Shadow Dance

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Digger Drew’s Tale

Once in the car, I turned the key in the ignition and let the engine warm up to smoothly humming life. I removed the cassette and tossed the rest onto the passenger seat. It went into the player with the smooth click/whirr that had become a part of my nightly routine. The auto play engaged and I set it on top of the folder, pulled out of my driveway, and headed for Clover Field with their voices droning in my ears.

Jensen: “This is a recording of Session #64 with Patient Johnathan Drew Carter. Are you ready to begin, Drew?”

Carter: “Why do you keep seeing me, Doc? Your job is done. I’m committed, locked away, and the world safe for all mankind.”

Jensen: “For your fascinating company?”

Carter: “You don’t think I’m a lost cause?”

Jensen: “Very few human beings truly are.”

Carter: “Wow. I think you actually believe that.”

Jensen: “Anybody in this job who doesn’t is wasting his or her time.”

Carter: “OK, Doc. Let’s test your theory. Ever see Hitchcock’s The Birds? There’s a bar scene where an old lady talks about how many millions of birds there are in the world. It’s not just birds you know, it’s other animals, bugs, even sealife. Have you ever wondered what happens to all those bodies when they die?”

Jensen: “Can’t say that it ever occurred to me to wonder about. I take it you have?”

Carter: “My father explained it to me when I was fourteen. Many bodies go the way of predators or scavengers, some are roadkill, the ones that were pets die in a loving home or under the care of a vet. All of these have one thing in common, their bodies were before living eyes in the moment life departed.

“But many, many more things die unseen. Hundreds of thousands of corpses of all kinds drop and rot every day. Where’s the stench, the disease, the contamination?”

Jensen: “It’s a big world, Drew, and natural decomposition…”

Carter: “They are seen decomposing, and the world isn’t that big. It’s the Dancers.”

Jensen: “Who are the Dancers?”

Carter: “What. I’m not sure I should tell you. You’ve never seen my list, have you Doc.”

Jensen: “No. I filed a request for the relevant files weeks ago but I’m still waiting for the court to process my request. Bureaucracy at its best.”

Carter: “Pity, you’ll find it most … interesting. Oh, why not? You won’t believe me anyway. This is what my father told me when he learned I could see them too. The Dancers have existed from the instant of creation. They only manifest to complete their one task, to clear away the dead the natural order misses. Otherwise, they are unseen and unmarked by any living being. One day a child was born who could see them. Dark and silent, as small as a mouse or as large as a raccoon, the creatures lived on the outskirts of his village, glimpsed among the crops, in corners, unremarked. Wise beyond his years, the boy didn’t tell anyone what he saw. He didn’t have the words or experience to describe them for one thing. His people probably would have burned or stoned him for a witch or driven him out as mad if he’d tried, for they were an illogical combination of features more hideous than a nightmare’s worst conjuring. Yet they moved with a grace like nothing or no one the boy had ever seen. Maybe it was a kind of compensation from evolution or whatever. They seemed harmless enough and were darkly fascinating to watch. The boy accepted them as part of his world and named the creatures Dancers.

“Sightings were few and far between for a long time. He was nearly a man before he saw his first shadow dance. A group of seven of the normally solitary things had clustered around an old tinker, flitting in and out of his shadow in a bizarre rhythmic pattern. My ancestor had never seen such behavior before. He sensed they were waiting, watching for something. Curiosity overwhelmed caution, spurring him on to follow the tinker as he pushed his cart down the road toward the next village, unaware of his eerie entourage. The boy kept himself hidden in the scruff growing along the gutter, saved by instinct.

“So he was witness when the old man staggered, gasped, and fell to the ground. He became the first human to see what the Dancers do and live. It horrified and sickened him how they changed, what they did, but there was nothing he could do. He went home and did his best to live with the memories and vowed never to follow the creatures again.

“Time passed and he left his village to see what the rest of the world held. He met a girl as quiet as he, with a pretty smile that blossomed only for him, and tried his hand at courting. They wed, built a home, and began their family. While on a moonlight walk with his wife, one of the creatures crossed the field ahead of them. He turned to her and realized that she had seen it too.

“In the quiet of their bedroom, whispering so the babe sleeping in the nearby crib remained so, the couple shared childhood stories. They agreed to continue keeping what they were, what they saw, a secret. In time, she bore him more children, some of whom bore the gift. Each was told the story of the tinker and made to swear secrecy and to never, ever follow a Dance. Those children obeyed, grew up, wed and had children of their own. Over the decades my predecessors migrated until our blood was on every continent. The cycle repeated generation after generation through the ages. They watched what no one else could see, learned, and taught each new generation. And each generation was safe, the secret unbroken.

