From the moment I was old enough to develop and express a fear that many would describe as “irrational,” I’ve been told that there’s no reason behind the intense terror that I was experiencing every time I was forced into a situation that involved being exposed to a vivid light. Most children are afraid of the dark and of the monsters and the ghosts that they believe reside within the oozing gloom, ready and waiting to drag them into their closet or underneath their bed, but not me. I fear the exact opposite; I can’t stand being made to stand out in the daylight or keep the lights on in my bedroom after the sun retreats below the horizon. When the lights are on, the shadows come out to play.
Almost anyone you ask will explain to you that shadows are merely a shape formed on the ground where a solid object blocked rays of light from reaching the end of their journey to the pavement or the carpet or that one, tiny spot on the grass where a leaf had fallen just moments before. They aren’t anything to be afraid of, and they’re certainly nothing to spend an entire lifetime meticulously trying to avoid. Those people may be right according to scientific explanations and their own experiences, but as I’ve drudged through year after year after year on this lonely planet, gravity the only thing keeping me from falling into the void, I’ve learned to be wary of those shadows that form not from objects left to sit in the sun, but from people who don’t even realize the danger that constantly lurks beneath them.
I’d always been weary of my shadow; something about the inky blackness that mimicked my each and every move rubbed me the wrong way, and I make an effort to keep from looking at my shadow whenever possible. Nobody else ever seemed to notice, but if one pays close, careful attention, and watches for the tiniest details that only a madman would notice, they might realize that their shadow isn’t always able to keep up with their movements, and that sometimes they slip up and wave farewell with the incorrect hand or wrongly anticipate an action and kick out wildly rather than just taking a simple step. Not a single person ever seems to notice, or if they do, they excel at keeping that fact concealed from anyone else.
They tell me that I’m insane, paranoid, that I can’t keep myself locked away inside my home with the curtains drawn and the lights turned off for the rest of my life, but that’s because they haven’t experienced what I’ve lived through; they haven’t seen what I’ve seen; they haven’t been presented with a reason to resent the light of day, or at least, not yet.
I remember clearly that it was one of the sunniest, most breathtakingly beautiful days of the year, and everyone that wasn’t constrained by work or school assignments was outside enjoying the warmth of the late afternoon sun. Children were running down the street in pursuit of a passing ice cream truck as their mothers watched them from the end of the driveways, dogs jumped through sprinklers and tried to stop the streams of water with their paws. Some sat on their porches or under trees and flipped through the pages of a book or magazine in the shade while others simply laid in the grass, doing absolutely nothing, just watching time fly by as they enjoyed their moment of peace.
I was young and ignorant back then; I believed myself to be invincible and was convinced that nothing in the world could hurt me. I joined and rejoiced with the other lighthearted fools and let the sunlight wash over me. I settled down in the soft grass and observed a parade of ants making their way back to their colony with crumbs and bits of leaves on their backs. They seemed to be taking their time, making sure to stay in a straight line as they counted their steps, not worrying about when they got back, just as long as they arrived at their destination eventually. I wondered what it might be like to live life as such a small, fragile creature, capable of lifting objects ten times their weight, and decided that I’m perfectly contented at five feet, four inches.
As the sun sank slowly behind the horizon, the shadows cast by people and objects began to stretch and elongate as though they were trying to rip the stitches anchoring them to solid masses, but they would never want to do that. On their own, they would cease to possess a host from which to suck the life out of.
I paid little mind to what was going on around me, and instead focused all of my attention on the ants marching by right in front of my face. Nothing else really seemed to matter at that moment, so I didn’t notice when my shadow began to move on its own. It was slow at first; I hardly ever noticed, and when I did, I convinced myself that my mind was simply playing tricks on me. Between school and work, I was more than stressed, and I recall that I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in a few days. Surely my worn out brain and overactive imagination were to blame.
As time dragged along, I forgot about the incidents with my shadow completely. Days passed with no occurrences that warranted any extra attention, and my situation was beginning to look up as the semester came to an end and we were released from our hellish school-year prison. Trying to focus on anything in that building during the scalding weeks just before vacation could be compared to trying to ignore that giant, hairy spider creeping its way up your arm; it can be done, but it’s unlikely.
Nothing bizarre came to pass until I waved goodbye to my closest friend as she pulled out of her driveway. She returned the gesture from the window of the moving van, and neither of us put our arms down until we couldn’t see each other any longer. My arm seemed to weigh much more than usual, and I swear that, as I caught a glimpse of my shadow from the corner of my eye, I saw it waving goodbye with its left hand. I was waving with my right.
This time, I was positive that this wasn’t a lapse of the mind twisting my vision and distorting the images around me. I know what I saw, despite it being completely and utterly impossible, insane even, for a shadow to wave with one hand as I bid farewell to my friend with the other. Just the thought that my shadow could act on its own was enough to keep me awake at night pondering ways that I could’ve simply misinterpreted what I was seeing. I was losing more sleep than ever, and I began to seclude myself in an attempt to keep the fact that something was very, very wrong hidden from anybody else. This didn’t concern anyone but me, so why trouble them.
Though I’ve pondered it time and time again, I never was able to explain my inability to sleep. I would lay there in the dark, perfectly aware that my shadow was absent with the sunlight, and yet, for whatever, undiscovered reason, I laid there night after night after night and stared at the ceiling. I still can’t explain it. I still spend most of my nights restless, tossing and turning for hours on end, often giving up and watching the green lines change themselves into different numbers as time slowly ticks bye; each tedious minute still feels like a century.
