In the Shadows of Men
Fifteen-year-old Jerry Ferny opened the blinds just a crack and looked out into the street from his living room window. He waited in silence, biting down on his lip, trying to stop it from quivering due to extreme fear. It was midday in the middle of June. The usual bright daylight hid behind a surge of turbulent grey storm clouds overhead. After a few tense seconds of glancing around for anything suspicious, Jerry slowly closed the gap and then every so deftly sealed it up with sticky tape. He then turned from the window and sighed with relief.
“Well?” Ludwig Spiegel nervously fidgeted with his glasses and started to stutter, “A-anyone, or anything out t-there?”
“Not that I can tell,” Jerry turned back and scratched the side of his nose. “But that doesn’t mean nothing’s out there.”
“So, why not just send out the sauerkraut,” William Moore checked the heft of his father’s King Cobra revolver, then pointed at Ludwig’s direction. “Then, if there’s something out there-” He made a kapow sound and held the pistol up.
“Will…” Jerry spoke with a warning in his voice. “Cut it out, man, and put that gun away. Sit down and shut the Hell up.”
“What?” William smirked, “I was just messing around with him—that’s all. Right, Spiegel?” William took away the pistol and flopped down on the chair across from Ludwig, wearing a shit-eating grin. But no one else in the room shared his view of something as funny as blowing some young man’s brains out of the back of his head. Even as a joke.
Ludwig flopped down on the couch and looked down at the schematics he drew out on the coffee table. “We could try to get over to my house. I know my father’s car is still in the garage. He left it b-behind when he enlisted.”
“Think of the ruckus that’ll make,” Jerry shook his head. “Naw, it’s just too risky. Those things would be on us in a second, and it isn’t even nightfall yet. It’s just dark enough for them to get around.”
“Still far better than just staying trapped in here,” Ludwig looked around, agitated by any sound he heard.
“I knew we should’ve left with the others-” William pushed up of the chair and started to pace. He kept his hand on his father’s gun as if itching to shoot at something or someone. “I know we’ve been friends for like forever, Jerry, but I never agree to all this. I should’ve gone when the others left. It was a stupid idea for any of us to stay behind.”
“Ain’t no sense in going on about spilled milk. What’s done is done, so let’s just leave it at that.” Jerry held his back to the closed window, but that didn’t stop the creepy feeling that was coldly fingering down his spine. Any shadow he spotted outside was enough to give him the jitters. “We either hit the road ’for nightfall, or we find a way to stay here and hold up till-”
“What the heck for?” William scoffed with a snort. “Ain’t nobody ever comes to this shit hole town as it is. People started leaving here the minute it got bad. The first sign was when all those weird mining accidents started happening, and then those damn creepy shadow things started showing up like a boogie man.”
“Nobody twisted your arm, William. You know full well why I had to stay behind,” Jerry felt his anger bubbling up, and then it dissipated as quickly as it flared. “I couldn’t just leave momma all by herself.” He stole a peek up at his parent’s bedroom door. They had tried to plug up the smell of rot with a wet towel stuffed under the gap between the door and the hardwood tile flooring. But even that did nothing.
“S-so, Jerry?” Ludwig stood up, stuttering but forced out, “s-so what’s your p-plan?”
“I say…” Jerry furrowed his brow in thought before he spoke. “We should all vote to either stay, or we leave here for good. But like I was trying to say, if we’re gonna stay, we’ll be damn lucky to last past winter. But without supplies like wood for the stove, we’d freeze to death, and without rations or clean water, we’ll be too weak to escape.” William scratched at his head. “So if we’re gonna leave, I say we gonna do it soon. Like real soon, before we all lose our nerve.”
“I say by early dawn,” Ludwig offered, “if not by car, then it will have to be by foot. Plus, it’s at least a forty-mile hike to the nearest town.”
“That’s if the other town doesn’t have the same problem as we did.” William nodded his head to Jerry’s parent’s room. “So…whaddaya say to the idea that before we leave here, we have ourselves here a real Viking send-off for your ma? I got the matches, and all we need is some gasoline.”