“But then two sisters were born with the vision who did not learn caution. Perhaps the firstborn, Beth, developed too early so their parents weren’t watching for the signs. She learned much as the first ancestor did, then taught her baby sister Mara. For them it was a kind of game, the creatures fascinating. By the time their parents realized they had the gift and began formal training, the sisters had learned things the adults didn’t know. They began to think themselves wiser than their parents and believed their warnings didn’t apply to them, so did not fear as they should have. They avoided disaster for a long time because they worked as a team, each guarding the other when they encountered a shadow dancer. But luck only holds for so long.

“They were friends with a young girl in their village who was wedding the head man’s son. Tradition required the girls and maidens assist the bride in garbing for her wedding and escort her to the place where she must wait alone for her soon-to-be husband to fetch her to their new home.

“Giggling and gossiping, they helped her into her wedding gown. The sisters were honored to be the ones to settle a crown of lace and red roses atop her long black hair to hold her veil in place. As the girl spun in delight until she was dizzy over her transformation and Mara and the other girls cheered and complimented her, the elder sister Beth stepped back to lean against the wall by the window. She didn’t follow when the group left to make the processional journey. She told everyone to go ahead, she’d catch up after she straightened the room. Caught up in the fun, Mara didn’t question. When Beth missed the wedding, Mara assured everyone she was coming soon. When she didn’t join the procession, the worry started. The panic building in her chest as the feast wore on faded away as Beth slipped into the seat next to her. On the verge of demanding what had taken so long, she felt her sister grasp and squeeze her hand, a silent plea. So much pain and grief and fear in the eyes that stared into hers. Mara offered her sister some of her cake, which she took but didn’t touch, and kept her questions to herself. The answers came soon enough when the best man disrupted the celebrations and called for silence to make the tragic announcement.

“The bride had been found dead at the waiting place, not a mark on her. Joy turned to mourning, but acceptance would come fairly quickly, for in those days Death was a constant companion, claiming many lives, young and old, with no rhyme or reason. Watching her sister on the long wagon ride home, Mara knew something was wrong. Once alone in their attic bedroom, she learned what she didn’t want to know.

“Beth had seen the Dancers weaving in and out of the bride’s shadow beneath her petticoats as she spun. This wasn’t a stranger or someone in the long ago cautionary tales their parents told them. This was their friend and Mara couldn’t let it happen to her. So she’d snuck back to the waiting place and convinced Lili to let her stay nearby until the men’s procession came. The Dancers stopped moving in and out of the girl’s shadow and began to appear in the deep shade of the surrounding trees. Beth’s gamble paid off. The creatures stayed away while their prey was not alone. But she did not save her friend. At the sound of the men approaching, Lili stood up to greet her new husband. She went white as a sheet and collapsed. Beth just managed to conceal herself in the woods before the groom entered the small clearing. He collapsed to his knees beside his bride, gathered her desperately into his arms. His head fell back as he wailed his grief. While the others rushed to try and help, Beth, half blinded by her own grief, made her escape. And made a fatal mistake.

“Shaking, she rolled up the sleeve on her left arm to expose a blossoming pattern of bruising from elbow to wrist. She wasn’t paying close attention as she ran down the narrow trail through the forest toward the village. A Dancer stepped into her path and Beth couldn’t control her startle reaction. Eyes met and locked. They knew she could see them. They tried to take her down. Beth speculated that she only got away because the Dancers had no experience with prey that fought back. But they promised her, their words throbbing in her brain, her heart, in the marrow of her bones. She was theirs. They would find her alone one day and rip out her eyes so she’d never see them again. Tear out her tongue so she could never reveal what she should not know, rend her flesh, devour her while she screamed, and scatter the bits that remained where no one or thing could find them.

“Mara held her sister through the night and in the morning told their parents what happened. Her family watched her and never left her alone and it worked for several weeks. But Beth began to waste away, drained by more and more of the creatures swarming in her shadow, the voices that haunted her day and night, and the strain of unending vigilance. Until one evening she simply wasn’t there. Their father rode to the little church to rouse the priest. They rang the bell to summon the men and organized a search. They went through all the steps expected when someone goes missing, all the while knowing they would never find her.

“It is believed that Beth let them take her before the Dancers realized she wasn’t the only one who could see them. Without a body, her family decided to bury her wedding dress, lovingly made over long winters and stored in her hope chest. When they went to fetch it, they found a note in Beth’s handwriting hidden within its folds. It listed the rules by which most of my family has lived ever since. Rule #1: Never interfere with the Shadow Dance. Rule #2: Discuss the Dancers with no one who cannot also see. Rule #3: Never gaze into the eyes of a Dancer. Rule #4. If they find you out, never allow yourself to die alone.

“My ancestors learned the hard way that no one is supposed to know about the Dancers. What they do to the corpses they take is horrific, but what faces a living victim is far worse. And they heeded the lessons of Beth’s fate. Until my great-grandfather came along. He was the first to make the exception. He decided to ignore Rule #1 for the lesson his predecessors had ignored. While we couldn’t save them, for death was their fate, if prey died under the eyes of another living being, they were denied to the Dancers.”

