The Light Doesn't Fall Like It Used To
TW: death, funerals, dissection, suicidal ideation, gaslighting.
Reverse hopscotch is nothing if not an exercise in nostalgia. You divine your future in chalk, streak the dust across your jumper, and close your eyes tight. One shoe on the pavement, then two. You make progress but don't look the future in the eyes. One. Your head is on the ground and your body is kept warm by flickers of pain. Your shadow snakes away, lounging under the basketball hoop with its tail flicking from side to side. Someone yells your name from the other end of this wasteland of a playground. When you are brought inside, your shadow reluctantly rouses and slinks beneath the metal door, dutifully following you to the end of the world and back.
After ten minutes, you quietly ask to be sent home. The nurse sternly tells you to stop shaking and mouthing I want to leave I want to leave I want to as she bandages your knee, holding your ankle firmly. The receptionist has a phone tucked between her ear and shoulder as she scrawls on early dismissal slips. You know they are not for you — Aunty comes home late — and press your lips together.
You shift. The distance between you and the door may as well be a sea. You can barely stumble to your feet before the nurse is lifting your leg back onto the cot. She leans over you, forehead wrinkled and eyeliner smudged, before patting your head. When she leaves, you stare at the ceiling and consider feigning death.
The bus lets you off at the yawning mouth of the apartment complex. The trees are limp, sleeping in the distance. Someone is singing an old, hollow tune with the wind, but you don't see them. After the bus's groans are lost in the distance, the song fades and the apartment complex is quiet once more. Everything is vacant, save for the man from 31B, smoking on his porch. When he sees you, he lets his cigarette dangle between his fingers. He coughs, softly at first, and his shadow skitters back into his apartment unit, frightened. It is not the first time you've seen the man, but you never noticed how every shadow writhed beneath his old, black sneakers.
He looks straight at you and your shadow behaves as it should, a ward of the sun.
You climb up the stairs and Aunty is blathering on the telephone, stirring the ginger tea in the kitchenette as she asks whether she should buy the red dress or the green one. Aunty flicks her eyes towards you as you kick off your shoes, pointing to your leg. You mime collapsing and she gives you a thumbs up and an aggressive head nod.
"Ah, yes Sarika. I think I'll uh... I'll go with the red."
That night, when you lie in your bedroom, everything is so dark. You wonder if the ghost of this apartment will devour you next.
Aunty will not call you delusional to your face. She will only cite that, after the funeral, you fainted at your mother's grave because you thought you saw the forest twitch as you read her name out loud.
That night, you woke up with an itch in your throat. For the first time, your shadow was watching you, following you back to the van. Aunty had fallen asleep at the wheel — it was late and she'd woken up early. When you told her what had happened, she grabbed you by the wrist and sank her nails in deep. For once, I could see her fear — her lips were quivering, fingers shaky. She pulled you into her chest and you stayed there, as the crickets chirped and the streetlights flickered.
There are ambulances outside and no one knows who has died. It doesn't matter to us, we think, but Aunty says the place smells different now. Sometimes, she is right — the laundry lines used to smell more floral and cinnamon no longer wafts through the corridors — but other times, I think we are just telling stories as an apology for forgetting the truth.
Aunty thinks shadows who sleep on the furniture and whine for attention should not exist. She advises you to lock yours in the empty china cupboard she bought from a yard sale years ago. She sees shadows the same way she sees dogs: to keep us company, to be tamed. No one breeds shadows, you tell Aunty. They aren't pets. Aunty shrugs. She has never seen a shadow quite like yours, and she doesn't care for them much, anyways.
"You know...." She sips her tea and stares at the women on the television. For a second, you think she has forgotten she was speaking, so you snap your fingers in front of her face. She slaps your hand away and clicks her tongue. "I don't believe in this uh magic business, you know? It's very stupid." She pauses. You can tell she is hesitant to speak, but she continues regardless. "Remember that woman who lived downstairs? When uh... her daughters went missing, she gave all her money to this scam man who said he would find her. He had no proof, no nothing. But he took her money. He took everything."
You didn't know this. You thought you hadn't seen her because she was grieving. "Is she okay?"
"She left. I don't know where she is. I called her, once. Nothing." Aunty closes her eyes and drinks her tea in a single, long breath. "Anyways. I found someone."
"To date?" You raise an eyebrow. She feigns laughter.
"No. He, uh, lo-bo-to-mi-zes—" You can tell she has been practicing this word lately. "—shadows. Not the normal kind, you know. More like the ones who cause problems." You cross your arms, raise your eyebrows — this apartment complex cycles myths like moons, but Aunty is a skeptic. Aunty mentions he is a doctor, not a mystic. She lifts your arm above your head and sees your shadow recede, hissing and tail pointed. "Do you really want to live with that pest, forever?"
You tell her that it doesn't bother you and your shadow nuzzles you in a brief show of affection. You stroke her back for a moment, as Aunty stares at it venomously before turning to the television. You watch The Real Housewives of Atlanta and she pinches you until your shadow has run off, whimpering. She presses your head into her shoulder and you close your eyes.
When Aunty finds you in bed with a long shadow smothering you, she tells the complex you were murdered. Aunty doesn't understand that your mother's child is sitting in your throat, nursery rhymes and grocery lists and pinched skin. You've been swallowing her words for a year now, and she is tired of waiting in your throat.
In truth, you are undead, somewhere between the incubator and the mattress. You are still in your room, but you can hear Aunty on the phone. She is speaking so loudly that the windows are shuddering. Sometimes, you think that even the building is tired of being quieted.
