writing

SHADOW (a short story)

SHE DID NOT know where she was going. She had no idea if she was headed north or south, although she could probably take a glance up into the night sky to follow the stars. What she did know was that her hands were glued to the steering wheel of this nondescript car, and the car kept straddling the lanes, unsure where she was going too.

“Where am I, where am I, where am I?” she hissed to herself, lungs quaking with fear. No one responded. Who would respond?

Momentarily she was blinded by the hot sting of her tears, and the pain inside her was enough to blind her forever. But her eyes stayed open, and she saw through the blurriness the straight-shot arrow of the pine-fenced road. The darkness was almost quaint, if she’d take a moment and soak it in, but now it felt dead and gloomy, an invitation to a sepulcher.

“Okay. Enough,” she muttered to herself, certain that her teeth would snap out of her head from her frayed nerves. She needed to keep it together—or at least act like she could. Of course, that was easier said than done. She needed a memory, an image, a vision, anything, to remind her that she knew who she was. She had to fight through it.

But in this darkness all she could think of was… Well, nothing good. What she remembered was suffocation, a kind of suffocation that terrified her more than the blackness outside. A suffocation from despair, a suffocation from nothing going to according to plan, a suffocation from the person she supposedly loved most in the world, and…

She whistled between her teeth and bit down hard. Her jaw ached, but she had to distract herself, and this slight pain drew her eyes down to the wedding ring, where her promise for forever was chained to her finger, her body. Maybe she shouldn’t go back into those dark memories that would swallow her up, those memories that would force her to relive the pain over and over again, each time in a slightly different way. Instead her gaze darted to the dashboard. Sixty miles per hour. Pretty fast for a hair-thin road, especially when there seemed to be some fog rolling in. She pushed her foot against the brakes.

Nothing.

Though the car wouldn’t brake, it felt like her heart had bounced out of its cavity and smashed straight into her bones. She gulped down bile and pressed her heel down once more.

Nothing.

She slammed on the brakes.

Nothing.

She floored the gas pedal, and the car galloped to seventy.

“You’ve got to be kidding!” she screamed, punching the wheel, her knuckles bruising.

Realizing it wouldn’t do her any good to wound herself further, she concentrated on keeping the violence down, and considered some possibilities. Maybe she was dreaming, and this was some terrible, acidic nightmare that she’d laugh at in the morning, try to interpret with the Internet’s help; maybe this was her brain’s way of compensating for some traumatic event (and there were plenty of those to pick from), and she needed a good night’s rest; maybe she was just being silly, and needed to try the brakes one more time.

If there was a time to pray, it was now.

She did. Nothing happened.

Which meant that there was one more possibility, one that she refused to accept just yet: This was real. The car was moving all on its own.

Her hands unclenched from the wheel, and the car steered itself. It went perfectly with the road, as if it was a train on the tracks. And she knew the car wasn’t controlling her body, but it felt like it. Her chest hurt, and she gripped her collarbone, aching to breathe properly again—needing to breathe properly again. The bruises were nothing new, but they ached more and more with each passing mile, as she escaped farther and farther away, as she entered the unknown more and more. Her eyes bubbled with tears again, and she was certain she was losing it. This had to be a nightmare. It had to be.

But why did everything feel so real?

Something flashed nearby, a light sparking to life. The bright glow belonged to her cell phone that had fallen onto the floor of the passenger’s seat.

“At least the car is driving itself,” she hissed, and stretched herself to fish the phone from the darkness. She scooped it up and was ensnared by the simple text message that had made its way through, a remnant of her true life. The life she had abandoned in favor of this mysterious bolt from everything she had ever known.

Her collarbone ached.

WHERE ARE YOU GOING?

The slow drag under. She felt like she was in a pool, and someone was taking her by the back of the head, pulling her deeper.

WHY WON’T YOU ANSWER ME?