“Mein Gott,” Ludwig shook his head in disgust, “you can’t be serious?”
“Yeah,” William snorted. “Shall I remind you of what the sauerkrauts did to the bodies after gassing all those Jews in their concentration camps?”
Ludwig pushed up his glasses and took great offense, “For your information, my mother, she was Jewish. Why do you think we came all the way overseas to America, you schweinhund—to see the New York Yankees play?”
“What did you just call me?” William’s feathers were ruffled and got close enough to Ludwig’s face to fog his glasses. With a face so red, He looked about ready to start pounding. He shoved Ludwig back so that his ass landed on the couch.
“Hey!” Jerry yelled at the two. “All that bickering and arguing is getting tiresome. So just shut the Hell up, both of you, okay? Just stop-”
“Jerry,” Ludwig stopped and looked paler than usual.
“And don’t you start-” Jerry couldn’t stop himself.
Ludwig and William bickered like a couple on the verge of a bitter divorce for two months now while his mother was slowly fading away in the next room. Instead of their support, he had to watch his mother succumb to cancer that devoured her from within, and it haunted him. He couldn’t even bury her outside among the flowers she had planted last year, without them damn things reappearing. His father should’ve been here to help guide him through times like these.
“Behind you, Jerry!” In stalk terror, William pointed.
Jerry spun around. The tape that kept the blinds covered over the window was weak. A thin and twisting trail of smoke seeped in from the outside world, like the roots of a growing tree. Its darkness spread outwards from the window frame like a black mold, reeking of rot and caustic smoke. The house started to tremble as if a fierce gale was whirling debris against the side of it. A long scraping sound came from the window, followed by rapid tapping on the glass.
“W-what’ll we do n-now Jerry?” Ludwig pushed off the couch and started to freak. His voice raised in pitch.
William came up and socked Ludwig full in the face, almost laying him out flat.
“Du Hurensohn!” Ludwig held onto his nose to stop it from bleeding and looked around for the only pair of glasses he owned. “What did you do that for?” His other hand sought out his glasses, making sure they were okay.
“Shush,” William bent low and placed his index finger over his mouth. As the windowpane glass shattered behind them, the house trembled as if alive. The three teenagers crouched in horror as chunks of broken glass rained on them.
“Too late now,” Jerry looked back at them, “run.”
They ran out the back door and out into the yard as the living room exploded with glass, wood, and plaster. William wasn’t the fastest, but Ludwig was the precise second. Both followed Jerry as he hightailed around the corner behind the garage. Then did they all stop for air.
William bent over panting, while Ludwig, being a long-distance runner in school, was prepared to keep going. Jerry pressed his back to the garage wall and gestured for them to approach.
“That was close,” Ludwig whispered.
“Too close,” Will hocked and spat on the lawn. He felt like he would hurl his guts out right there on the spot.
“Wait,” Jerry waved at them to be quiet.
All went silent and waited. The air felt charged with electricity, and the hairs on their arms and back of the neck went stiff. As quiet as a grave, not even a bird or a distant dog dared to make a single sound. William closed his eyes, picturing the creature hesitating on the other side of the garage behind the house, waiting for a sound. Then, as a lion would pounce upon its prey, the three had seen firsthand what an attack by these wispy creatures could do. Whatever they touched had withered away, their skin grayed, and their flesh became ash as they crumbled into dust.
They feed off their victims—whatever these shadow things were, as a spider would drain a fly dry.
Jerry and his two friends kept still for as long as they could. Even by trying to hold their breath. To their good fortune, there was a break in the clouds. Sun rays bathed their faces and gave them hope. That may be still, and they could still make their getaway. An inhumanly frustrated and angry sound came from the direction of Jerry’s house. The boys could smell ash and sulfur in the air as they scrambled off down the gravel path towards the downtown region. They passed by a massive rickety shed that was once a service repair station but now it was slanted and ready to fall flat. They passed the remainder of people they once knew; now just ashen dehydrated husks that crumbled when touched and blew away in the wind.
