A boy spat on a brick wall, thinking nothing of it. Or if thinking something of it, thinking, hope this is perceived as cool by my friends and I don’t accidentally spit on myself. Hope friends don’t see it if I do accidentally spit on myself. Really hope.
Then a scratchy but entirely comprehensible voice came from nowhere:
Hey, don’t spit there. You’re disturbing my slumber spitting there. I’m a shadow, a dormant shadow on the wall, and you’re spitting into the shade of the dark nightmare I’ve built for myself in solitude these so many years past, which is to say in layperson’s terms, you are disturbing my slumber.
The boy gazed down at his feet and saw that an oblong darkness, not a part of the shadow he cast but somehow attached to it and not attributable to any other oddity of the surrounding structures or terrain, was speaking to him, an open circle in the shadow through which light penetrated was moving in perfect rhythm with the voice speaking to him.
Startled and panicked after hearing these words and catching a glimpse of who, what, was speaking them, the boy began to run, far and fast, or at least that was how it had felt to him. He didn’t look cool at all while running, of that he was aware. He definitely wasn’t fast. He looked like he’d never received any formal instruction as to how to run in an efficient, practical way. His arms didn’t pump but swung to and fro pendulously, as though they were two dangling lengths of knotted rope, and his legs didn’t bend fully at the knees, which gave the appearance of a body running on stilts.
The shadow was still there. He hadn’t shaken it with his running, with what had felt like such dizzying speed. It again spoke.
I’ve been a shadow for a long time. And I’ve been undisturbed for a long time. My feeling is you need punishment for your crime of disturbing my slumber. Here’s what I’ve come up with. I’m yours now. You have a new shadow, and it is me. You cannot run and you cannot hide. For as long as you cast a shadow, I’ll be with you.
So, crap was. And it was that the boy now had inherited a shadow whose slumber he’d disturbed, through simple dumb chance. And the shadow purposefully kept ruining the boy’s life in weird ways. Often the shadow operated silently, crept into things that the boy cared about. Ruining holidays was easy. The shadow ruined many.
Shadowy turkey. Shadowy presents. Shadowy candy. Shadowy birthday balloons. Nothing fun about casting a shadow over all the festivities. Nobody liked that about him and suddenly he was even more of a social pariah than he’d ever been before.
The boy’s parents misinterpreted his plea, that he was being chased by a shadow, as a hyperbolic and metaphorical way of saying he was feeling depressed. They wanted him to see a psychiatrist and take whatever medicine the psychiatrist might prescribe. They wanted him to stop whining all the time, and stop being such a downer.
That’s why he first went to see Dr. Spaygo.
Dr. Spaygo had become an extremely dissatisfied man, a man who had been slowly sapped of any youthful enthusiasm and hope that might initially attract someone to his profession. It was taken from him by years of the more frustrating elements of his work: the seemingly endless cavalcade of people needing his help and many who never quite got well, the little impact his many mental and physical methods of treatment would usually have, how instead wellness always required prescription drugs, and the fact that most of his patients preferred it that way. He was weary. He was tired. He wished things were different. He tried to make himself care but could not. Going through the motions was the more appealing option. That was his state of mind before he started meeting with the boy named Alex.
“What brings you here, Alex?” Dr. Spaygo said, launching right into his usual script, hardly looking up at the boy, his new patient, whose malady sounded perhaps a bit more abstract but still no more interesting than the countless others he’d been subjected to over the years. Better to not look. Better to treat one patient no differently than the others.
The boy named Alex started to speak. “I dunno, I guess. I don’t know if I should be here. I’m here because my parents think I’m sad. But it’s only because I’ve got a shadow that’s attached itself to me, torturing me. And I mean that it’s real, a living and breathing shadow. It has a life. It talks to me.”
“Hmm, that’s somewhat unusual,” Dr. Spaygo said, pausing to sigh. “Do you feel different physically, mentally?”
“I don’t feel different except for the shadow. I feel the same in every other way.”
“And this, this shadow, does it tell you to do things?”
“No, it tells me what it’s going to do to me. It wants, like, revenge, I guess.”
That’s right I do, the shadow said.
“I’m sorry? You do voices?” Dr. Spaygo said. “Let’s please just use your normal voice.”
“No, that wasn’t me.”
“Ah,” Dr. Spaygo wrote notes regarding the very childish nature of this boy. Then, happily for him, after a period in which he called for absolute silence and nodded off, the session was already over. The day is half through, Dr. Spaygo thought.
I hope you do understand you’ve given me no choice, Alex. I was given no choice once you disturbed my slumber, the shadow said to Alex as the two walked home from Dr. Spaygo’s office. Where are your parents? Why haven’t they picked us up?
“You haven’t noticed they never do, from anything? I always have to walk home from wherever I go.” Alex said. “You haven’t noticed during all your time harassing me that nobody likes me and nobody cares?”
Well, I …
“Just don’t talk to me, ok? That’s not asking a lot I don’t think.”
But you admit you did disturb my slumber. And by now you know how much I enjoyed slumbering. And it’s hard to get back to slumbering, though I suppose I haven’t tried to get back to slumbering since you disturbed my slumber. I’ve been busy with other things, as you know, things related to exacting my revenge.
Alex might have answered the shadow, saying something pithy but effective like, “Whatever,” but he was preoccupied. He’d inadvertently entered the territory of a familiar gang of bullies who were presently beating the shit out of him.