Why had she brought the phone? She should have left it elsewhere, tossed it out the window, so there would be no trace. So there would be no ability to fall for any more of his traps. He loved to set them, just for her. And when she’d realized how many of them waited for her, it was too late. Her misery was something she could change, but it would cost her everything she had: mental, physical, emotional. She just had to escape. She had to get out of there, even if it was the middle of the night, even if it was to nowhere at all. Nowhere was better than where she’d been before.

SARAH, I’M SORRY. JUST PLEASE ANSWER ME, OKAY?

She lifted her eyes again and caught the glimpse of the rearview mirror. The person she expected to see was not there, and in her stead was a morphed version of herself, an image of horror and grief. There were spots all over her face, violet and ugly. While she was revolted at the sight of herself, she barely moved, unable to believe the image she saw. How could she believe it, even when the proof of her pain was as clear as this? But suddenly… Something didn’t seem right. She knew she was hypersensitive—she had to be—but this was different. She scrutinized the mirror and felt her blood boil when, in the empty backseat, something shifted in the pitch black.

She screamed, slammed on the brakes again, and the car flew off the side of the road, crash landing in a nearby ditch.

A few seconds passed. Silent seconds, until there was a slight dripping noise. The stink of oil and blood rose through the air, and Sarah realized that a few drops of scarlet had fallen from her nose onto her wrists. Something sharp cut into her neck, a silver cross necklace. She then noticed that she was hanging upside down, her dark hair tumbled below her.

This night is never going to end, she thought to herself.

Everything seemed hazy, surreal, as if gravity itself did not work properly here. As if time did not work properly here. As if certain moments sped up like a bullet, and others slowed to a trot.

A car crash. She’d just been in a car crash. Her body was buzzing from the pain, but she gritted her teeth and managed to unbuckle herself. Before she knew it she was falling to the ground. She collected herself like a wounded animal and crawled through the broken window, surprised at the ease it took her to get out of the mangled car. Sarah pushed herself up from the wet, muddy earth and stood, analyzing the sight of the mess before her. She was really lucky, she decided, to have survived. Maybe it was more than luck. Luck didn’t seem to fit the bill when it came to how crushed the car was. A little ounce of hope dawned over her. It had to be a good thing she survived this, right? It had to mean something. She had been a survivor all her life, especially in these past few weeks, when his hands had sucked each breath out of her lungs.

As the thoughts flickered away, Sarah’s neck burned. She pushed her hand against a thin trickle of blood from where her necklace had cut her, and she repositioned it so the cross hung properly against her neck. Her fingers grazed against the silver.

Sarah walked along the back of the car. The license plate seemed to be the only thing still in one piece, tags from Georgia. How had she made it out of this? The sight before her was brutal. She kneeled down and examined the broken window she’d climbed through. She had to be careful, as she didn’t want to pierce her skin amidst the endless shards of glass, but her curiosity was killing her. She’d been stupid not to check the car when she had the chance. Yes, she’d been overwhelmed by the fact that the car was practically driving itself; in fact, it wasdriving itself, and she’d only been able to stop it when…

Her heart fell into her chest.

Sarah gulped and fell back, the shards of glass piercing her. Her body twisted from her awkward fall, and in the process she caught a glimpse of a dark figure emerging from the broken window. She bounced away as fast as she could, but she knew she was too slow.

She ran out onto the road, her throat raw from shrieking. There was no one out tonight, no one at all, and she felt the hope dissipate when she considered that she hadn’t seen a single car in what felt like months. Why couldn’t there be another car? Why did she ache to escape into the maddening darkness instead of a big city? He’d try to find her no matter where she went. It was her fault she craved isolation.

Isolation. The thing that had propelled her here. How she ached for it, and now she was here in this horrible nightmare. That thing in her backseat was the whole reason she’d crashed anyway, she remembered now: Ithad been there, an obscure shifting thing. She’d seen it in the rearview window, and it had terrified her so much that she’d driven straight off the road.

