eyes reflecting the outside light and I let go. She kissed me softly on the side of my lips and I told her ‘Sorry, I was dreaming of Sean,’ and she mumbled something, and lifted the blanket she was hogging and covered me with it. It only took a couple of seconds for my breathing to return to normal and before I knew it I was asleep again.

She was standing by the kitchen counter, wearing her bathroom robe. She was wearing a couple of bunny sleepers that I had bought for her; she had found them funny and I thought she was going to wear them once or twice so I wouldn’t feel bad, but that was two years ago. The coffee maker in front of her was steaming, and as I approached I saw her reading something placed next to a couple of maps. Softly, I placed my hands around her waist and I pulled her closer giving her a kiss just below the ear.

‘Someone’s in a good mood,’ she said touching my cheek with her lips.

‘Mmm,’ I mumbled still holding her tight, ‘I thought we could go for tea and scones for breakfast. Then go exploring all those obscure bookshops downtown.’

‘You know I can’t,’ she said.

‘Take a day-off. Go wild,’ I said and I pulled her away from the counter, lifting her just a few feet in the air. She span around as soon as she landed and hugged me.

She kissed me and told me a simple ‘No,’ before turning back to pour the water into the cup. It was then that I noticed what she was reading. I lifted up the block of papers and gave out a little chuckle.

‘What’s this?’ I asked. ‘A bit of light reading in the morning?’ In my hand I held my only unpublished work.

‘I was looking for something,’ she said.

‘What? How to kill a demon in seven gruesome ways?’ I asked and laughed.

‘Last night,’ she said, ‘you spoke a name’. She took the sheets and turned the pages towards the beginning. ‘Sean,’ she said and pointed at the third page. ‘Sean Harbinger, the name of the main character.’

‘I know who he is, sweety.’

‘You said you were dreaming about him.’

‘Maybe,’ I told her. ‘So what?’

‘You don’t dream about all your other characters.’

‘Maybe I do and just don’t tell you.’

‘Nah-uh,’ was her only reply.

‘Maybe I have lots and lots of secrets that I don’t tell you,’ I teased her.

‘Oh really?’ she said in a high pitched voice. ‘What kind of secrets?’ she asked and poked me a couple of times below my armpits. One thing led to another and we found ourselves back in bed wearing only our socks. It was sweet and passionate and like all good things, overly brief.

Afterwards she hopped into the shower while I checked my emails. She then started dressing as fast as she could, running from one room to the other, trying to find her phone, her bag, her keys. She did not kiss me goodbye, and I did not blame her.

I walked back into the kitchen and made a cup of tea. I grabbed the manuscript that was left on the counter and went into my study, placing it in the bottom cupboard of my bookcase, along with a dozen of forgotten short stories. I rolled up a cigarette and began drinking my tea, thus starting the process of my daily routine.

Looking out the window towards the boardwalk and river buildings, I tried remembering what I had told her last night about Sean. I put out the cigarette in anger for being so careless and I instinctively started rolling another one. Harbinger was just a name I made up in case I ever published it. When I realized what I had written, I chose not to send it anywhere. I would burn it if I could, but it helped me make sense of things. It was a cleansing process. It is a cleansing process, writing. As if putting things on paper is the same as the ordering of thoughts, banishing them into the small cupboard of a bookcase.

His real name was Sean Cunningham; he was a Scotsman, with a mouth fouler than a sewer. He smoked a lot. Had a quick temper. He also saved my life, and hunted shadows for a living. Sometimes I think that it was all a dream, something that my overactive imagination had made up. All reason dictates that it could not be true, that the scars on my back were really delivered by a dog, a rabid dog with large claws that somehow jumped and mauled my body; that Sean was just a story I wrote, fifteen years ago, so livid and obscene that still haunted me today. Yeah, right. If only lies could keep the dark at bay.

I was sixteen at the time, living with my mom in the suburbs of an industrial town to the east. Kurt Cobain had just killed himself, the recession was coming to an end, the Labour party voted a new leader and I couldn’t care less for anything other than football. Like most teenagers, I guess, I was an annoying piece of shit, acting out any chance I got; stealing money from my mom’s purse in order to buy cigarettes and alcohol, and being a general nuisance to the neighbours.