“Well-” Jerry looked around at the chaos and damage left behind. “-this isn’t a good sign.”
On one side of the street, the front of a shiny new Bentley had broken through the brick wall of a local pharmacy. Across the street, a smashed department store window. As they walked down the middle of Main Street, they passed many vacated businesses whose open doors swung open in the gentle gale.
“We seem to be the only ones here,” Ludwig grew close to the piles of ash and hesitated over them. “How many do you think died here trying to get away?”
Will fished out his father’s pistol from the back of his pants and looked around. “I’d say too damn many.”
Jerry looked William in the eyes, “Is that necessary?”
Will shrugged and looked around nervously, “It makes me feel less shit scared.”
“Well, just tuck it away or something,” Jerry scanned the area. “It’s not like you can kill a shadow.”
“It’s not them I’m fretting about.”
“Who then, us? Put the bloody thing away before someone gets-”
In the corner of his eye, William spotted movement. Something moved. He spun in its direction and fired. A bullet ricocheted off the brick just above Ludwig’s head as he screamed, “William Rogers, you dummkopf.” He then rushed over to Will and shoved him back as hard as he could. “You could’ve killed me with that you-you schweinhund.”
“Stop freaking out. Couldn’t see you on account-” William stopped and saw that Ludwig wasn’t in the mood for his usual bullshit. He looked about ready to flip out. Will’s mouth went dry. He had never seen someone so mad at him but still kept his gun pointed at Ludwig. Just in case.
Jerry came up and slapped the pistol out of Will’s hand, “why you’re dad would ever give you his favorite gun is beyond me.”
“Screw you, Jerry.” William changed his attention on Ludwig, who continued to glare at him. “If he was more careful…instead of sneaking around like a-”
Jerry swung and gave Will a knuckle sandwich to the nose, knocking him flat to the curb.
“Whatcha gone and do that for?” William pushed up after whipping his nose of blood. “You’re looking to get an ass-whooping too?”
“Will just-” Ludwig came in-between the two and scowled at Jerry. “-scram. We both don’t want you around anymore.”
William blinked, and his mouth was open like a trout. He pouted. “Fine then, give me back my gun, then…” He held out his hand expectedly.
“When Hell freezes over,” Jerry felt the heft on the pistol in his hand. Damn, it was heavy. He knew William was a bit of a goof, but there was some muscle to him too, which that had come in handy many times, but now, William was getting too itchy with the trigger finger, which meant he was a risk to them all.
“Well, that’s just fine by me.” Will puffed up his chest, “I ain’t gonna stay where I ain’t wanted,” he kept his hand out. “My Pappy gave me that ’fore he went off to war and left me on my own. And it’s all I have left to remember him. So you better just give it back, or this is gonna get ugly.”
“Fine,” Jerry handed it back. “You go your way, and we’ll go ours.”
Will took his Dad’s gift and stomped away. “So long suckers.” He waved as he scuffed his way down an empty street. “You can both get yourself killed by those things for all I care.”
Ludwig stood beside Jerry. “Think that’s the last we’ll see of him?” He pushed his specs up.
Jerry shrugged, “not sure. He looked pretty boiled over after I laid him out flat.” His hand throbbed after colliding with his friend’s mug.
Ludwig slapped Jerry on the back, “You did right by me. William wasn’t all there, to begin with.”
Jerry nodded. “William is a good enough fella, but he can get outta control sometimes.”
“Well, this time,” Ludwig snorted, “he’s gone too far.”
Jerry sighed as the street around him felt solemn and empty. A tumbling stormy sky above them grew darker. In the distance came a listless rustling sound like dried leaves rubbing over each other in the approaching wind. William spotted distant whirls of dust, trying to take on simple human shapes. “Come on, and we should cahoot to somewhere safe. It’s too dangerous being in the open like this.”