The next day, you tell Aunty to stop. This is insane, you say, gesturing to the vials and the silver crosses. Her face pales and you keep speaking, even as you watch her fists clench. You say your shadows are normal, good even. After you are finished reeling with your hand over your cheek, Aunty says she is so sorry so many times you feel as if you have no choice to believe her. She reaches for you, but you push her away. You both cry for hours without remorse.
You lean out of the window with your palms facing the pavement. You are gripping your window frame for dear life. Your eyes are stinging — the man from 31B has started smoking again — and you convince yourself that is the only reason you are crying. He looks at you and speaks for the first time, gravelly and morose.
"Go to bed." You look at him incredulously, but close the window.
You knew you weren't going to fly. You were always too scared to try.
When you try to pack your clothes and leave, she deadbolts you in your room. This time, she does not apologize. You gauge the distance from the window to the pavement. If you jumped, you wonder what a fourth of the way down would feel like in your stomach, if you would scream or not. Your musings are cut short by a buzz and Aunty invites the two strangers in.
After Aunty gives them tea and biscuits and your life story as she sees it, the priest and the man from 31B open all the windows, switch on every bulb. You ask them why, but they cannot hear you over their own heaving. The man from 31B will not look at you for the first hour. There is a needle and then there is numbness. Your throat is neatly sliced open to find another squirming, black shadow, much smaller than the one who follows you to school. The man asks you whose shadow you are carrying and you stare, fish-eyed. He says, more to himself and Aunty than you, that he is giving you a future.
The priest asks to perform his treatment first and the man from 31B shrugs. The young priest asks if this was fate or curse. He is scrawling something down, even as Aunty shrugs her shoulders and refuses to turn to me. He tells her that exorcisms only work on unholy grief, a manipulation of destiny. He sounds as if he is reciting a research paper, listing specific preconditions that must be met for such a procedure. The man from 31B is noticeably unimpressed — he raises his thick eyebrows at the priest every time he says fate — but he tolerates the blathering. The priest says, There are no divine accidents and the man laughs, still staring through the window. If Gods were real, he says offhandedly, they'd have to be high, right? So they could look at us without sobbing. The priest gawks at him before dismissively waving a hand and continuing.
The priest says to repeat his droning hymns. You can only muster up the sound of air traveling through hollows. He tells you he doesn't accept the testimony of the diseased, but you like to pretend he hears the ghosts on the dresser, dangling naked from the fan. He, like you, is not alive enough to differentiate his shadow from his father's. He tries, regardless.
The man pulls a long needle from his bag and points it at the shadow. The shadow whimpers, then screams for the first time. As he clips the shadow into disconnected hemispheres, you know he feels it, too — the ghosts forming in his jaw.
The man from 31B chews on sunflower seeds as you feel tears dry. You are so numb you do not remember what crying feels like. He puts the shadow into a jar of light blue fluid and begins to stitch you up.
Aunty feeds you toast and tea after the operation and wonders why you are so limp against her body. Still, she is unconcerned, marveling at the thin stitches on your neck, the only remnant of the procedure. Your shadow is whining on the couch, half paralyzed. It senses it, too, you think. The loss of loss.
The man from 31B watches baseball with the spectres, cigarette smoke swirling across his television set like a storm. His wife comes home from the diner and takes off her apron. "How was work?" she asks. He scratches his head and looks at the bloodied rags in the kitchen sink.
"You know I hate it." She collapses on the beat-up recliner.
"Yeah," she says. "But you're good at it. You're doing the right thing." She has said this a thousand times and the man is only half-convinced that she tells him the truth. The television turns off with a soft blip and he sighs deeply. He walks up to one of the cabinets in the living room and opens the fifth drawer. The worm is sleeping, dormant in the container.
"I'm gonna give it back, Laura."
Laura arches her eyebrows — usually, their conversations about work end at money and brief, meaningless affirmations. "That's a breach of contract, right?"
"She needs to have this. I-I can't keep this."
"She isn't ready for it."
"She'll never be ready!" He slams his hand against the cabinet and the jars rattle. Silence. The jar is heavy in his hand. "You know that," he mumbles apologetically.
"You know how I almost got my shadow sterilized when I was younger. If it didn't die naturally, what the hell should I have done?" Laura fumbles with the lighter, clicking it a few times before it blazes to life. "I could have died. She could have died but she is still alive. You should be grateful."
"I don't know." He can hear Laura choke on smoke and sardonic laughter. "I wouldn't be alive without mine, though. Not really, anyways."
They sit in silence for a moment. Laura flicks the cigarette into the ashtray and stretches with one hand bracing her back.
"So. What do you want for dinner?"
It is said that when you meet your lost shadow, you are startled by the familiarity of its anger. You would know: you cried for days when the man from 31B brought you a jar with your mother's vision for her child. God, she was so small, so beautiful. You do not leave your room for days.
Aunty calls you over the phone when she realizes what he's done. Aunty screams. You're sure the neighbors are dialing the landlord with complaints, but Aunty is stomping across the living room. I knew you weren't ready to leave. You need me. Fuck! You hear the empty cabinet shudder. Why did I let you leave? I knew you weren't ready. You tell her she is wrong, again and again, and she hangs up the cherry red phone. You do not know if she will call you again. Your shadow is watching you so quietly you can hear your heart skittering across the pavement.
In the end, you sit on the patio of the little house with your shadows, watching the children of the block play hopscotch. The blonde girl with twin pigtails and a flushed face starts with a foot on one, uses both her feet on two and three. Your shadows are staring into the sunset. For the first time, you are asking for tomorrow.
Miriam Alex is a seventeen-year-old from southern New Hampshire. Her work is forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins and Uncanny Magazine. She hopes you have a wonderful day.