Time passed, and the phone calls and late-night messaging sessions I shared with my closest friend began to occur less and less frequently, and each one wouldn’t last nearly as long its predecessor. I wanted our conversations to last all night; I wanted us to talk and talk and never desist, but I found that, the more time we spent away from each other, the more the distance pulled us apart.
Eventually, we stopped talking all together. I missed her, but by that point, our friendship was far too strained and stretched to be salvaged. It was inevitable, really, but I still wish that we’d somehow been able to get back together, for just a few hours, and piece our relationship back together, one fragile shred at a time. Maybe if I’d put more time and more energy and more effort in trying to preserve the practically unbelievable bond we’d shared prior to her move she’d still be here.
Three weeks after we ceased communication, I jumped down the stairs, two steps at a time, and waltzed into the kitchen to find my mother sitting at the dining table with tears rolling down her cheeks, dragging her mascara along with them as she wiped at her nose with a tissue she held tightly clenched in her right hand. I noticed the phone lying on its side nearby, but it was resting on the cold tile of the kitchen floor as if it had been dropped and nobody bothered to pick up. She looked up and saw me standing in the doorway, confused and afraid. She approached me and wrapped her warm, loving arms around my shoulders, and she held me as she broke the news. The girl that had once been my closest friend, practically my only friend, had been found in her bathroom with several opened bottles of unnamed, unmarked pills. She’d been struggling since the move, and without an adequate support system, she crumbled under the pressure.
Soon after her death, I once again began to catch my shadow moving on its own, only this time it was bolder and didn’t seem to care whether I saw it moving or not. It only seemed to occur when I was alone or if the people around me weren’t paying close enough attention to notice anything out of the ordinary. It would make gestures at the people around me, though they never saw them, or move the limb opposite to whichever one I moved. On several occasions, it would move to a spot around me that it shouldn’t exist based on where the sun was in the sky.
I strongly believe that, had it just been motions and signals behind my back, I would have been able to learn to ignore it. I wasn’t usually in a situation where I would be looking down at my shadow for extended periods of time, so chances were that I wouldn’t notice its immature antics more than every once in a while anyhow. It would have just been one more annoying thing to push to the back of my mind, but that wasn’t the case.
Every time that damn thing did anything aside from mimic my movement exactly, I could feel it. I could feel it inside of me; I knew when it was moving without even looking at it. At the very beginning, it merely felt like someone was attempting to pull something out from under my feet, as if I’d accidently stood on top of a piece of paper they needed or the strap of their backpack. The sensation was mildly irritating, yes, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t learn to live with. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before that changed.
A week or two passed, and I realized that the yanking sensation had left me and had been replaced with an entirely different feeling altogether. Whether the shift happened gradually or all at once, I didn’t know. I hadn’t paid it much mind until whatever it was that had replaced my shadow demanded the attention I hadn’t been granting it. This new, awful feeling is one I’ve been living with for years at this point, and I’m not sure how much longer I can deal with it eating me alive every waking moment. I feel like I’m drowning on dry land, constantly sinking deeper and deeper into a dark abyss that I can’t pull myself out of. It squeezes my lungs and weighs down my heart, ripping threads out of my soul and tossing them aside as if they’re worth little more than a sheet of scrap paper that even you can’t decipher anymore. Exhaustion plagues my existence, but I still can’t sleep. I’m afraid that if I let myself drift off, that thing will jump at the opportunity to take me while my guard is down, even in the dark. I have no idea what it’s capable of.
I was beginning to lose hope for myself and for those few I surrounded myself with. The pressure of school became more of a burden every day, and eventually I became so stressed about every little thing that I stopped caring all together. It’s the strangest feeling to be so concerned about something that you cease putting any effort into it, and rather than working towards a goal, you push everything into a box that sits in the back corner of your mind in favor of other activities, if sleeping and staring at a wall or the ceiling qualifies as an activity. The feeling constantly lurking inside of me, put there by that shadow or whatever it was, sucked every emotion out of me as it devoured my body from the inside. It wasn’t much longer before the whispers started.
As I lost interest in everything around me, I stopped trying to ignore my shadow. I never embraced or welcomed it, but pretending that it wasn’t dancing behind me was too much of a chore for me to keep up any longer, and it took advantage of my indifference.
Nothing that thing had to say was remotely true, and yet, I absorbed and believed every single word that spilled out of the darkness where its mouth would have been. I still do. It always talked about how unloved I was, how nobody actually liked me and that they were only pretending because they pitied me. It told me about how I didn’t have any real friends and that my parents didn’t really love me; they put up with me because they felt obligated to put a roof over my head and food on my table. It convinced me that my friend’s suicide was my fault because I wasn’t there for her, that if I had just picked up the phone and called her or sent her an occasional text or email or even just poked her on Facebook that she’d still be around. I can’t remember the last time I made it through an entire 24 hours without crying.
I’m constantly forced to listen to the lies this monster slips into my ears, and as I’ve learned, simply trying to ignore them or block them out completely doesn’t do any good, because the voice comes from inside my own mind; they’re my own thoughts. I’ve realized that the shadow has consumed me, despite my early attempts to resist its advancement, and that it now has a, cold, rough hand twisted and tangled up in my heart and my brain, and that it isn’t going to let go. I’ve accepted that this is something I’m going to have to live with, likely for the rest of my life. I no longer fear what my shadow might do to me; I’m afraid of what it is that I may be capable of. The pills help, but I’m scared that they won’t be enough to save me from myself.