Along with my mates, I spent the most of afternoons and evenings at the park. We teased each other, played football in teams of twos and competed in all things that mattered; knowledge on our home turf team, who has kissed the most girls, who has gotten more than a kiss (and if so, how many times), who could drink the most without being sick, etc., etc.

College had been just a year away but we never really discussed anything related to the future. It was an unspoken agreement. More fear than uncertainty I think. Half of us knew where we’d end up in the end. Those with fathers would work beside them, those with brothers the same and the rest of us would probably enlist in Her Majesty’s Royal Army. Truth is, I didn’t stand a chance; I was too short, too skinny and with an extra pair of eyes; but a boy could hope.

It was a misleading September afternoon. In the morning the sky had been without clouds, the sun shone sickly bright in the autumn breeze, and we found ourselves once more in the park verbally harassing girls. Without realizing it, the temperature had dropped at least five degrees, clouds began forming and a single heavy drop announced the following downpour. We were not wearing our anoraks, just our school blazers and as per usual did not carry any umbrellas. When the rain started hammering our naked heads, we scattered like ants on fire.

We shouted at each other, ‘see you tomorrow,’ or, ‘have a nice wetting,’ and so each of us took their way home. Charlie, Hal and Matt left together running towards the estate; Big Matt just had to walk a minute or two to his house which was to the north by the park, and I was left sprinting for cover with a bag over my head.

There was an alley I took most of the time in order to get home. It was next to an abandoned Anglican church, a downhill narrow road with trees and bushes on either side. It led to a cul-de-sac and from there into the freeway. I never took it after dark, instead opting to walk the main roads towards the traffic lights of the freeway. The alley led to the underground path below the road; a long corridor that occasionally had lighting, depending on whether the council decided to replace the broken bulbs.  I stood below a willow tree, which did not really stop the rain, but the hail instead that had just begun pounding the asphalt.

I knew it wasn’t so late, that we had been at the park only a couple of hours after the final school bell rang. Still, looking at the dimly lit entrance of the underground passage was enough for an unnatural fear to overwhelm me. I measured my options. Walking westbound ten whole minutes along the road in open space, with the rain and hail as annoying companions, then crossing the road, then walking another fifteen minutes eastbound to reach my house. Or, to push that irrational fear aside, stay out of the cold and rain for a couple of minutes, then walk a bit more and be home. I made the wrong choice.

The path was littered with broken glass; a sour smell seemed stuck to the walls and wet floor, a stench I came to associate with the underground trains of London on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Unlike other times, the corridor was not pulsing with little vibrations from the cars above. The air was warm and still, filled with the continuous beating of hail that echoed from beyond both exit and entry. It reminded me of coins trickling down the slots of a machine. A flickering light at the end signalled the distance I had to walk. Overall it wasn’t as menacing as I had imagined, so I just stood there for a bit, took off my blazer and squeezed it hard, getting rid of the excess water. The only sound besides the occasional car rumble and non-stop rain was that of my shoes, squeaking from the wetness with every step.

The light quivered frequently in untimed bursts; it was hard for me to see the exit, and I remember distinctly thinking that I needed new specs, but at the time, out of spite, I wasn’t on speaking terms with my mother. Suddenly I heard the faint echo of footsteps that were not mine, and a figure was visible in the opening ahead. I paused, out of reflexes, and the shape mimicked me. For a second I thought I was looking at myself, but quickly that illusion disappeared, with the light casting more detail with each flicker. My heart was pounding hard and fast, and fear crept up again inside me. Slowly, it disappeared as the light became more stable, and I realized that the figure was that of a girl.

I began walking, and the bulb played its old tricks again, hiding the girl from my sight for an instance. A moment later, when I could see her once more, she was standing slightly further inside the tunnel, or so I thought; the dimness was distorting my eyes I reasoned. Nevertheless, I strutted forward, a girl was a girl. But when the light went out and came on again, the same thing had happened; she had moved further, somehow, by lurching, by jumping, I could not tell. Her features were clearer at this point.

She must have been a couple of years younger than me. Black straight hair, wet. She was wearing some sort of school uniform, one I could not recognize; a short sleeved shirt, a ribboned tie, a skirt barely hiding her knees. She did not have a blazer on her, nor did she carry a bag. The wetness of her shirt made it stick to her body, toning her breasts, but she was not shaking like I was from the cold.

