Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Shadow of a Distant Life

This is the story that won me a public reading at a local library back in 2009.

It was three in the morning when the ghost  returned to visit Steven.

At first, shortly after moving into the house, there had had been  only the sound of heavy, careful footsteps in the night. Alarmed, Steven would leave the imagined safety of his bed and venture down the hall, terrified of finding an intruder. But it was always the same; the kids asleep and unaware, the doors bolted, the windows locked.

In the morning he and his wife found it amusing, a curiosity to liven up the anecdotes they told about their new home. Neither, of course, believed in ghosts.

That was how it started.

What followed was a lull, two weeks of undisturbed and blissful sleep. Then, an escalation: the footsteps again, this time breaching Steven's room and stopping just beside his bed.  After that the mornings brought no peace. The restless nights made tempers flare, and he grew angry each time his wife blamed it all on the shifting frame of a century old house.

Steven, for his part, was no longer sure what he believed.

Soon his wife let the news 'slip' to his mother. "I don't understand why you're worried," his Mom said, scolding him. "Our family has owned that house since it was built. The only people to pass away there are your great-grandparents, and even if they could come back, you know they would never hurt you."

They were words meant to comfort, but did the opposite. He felt no kinship with a couple dead and gone twenty years before his birth. Nor could he fathom caring about his own descendants, at least those he wouldn't live to see. If there were angry spirits in the house, why would they be obliged to tolerate him? For the sake of a relationship four generations removed?

That was the night the figure appeared. There were footsteps of course, loud enough to wake him but no one else (although, to be fair, he never really slept well at night anymore, surviving on catnaps scattered throughout the day). They came forward slowly but confidently, as if the spirit no longer cared to mask its presence, and again, they paused by the bed. Ignoring his fear Steven opened his eyes.

Before him stood a shadow, a man-but-not-a-man. While there was no physical form, the shifting darkness  worked to craft an illusion of strength and bulk. Remarkably, through the pressing, physical weight of his fear Steven felt himself begin to climb out of bed.

Not yet, a voice said, and he had no doubt it echoed only in his mind. Not yet.

That was the beginning of the end.

In the weeks to come Steven would stop trying to sleep at night altogether. His work began to suffer; his children, sensing something wrong, grew distant, and his wife, concerned, begged him to seek help. When he refused her pleas he found himself banished to the living room couch. For Steven it was a hidden blessing. His few nights on the couch gave him his first true rest in months.

                                                              A Shadow of a Distant Life  pg 2

On the night the shadow returned it there was no sound, only an icy shiver that wrenched Steven awake with a stunning abruptness. The figure stood at the head of the couch, leaning over and staring - if it had eyes at all - directly into Steven's face.

Now, it said.

The figure walked away, heading for the kitchen. Steven's mind and body screamed caution, and he resolved to stay where he lay. To his surprise  he found himself following the shadow.  They entered the room together, and in time it took Steven to blink his eyes the figure disappeared.

Once again Steven's head screamed retreat, but instead he searched frantically around the room, as if instead of vanishing he'd simply lost sight of the figure in a crowd. After a moment he heard the familiar footsteps coming from the basement stairs that lay off the pantry.  He followed the sound without thinking, and without bothering with the stairway light.  His eyes had grown accustomed to picking out human forms in the dark of night, and they came quickly to rest on a figure below.

At that same moment he noticed the broken basement window, the strangely unfamiliar shape of the shadow, and the glint of a knife in its hand as it rushed up the stairs. Before these thoughts could raise an alarm the intruder slammed into Steven, slashing at him in a frenzy. The first blow missed and struck the wall, but the intruder never hesitated.  A second later the man was on him again, pushing him down against the stairs before raising the knife for a final blow.

Steven's eyes went from the knife, to the eyes of his assailant - and then to the familiar figure emerging from the dark behind him.

Pitch dark arms ignored the blade and encircled his neck, leveraging him up and off of Steven. It was then, only for a moment, that Steven saw the face of the shadow. It was no face as we know it, simply the impression of one, but in its imagined features was not one face but many; his great-grandfather and his father before him, his sons and his future grandchildren.

Even in the surreal chaos of that moment he knew that  in the end the fight would be his own. Now the shadow said, and Steven struck, knocking the intruder unconscious and sending him tumbling down the stairs.

He would see the shadow only once more in his lifetime. Many years later, babysitting his grandchild, Steven stirred and wandered into the baby's room, sitting in the  rocker alongside the crib. From the corner of the eye he noticed a shadow distinct from the darkness, but did not turn to meet it.

Together, the pair was content to admire the future in silence as it slept peacefully in the crib.

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