They hurried along the street looking for some place they could hold up in, at least until the end of the passing storm. Jerry and Ludwig stopped as they heard someone screamed out, followed by a distant gunshot.
In shock, Jerry instinctively raised his hand to shout out his old friend’s name. Ludwig pulled Jerry’s hands away and cursed his foolish loyalty.
“Dummkopf, what are you doing? Forget him,” Ludwig grabbed Will by the shirt collar and dragged him into a home repair store. “We must hide, now.”
The sound of rustling leaves grew louder and insistently behind them as they went to close the solid metal shop door. Behind them appeared a wispy, smoke cloud in the shape of a familiar person hissing at them like a serpent. Its hollow vacant stare disturbed them, but the apparition’s mouth had a row of sharp, white canine teeth. It scarped and pounded at the door as the children went to close it. With the aid of his fear and adrenaline, skinny little Ludwig managed to drag over a small display rack made of wood and tin to help block the door.
After a few disturbing seconds of uncertainly, the strange apparition howling furiously, in that it couldn’t get in before dispersing into a whirl of dust.
Jerry stood back from the bolted door. “T-that was Charlie Higgins’ face.”
“So, those things are what: doppelgangers?”
Jerry rubbed the back of his neck, “to be honest, I dunno what they are.”
Ludwig turned away to investigate the hardware store. Together they went aisle by aisle. “I guess some people raided this place before leaving. But if you ask me, this might just be the best place in the world to be right now.”
“Why do you say that?” Jerry looked around with disinterest. The only thing he had ever made with tools was some ugly old wood birdhouse in the Boys Club at the Camp.
“Because of this,” Ludwig turned around and smiled. He placed a miner’s helmet on his head. Atop it stood an ample incandescent light and a cord that led to a battery pack in his hand. He flicked a switch, and the light made Jerry squint and tried to blink away the spots before his eyes. “Bright, ja?”
“Yeah…” Jerry smirked, “that’ll do the trick.”
It was nightfall when they settled on the top floor. Jerry and Ludwig waited like trapped miners in semi-darkness surrounded by a circle of twinkling candle light. Ludwig had been a science geek back in Germany, and being that his father was a scholar; he concocted a solution to keep the smoky apparitions at bay.
“We already know that they don’t like the light, ja?”
“Right,” Jerry nodded but couldn’t keep his eyes from the only exit point they had, a hallway to a winding stairway of which grew darker by the minute. A scentless thick smoke slowly seeped in from the bottom floor. “Jeepers and jinx Ludwig, this all is scaring me something awful.”
“I know,” Ludwig licked his lips. “I too feel something in the air,” He gripped Jerry’s arm and stared ahead. “Mein Gott! Do you hear that?”
That’s the sound of glass breaking echoing from downstairs, Jerry felt his fear rising. He wanted to throw up what little food they had found.
A faint creaking sound came from the stairs. After a few terrifying seconds later, a stout, boyish figure materialized at the top of the stairs and staggered towards them. The smoke seemed to part for the stranger until they came into the candlelight. William pulled up his arm to shield his eyes from the bright flames. “Too bright…burns the eyes.”
“Will?” Jerry rose from the floor. “Boy, I-I thought they must’ve got you.” He went to hug and welcome his old friend.
“Warten Sie!” Ludwig rose and yanked Jerry back so that he stayed in behind the candles. He didn’t like the way the shadows clung on William’s face—and could bare make out his expression, for it was so dark.
“Too much light-” William brought up his father’s pistol, aiming it at them. “-must extinguish the light.”
“Nein!” Ludwig cringed as a bullet struck the miner’s helmet he wore. The large windowpane behind him shattered into a thousand shards of glass. He dropped like an anchor to the floor.
Jerry cried out to Ludwig and saw that his friend wasn’t moving at all. He turned back to face William. “What is wrong with you? Why are you doing this?”
William aimed the pistol at Jerry, “Blow out the little lights.” His voice sounded deep and hallow of any emotion.