As I approached her, I could see her facial features better, her pale cheeks and pink pouting lips. Her expression was empty or at least disinterested. She did not move, and something inside me made me stop just a few feet away. She was not looking behind me or through me, as other people in this corridor often did, but looking at me, at my face, in my eyes.

I was about to speak, say hello, make a comment about her lack of clothes, ask her if she was cold, but she spoke first.

‘I am hungry,’ she told me, her voice a girl’s voice, as normal as a voice could be. Before the thought registered in my mind, before asking her if she would have liked to walk with me to the convenience store opposite my house, she jumped forward, moving so fast I could not comprehend what was happening. One second she was in front of me, and the next I could feel pain in multiple parts of my body.

She was holding my back, ripping through my shirt with her nails, cold, stone-like nails, and her teeth were in the fleshy part of my shoulders. I was paralyzed; I tried to scream but all that came out was a coughing rasp and blood; a faint spray of blood. I tried raising my right hand to pull her off, but with her left arm she pushed it down, and we fell to the floor. I felt the wetness in my hair, her nails deeper in my back, still gripping me tight, my arm pinned against her palm, with strength I did not know was possible for a girl.

The world was upside-down. I could see my glasses on the floor behind me through the tears escaping my eyes. I could see the roof of the tunnel, grey and filled with moisture, and I thought this would be the last thing I’ll ever see and for some reason I found it stupid, thinking like that. She smelled of leaves and wet dirt. I tried shouting once more but again, I couldn’t. The only sound was that of sucking as if through a straw.

My gaze fell again to my glasses, in this upside-down world, a pair of thin spectacles lying against the background of the tunnel leading to the entry I had taken only minutes before. The darkness of the entrance suddenly shifted, as if taking form. My vision was being mocked by short-sightedness and tears, blurring the darkness, giving it shape, the shape of a man in a black trench coat carrying something.

Someone shouted, I could not tell who at first. It was a gruff and coarse sound, a simple word, and she stopped, and part of the pain stopped, the one on my shoulder, and she raised her head and I heard a hiss and then I heard another coarse but longer sound, and then a thump; and the thing in the man’s hands shot something in a blur and the girl lunged backwards, her hand ripping and releasing my back at the same time.

Finally, I could breathe again, and I could hear better; the heavy footsteps of the man, the wailing of the girl. He passed beside me, ignoring me, never turning his head. I could tell he was big as he stepped ahead of me.  He just said, ‘Hang in there, lad,’ and removed something from his coat, and the real screaming began and the only thing I could do was turn to my side and cover my ear with only one hand and then, warmth. Unnatural, inconceivable warmth, and the rasping of flames and the screaming of the girl, penetrating my fingers and piercing my ears. Listening to her I felt a chill running through my body. I could swear that even if it was me who was on fire, I would still be able to feel that cold. All those influences, the sounds, the smell of charred meat, the cold and warmth, they were too much for me and I must have passed out.

I dreamt of my female schoolmates. Some were standing in front of me, looking at me, others were talking with each other, standing, being pretty. Then their faces began to change, all of them at once, their noses turned into snouts, their mouths crude slits filled with sharp teeth. I woke up, short of breath and wet with sweat and I was freezing and burning at the same time. A yellow light was making erratic shapes on the brown high walls and I heard a voice telling me to hang in there. Then I slept again, and had similar dreams, with similar interventions but most of them bordered between sleeping and delirium.

The next time I awoke, it was with an almost clear mind, during daytime, which day I could not tell. I was laying sideways, on my right side. There was a throbbing pain in most of my body, and my right arm was numb. I tried sitting up but couldn’t. The room I was in had a tall ceiling with four wooden pillars at its corners and one at its centre. It stank of urine. The slim rectangular windows were bordered up, only a few feint rays of light slipping through the hived openings.  At the other end of the room there was a short wooden table with a pile of clothes. When I squinted my eyes I could see brown unkempt hair sticking out at the end. On the floor next to the man was a bottle of water and a harpoon gun, like the ones they sell in fishing stores.