Jensen: “Are you saying that you killed your victims to spare their bodies from being desecrated by this Shadow Dance? That your family has been stalking and murdering people for, what…?”

Carter: “Ninety-three years, and only those of us who could see. I was the best of my kin. And it’s not murder if they were basically walking dead anyway.”

Jensen: “How did you come up with your list? From what you’ve said the Dancers’ victims die soon after the dance begins. How could you know who they are after far enough in advance to interfere?”

Carter: “Hah! You’re paying attention. Dancers are normally solitary beings. They only come together when a shadow dance is imminent. There are signs that precede a gathering if you know what to look for. Inconsequential things on their own, but revealing when put together like a puzzle. They happen over a period of weeks, then sightings become more frequent, one or two at first but more and more until it feels like they are everywhere. I had to concentrate hard to not be seen “seeing” them. Then it’s as if a bell goes off. They vanish into the person’s shadow and the dance begins. Nothing in our family stories explains how they know who is going to die in a way that makes them prey, or when. But my great grandfather learned the signs and the knowledge came down each generation so that we could take advantage and beat them to their victims.

“We can make our move between the time the beasts begin to congregate around their prey to wait for the right moment and the moment they move into their shadows. It’s a pretty narrow window. Sometimes we were too late, because once the dance starts it’s too risky to get close enough to do anything. If even one of them sees you watching, your run is over. People who can see them aren’t supposed to exist, so they will make sure you don’t anymore.

“My mistake was being too good apparently. I saved enough people from the Dancers that they noticed. Maybe I should have moved around instead of settling here the way I did, but I got lazy. Overconfident. Anyway, they laid a trap for me using the man whose body landed me here. But this time some of them hid themselves in his shadow days, maybe weeks early. They waited for me to kill him. In the instant he died, they rose out of his shadow, and caught me off guard. I wasn’t able to avoid eye contact. They know I can see them now.

Jensen: “But you’re still alive. Why didn’t they kill you when they caught you?”

Carter: “It was creepy, Doc. They surrounded me and were closing in. I was ready to fight for my life. I remembered the stories and figured I was dead. But they stopped just short of touching me. Then there were all these voices in my head saying the same thing, describing how I was going to die. I watched them one by one step on my shadow and sink into it. The Dancers have been haunting me ever since, peeking out to torment me with their promises while they wait. It’s like cats with a mouse. They will play with me until they tire of the game. But I won’t make it easy for them.

“I’ve made sure to be in sight of someone ever since that day. Not easy, believe me. Technology actually helps. Ten years ago, they’d have taken me by now. I let myself be caught in order to stay alive, even though that means I have left the rest of the people on my list to the Dancers. That’s what makes me a lost cause. I don’t give a damn about them now that my life’s on the line.”

Jensen: “Aren’t there others out there to take over for you?”

Carter: “In other words, do I have an accomplice out there? Not very subtle, Doc. No. It was just my father and me until he died of heart disease eleven years ago now. Once I’m gone, there will be no more Carters, no one to take over our mission. My family became outcast for risking exposure by breaking the first Rule. I’m fairly certain there are others of my kin in the world still who can see them, but either they have been taught and follow the original Rules or they wake to the gift outside the family, and those poor souls likely die under the claws of the first Dancer they see. Who knows? Maybe that book you’re working on will be a best seller and some of them will read it and learn how to survive.”

Jensen: “I’m not....”

Carter: “Relax, we both know that’s the main reason you took on my case. Why should I mind? We each of us is using the other so there’s nothing to complain about. Get your hands on that court box as soon as you can, Doc. There’s juicy stuff in there that you can use. I believe my list will give you some serious insights. Well, I’ve said what I came to say. See you next week, maybe.”

Jensen: “Drew, wait.

Carter: “Nope, I’m done.

Jensen: “Our session isn’t over for another….”

The sound of voices and footsteps moving away faded to the static crackle of tape trying to record sound that wasn’t there. Damn, I muttered to myself. A family of serial killers raised on a mythos that justified their crimes. Jensen must have been on cloud nine thinking of his next book based on the incredible case of Johnathan Drew Carter, aka Digger Drew.

Before I could shut off the tape, Jensen’s voice returned.

Addendum: It’s three days since this session. I found a letter from Drew in my mail. In it he says he has come to like me and wanted to apologize while he could to my family and friends for not doing better by me. I’m not sure what to take from this, is it a veiled threat or a warning? Or is he messing with me? I’ve move up our next session to tomorrow morning. After that, if warranted, I’ll take it to the police.

None of that ever happened. This was the last tape in the Carter file and if the police had been informed about the letter, their investigation of Jensen’s disappearance would have been laser focused on Carter from day one. When I get home, I’ll have to dig it out and turn it over to the investigators.

I set the tape to rewind and turned on my radio. Oldies replaced the voices for the rest of the trip but weren’t enough to distract my thoughts from circling around everything I had just learned.

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