“Y-you’re not Will, are you?” Jerry spat out, “You’re just another one of them.” He tilted his head, “or maybe even something far worse.”
The smoky shadows flowed over Will’s face like oil over water. It seeped into the young man’s nose, ears, and eyes. It seeped and resided into every crevasse, nook, and cranny like a living ink. The gun in his hands started to tremble as William tried to fight back.
Help me, Jerry. William’s voice sounded so far away in Jerry’s head. Like listening through a nozzle of a funnel placed up to his ear.
“Fight them!” Jerry shot back. “I know that you’re there Will, so don’t be such a quitter and push back.”
I can’t…too strong- The voice sounded lost and forlorn.
“Bullshit,” Jerry placed his hand to his mouth. The last time he swore, he received a cuff to the back of the head by his father at the kitchen table. Long before his father had taken a shining to his secretary, and together they ran off and left him alone with his ailing mother. Back then, it was a terrible reminder of minding his manners, but he was outright shit scared this time. Plus, his life was on the line.
Jerry saw the smoky silhouettes in the dim candlelight. Whatever was pushing the strings on William, many of his kind had come to claim him and Ludwig. Somehow, these evil shades had figured out how to possess a living person, not just suck them dry of all life but also to manipulate and control.
“Why are you doing this?” Jerry squinted.
A voice came out of William that was not his own. “We are the shadows of men.”
“Okay,” Jerry shrugged. In the corner of his eye, he saw movement. To his relief, Ludwig wasn’t dead. The boy moaned as he pushed up off the floor. “So, is that supposed to scare me?”
“It is merely the truth.”
“Well, that’s going to hurt tomorrow,” Ludwig coughed to clear his throat as he stood up and adjusted the miner’s helmet he wore. He looked to Jerry and nodded.
“Welcome back,” Jerry smirked. “I thought you were dead.”
“Nein,” Ludwig sniffed, “but I do have one humdinger of a headache.” He felt where the bullet had ricocheted and noticed the broken window behind him. “Ah Jerry, there’s more of them coming through the broken window behind us.”
“One problem at a time Ludwig,” He started to put on his own miner’s helmet. He fastened the straps under his chin so it wouldn’t slip off. He glanced over to his friend, smiled, and gave a brief nod. He turned back to address those lurking in the shadows.
“Well, let me help you go back into the light.” Jerry flicked the switch on the battery pack in his hand, and the tiny light bulb above his helmet brightened.
William hissed as he dropped the gun and held onto his face from the light in his eyes. His shadowed features streamed off like blown water, slipping their way back into the shadowed collective behind him. Will dropped to the floor; Ludwig had his helmet light on and scrambled towards a large switch in the corner. He pulled it down, and somewhere in the building, a generator started. Every electrical light that covered the showroom flooded the top floor, and like a nuclear explosion, the shadows simply evaporated.
“William,” Jerry hurried over to his chum. “Will, you alright?”
William stirred and looked around in a stupor. “T-the shadows, t-they were all over me. I couldn’t get them off me.” He started to freak out, trying his best to scratch and brush off the nauseous feeling, but the stain was far more profound than on the surface of his miserable hide.
“You’re safe now, William.” Ludwig took his helmet off and knelt in front of the two. “So, what was it like to be possessed?” He asked.
“Felt something awful, like I was sick and not in control.” William sat upright on the floor and looked around. “So damn bright in here-” He placed a hand to shield his eyes from the light. “Do they still have to be on?”
“They are gone,” Jerry removed his helmet, looked to Ludwig, and made a face. “Any reason we should have them all on?”
Ludwig shrugged, “nein.” He hurried back to the big light switch in the corner and strained to shut it down. The show room grew dim. Despite the wind coming in from the shattered window behind them, some of the candles stayed lit. Yet there was not enough light to keep the shadows at bay.
“You’re going to be okay now, Will.” Jerry fist-bumped his friend as every display light, went off in the showroom just as William’s eyes grew to pitch dark.
“No, you’re not…” the voice in William foretold.