Before I could collect any remnants of rational thoughts that I may have had at the time, the pile of clothes moved, and the man stood up. He gave out a dried cough and got off the table.

‘You’re up,’ he said. He was still wearing that black coat, and was taller than I remembered. I grunted in reply. ‘Steady,’ he said as he approached. He knelt next to me and examined my back and shoulder. ‘You are lucky, lad. We are at the church near where I found you,’ he told me. His face was creased with lines and had a greyish stubble starting from his neck, going all the way below his eyes; brown eyes, normal eyes, with a slight hint of sleeplessness.

I tried asking him why, or what, or something similar but the words kept coming out as slurred whispers. He seemed to understand what I was trying to say. He sat back up, took out a pouch of tobacco and began rolling while he spoke.

‘You’ve been out for two days now. Your parents are probably looking for you along with the police. I could’ve left you there, but the docs wouldn’t know what to do. Usually you’d be dead by now, but you’re a strong wee lad.’ He paused to light up the cigarette, searching my face. Seeing that my confusion didn’t subside, he went on.

‘I call the thing that attacked you “shadow-people”. My mentor called them demons but I won’t dignify them as such. They are nasty bastards but nothing some iron and silver can’t solve.’

During the hours that followed he explained how he treated my wounds (‘with poison and some herbal shite’), how he had ended up here, the way he had tracked them; suspicious injuries and deaths, most probably caused by animals that don’t act like this, how in most cases, it’s probably an animal or just a freak accident. Then he went on about my cover story, how it is extremely important to keep quiet, for my safety but mostly his. How a dog attacked me, how I crawled in the rain into a couple of bushes and blacked out; how I couldn’t remember what had happened after that.

We stayed at the church for another two days, against my wishes. When I could stand up again, he started packing his things. We waited for the sun to set and walked outside, from the back of the building. He led me to his car, which was parked in the same cul-de-sac I crossed most days. He looked at the alley that led down the underground path, then turned to me and motioned to get in the car.

When we arrived near the house he told me that he should probably hold onto my bag. It’d be suspicious if I returned back with a story that I was too weak to remember but with a bag full of school books. He told me that he’d check out on me from time to time, to see if I had told anyone.

I rang the bell of my house and heard running footsteps towards the door. The door opened and my mom was standing there; it was both her instinct and mine to hug. She held me so tight that my back ached but I didn’t mind. I remember bursting into tears and apologizing. A couple of police officers came by soon with an ambulance. They took me to the hospital, told me that someone had treated me, but for the love of god I couldn’t remember anything other than the dog. The wounds agreed.

Afterwards I found myself hugging my mother more often. I stopped going out to the park every day. I even started studying, mostly mythology books from the library, but it seemed to help for it got me into college and after that to university. I drifted apart from my old friends. They had asked what had happened as well, but I told them I couldn’t remember. From time to time I received letters from various places along the country.

First they were short, issuing threats, warnings, always signed with typical names, John, Michael, Jack, always in the same handwriting. After a couple of those letters he gave me a mail box number that I could reply to. And I did. Sean told me some of his exploits, particularly tricky “cases”, what he knew about those things, he told me about his life, how he had no family, or friends, how his mentor had found him in pretty much the same way he had found me. But he and I are not the same he told me. He once came to visit me at university during my second year. He had a case he said, but I had been frequently scanning the newspapers for the telltale signs he warned me about, and I figured he came because he was lonely. His face had aged quite a bit since I had seen him all those years ago, but he somehow seemed more energetic.

He sent me a letter, some time after I graduated, telling me how proud he was, and also how all these years he believed these shadow-people were solitary creatures; but for the first time, he had found a nest. A couple of weeks after that letter arrived, I had a vivid dream of being chased around by three of those nasty bastards. I woke up crying, something I hadn’t done in a while. I picked up that letter and burned it, realizing that it was his last one.

The next day I packed my things, kissed my old mom goodbye, and flew to the driest, warmest place I could find. I began writing all the things I knew about Sean and his life, and found out in the process that I enjoyed it. So while writing about him, I finished some other stuff as well and sent them around. A few years later I met a cute personal assistant climbing her way up the publishing ladder and before I knew it, we were married and living in a house overlooking the sunny riverbank of a sunny little town.

It rains sometimes in the autumn and the winter.

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