Sarah was definitely crazy. At least she knew that now. A woman who’d hopped into a black car in the middle of the night to escape her violent husband? Believable. But a woman who’d imagined a dark figure in her backseat? Who’d envisioned a car that wouldn’t brake or drive like she’d wanted it to? Maybe she was on drugs. Had she taken any drugs? Had she beendrugged?

She had to have made it up. She’d been running for a while now, and she was so tired, and her body hurt so much. All she had to do was take a peek over her shoulder, see if she was still being followed, but it was very possible that nothing would be there, that it had all been in her head. She’d been told that for months now, that she didn’t really know anything at all. So how was this any different?

Sarah was scared, but she paused in her tracks and turned around. At first, there was only the road again. Out in the distance was the glimmer of the totaled car, but there was nothing on the road. No psychotic masked ogre following her with a hatchet. No, there were only peaceful pines that seemed to blow back and forth in the gentle night breeze. And that creepy fog that seemed to inch closer and closer to her as time bled on.

Peaceful.

Almost.

As she rolled her eyes at how stupid she’d been, how crazy she must be, the hairs on the back of her neck rose, and her hands shook. She looked down at them and remembered the shards. In the moonlight her skin appeared normal. Normal for her. The bruises on her arms still glowed, imprints of man’s violence toward her. But where there should have been blood from the car crash, there was none. In fact, her entire body seemed to float, though she was tethered to the ground by fear.

The breeze pounded into her, and then there was a whistle, shrill and fierce. A garbled voice whispered into her ear: “Move.”

Sarah froze.

It said again, more forcefully this time: “Move!”

It had to be right there. It had to be, and before she lost her nerve, she needed to twist around to confront the dark figure. The thing that had been in her backseat. But before she could, the road lit up with the high beams of an approaching minivan.

A force slammed into her. Sarah was unsure what propelled her out of its way in time, but she fell to the shoulder of the road as the van whizzed by. As she stared down the street, the haze coming closer and closer, the van suddenly screeched to a halt. The entire image seemed vague, out of focus, as she pushed herself up and raced back to the scene of the crash. Sarah screamed as loud as she could, hating the sound of her voice, but she needed this driver to acknowledge her. He’d take her to the hospital, save her from this black hell, and she’d never go outside again. She’d never step foot in a car again, either. No, she’d walk everywhere from here on out, and that way no dark figure would appear in her backseat ever again. No dark figure would strike out against her ever again, whether that be a person she loved or a shadow in the blackness. She would make sure of that.

When she neared the van, she felt relief and hurried up to the driver. He was a middle-aged man, clean-cut. A woman appeared beside him seconds later, and she must have been his wife, because her wedding and engagement rings glinted in the light. She yelled at someone in the back of the van. Must be their kid. A beautiful, happy family. A family brought into her horror, she realized guiltily.

Sarah shouted, “It was me! I need your help! This is my car!”

But the man seemed to care less. He was stepping closer to the wreck, a pained look on his face. Why wasn’t he listening? Sarah was screaming so loud, but he refused to acknowledge her. She moved up to him, patting him on the shoulder, but he didn’t budge.

“Scott,” said the wife, tears in her eyes, “we should call the cops. Call someone to get out here. Let them handle it. Don’t go over there.”

The fog came closer.

Her husband shook his head. “What if somebody’s in there? Someone was obviously driving it.”

“Me! I’m right here!”

The woman’s lip quivered. “Do you really think you’re going to find anybody in there?”

“Call the cops,” said Scott. “Don’t come near it, okay?”

Sarah felt like her heart would rip right out of her. Why couldn’t they hear her? They didn’t need to go to the car, not when she was right here. She was right here. “Why can’t you hear me? I’m okay, I’m alive!”

“Make sure the kids don’t see anything, okay?” Scott added, a thousand lines cutting across his forehead. He couldn’t have been older than thirty, but he seemed to have aged ten years in two minutes.

“All right,” agreed his wife, pulling out her cell phone.