Alex’s parents refused to hear the boy’s stories. They didn’t listen to him, while they were together at the dinner table that night after his first visit with Dr. Spaygo.
“Dr. Spaygo hasn’t fixed everything yet?” Alex’s father spat, impatiently, through a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
“Dear, these things take more than a single session,” his mother said, trying to convince herself of this. “Haven’t you heard that weird voice he does? Alex has some fairly strange views.”
“No, I don’t. Not really. If you’d listen,” Alex said, though he was hard to understand because his jaw was a bit swollen, still, because of how viciously the bullies had roughed him up earlier.
Alex’s parents didn’t hear him over their arguing, which steadily turned into an extremely toxic fight that ended with all of the dinner plates and most other dishes broken on the dining room floor.
Alex’s father had accidentally stabbed himself with a fork while banging on his chest and attempting to shout down Alex’s mother, who was expressing her frustration with him over his continued failure to organize his paperweights collection sitting in the garage.
His father drove himself to the emergency room.
Uh, um, that happened as part of my revenge. That was for disturbing my slumber, the shadow whispered to Alex while the boy cried. The shadow decided to leave the boy alone for a while.
Alex was at Dr. Spaygo’s office for their latest session. Some weeks, no months, had passed since they started their time together. Visible dark rings had formed around Alex’s eyes. Dr. Spaygo saw the puffy weakness in the boy’s face and found himself keenly revolted by it.
“So, Alex, how has the medication been working?” Dr. Spaygo said, feeling strangely energized by his newfound revulsion.
When Alex finally said that it wasn’t working, that none of the medication had done anything to get rid of his shadow, Dr. Spaygo announced they were going to try a new approach. This new approach was unique but only because Alex’s problem was unique.
Dr. Spaygo had been observing and documenting Alex’s verbal tics displayed during their sessions, and he realized they were more significant than a manifestation of existential despair. Alex might be showing early signs of schizophrenia, or the situation might somehow be worse than that, perhaps in defiance of any immediately explainable medical condition. It had certainly gotten Dr. Spaygo’s attention, regardless.
Perhaps it was a little overzealous and certainly it was unethical, but Dr. Spaygo had built a chamber that could be flooded completely with light. The doctor imagined that if no shadow were capable of being cast, free of the encumbrance, the boy might be cured. Alternatively, if he kept Alex in the chamber for too long, it might destroy the boy, sending him spiraling into a state of total insanity.
Dr. Spaygo wasn’t sure if he was risking harming the boy on purpose. Put it out of mind, he thought, and then he did exactly that.
He had Alex sit on a clear acrylic chair in the middle of the chamber. The boy’s shadow was muttering weirdly, laughing about something, always needling the boy, although in recent sessions it had taken to directing its insults toward him, as well.
Then the doctor left and the room was awash in illumination, which filled the room from every direction. And the boy sat perfectly still. From outside, through several fiber optic cameras, Dr. Spaygo observed the boy. “He hasn’t gone nuts yet,” he said to himself. He made a mental note not to speak aloud to himself about the boy’s precarious situation. It would be better for him to avoid revealing in any form, verbal or otherwise, that he was aware his experiment was dangerous.
Alex’s parents didn’t call Dr. Spaygo’s office that evening wondering what had become of their son. There’d been another fight. Their house burned to its foundation. Alex’s parents survived but were very badly injured and both were taken to an ICU, as well as technically into police custody. No one had wondered about the missing child. It was a stroke of luck for Dr. Spaygo, who assumed he’d have no trouble explaining the boy’s treatment to the parents, were they to have inquired, but he was just as glad not to have to explain anything at all.
And some time the next day, after leaving the boy — hungry, sleep-deprived and dehydrated — overnight, Dr. Spaygo returned. That should be enough time, he thought, turning off the light inside the chamber.
He opened the door and peered inside the room. His eyes widened after adjusting to the darkness. “Alex, Alex are you ready to come out now? How do you feel, physically, mentally, emotionally?”
His words were met with silence.
Then, some voice from the dark, said, “Why did you disturb my slumber, doctor?”
A crashing and all at once Dr. Spaygo realized there wasn’t any time to think things through, to stop what was coming. Dr. Spaygo had felt his body become all tangled, tangled up in what appeared to be a shadow.
He was manacled by a force he couldn’t wrest his arms free of or stamp and kick away from, and then the light was abruptly extinguished. The doctor’s problem resolved itself.
Alex exited the chamber. The doctor hadn’t let him slumber even a minute, he thought. But he was beginning to feel the positive effects of his treatment. He left Dr. Spaygo’s office and was soon outside again.
There was a bright sun up in the sky that day. Alex studied the shadow he cast on the lawns as he walked along the sidewalk. It was as though he were staring at his own reflection in a shallow pool.
And again, he came across that gang of bullies that had given him so much grief in the past.
His eyes darkened.
The world around him darkened, too.
Alex said, “You’re all disturbing my slumber. You’re all going to really, really wish you hadn’t.”
Matt Rowan lives in Los Angeles. He currently edits Untoward Magazine. He's author of two story collections, Big Venerable (CCLaP, 2015), Why God Why (Love Symbol Press, 2013) and another, How the Moon Works, forthcoming from Cobalt Press in 2020. He's also a contributing writer and voice actor for The Host podcast series. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in TRNSFR, >kill author, Always Crashing, Grimoire, Pacifica Literary Review, Booth Journal, Necessary Fiction, and Gigantic Worlds Anthology, among others. Image: Schlemihl's Encounter with the Shadow, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1915)