Sarah’s bones hurt again. She screamed, terrorized by the fact that this couple didn’t seem to see her. Did anyone ever really see her? She trailed the man named Scott to the mangled car, and she heard him cough in disgust. She felt his terror when he stumbled back from the car, a grown man who’d seen too much, and she saw him vomit and recoil, hurrying away from what he’d seen.

“Why can’t you hear me?” she yelled at him. Why did this keep happening? She wanted some control back. She wanted her choice, her freedom. It had been gone so long. “Why won’t you listen? Why won’t anyone ever listen? What did you see?”

The stillness seemed to spin. Things were misting up again, as if she was experiencing severe vertigo. She tried to keep herself up, but when she heard Scott’s cries she shut her eyes and imagined herself a world away. Somewhere with a sunny sky, a tropical beach, her hand unmarked by the curse of a wedding ring. The thought woke her back to life, a place where suffocation would swallow her up. She’d never forget what had happened. It was her curse to bear. It wasn’t fair; it never was. But it was still here, just the same, even as she hurled her wedding ring into the crushed car. She should have tossed it into the darkness long ago.

The mist was sweeping over the trees now, sweetly devouring everything in its path. With visibility diminishing faster and faster, Sarah watched as the man named Scott rushed to his boring but practical little minivan. He wrapped his arms around his wife, tears dropping down his skin. Oh, how he would never let go. Oh, how his wife wouldn’t either. And, oh, how Sarah would always understand the feeling, the feeling that no one would ever let go, since the memories would stay with her forever, even when her own body did not.

Time sped up again, a mental mist hanging over like a veil. She was there, but she knew she wasn’t. Not really, or they’d be able to hear. They’d try to hear. And suddenly then there were cops and EMTs and passersby and the minivan and the darkness and the fear and the mist, a collection of souls who should not have been there to assess the wreckage. But it was their job to do so. She stood in the midst of them all, as they collected her physical body from the wreckage and they said things they didn’t think she could hear:

Oh, how sad it is.

Wonder if she was drinking.

Such a beautiful girl.

Not so much anymore.

Not so much anymore.

She listened to those who would never listen to her back. The fog came closer.

At some point, something caught her eye. A flash of moonlight spilled down onto the shiny, broken metal of the car like a spotlight. A shapeless black figure stood at the spot where she’d died. The thing was unimaginable, but it was there just the same. Maybe it too listened to those who would never listen to it back.

Sarah breathed the rich pine-scented air all around her. At least she could breathe again. “What do you want?” she asked.

“Move,” it said.

Somehow she understood what this meant. It was giving her a choice. She bit her lip. Her collarbone ached. Some scars never go away. If she followed the shadow, she was unsure where she’d go. But if she didn’t follow the shadow, she’d be stuck here, rooted in place, unsure where she’d go but alone.

The figure seemed to accept her resistance, and then it glided beyond the car. It passed by the men in uniform. It hovered over one man’s shoulder in particular, as if sensing something for future reference. But then it turned back around, and it continued on its path, slowly and quickly approaching the flash of a beautiful black car on the road. Shiny and new it gleamed.

As Sarah followed, she became aware that the fog hung all around the car, eventually closing up any connection to the realm where she’d once lived, and once died. It was a dismal fresh start, but it was an opportunity, and so she followed. Her blood boiled with nerves, but she’d made her choice. Sarah pinched the cross on her neck. It was the only thing she’d kept of herself.

The car door was already open for her. She took a seat, things feeling eerily familiar, eerily normal. There was a dull throb in her body which she was sure would never go away, as certain suffocations remain with us even after we’re dead. The door closed, she buckled her seatbelt tight against her abdomen, and she checked the rearview mirror, finding her shadow snug in the backseat.

“This isn’t the first time this has happened, is it?” she asked, not expecting a response.

“Move,” said the shadow.

She hit the gas pedal. The fog lifted, and the car blasted off down the road.

7 thoughts on “SHADOW (a short story)”

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