Feed me, he said.
I turned up the collar of my secondhand coat and staunchly ignored him.
I'm starving, he said plaintively. I haven't eaten in days.
A chill crawled up my spine. "And you're not going to ever again," I snapped.
A few people on the street gave me odd looks. I could just imagine what they were thinking. Who is that crazy man? Why is he talking to himself?
I stuck my hand into my pocket and nervously toyed with the card. The paper felt thick, slightly textured, and reassuringly solid. Just a little longer. Just a little longer, then I'd be done with it.
My shadow walked along with me, down the street.
You can't stop me forever, he said. You can barely stop me now.
There was a sudden pang in my stomach. Icy daggers piercing through the lining from below, stirring up all the acid and letting it spill out into the rest of me. My vision went hazy.
I staggered and fell back against a blue post box. The pain ate away, burning and freezing and aching everything inside of me. I glanced down and saw a puddle from the last night’s storm sitting halfway beneath the post box. My reflection glared up at me and said,
I'm hungry. Let me hunt.
"No," I rasped. I tried hard not to look at the people around me, at the people quite suddenly realizing that they didn't want to be around me, and were finding excuses to cross the street to get away from me.
Let me take them, he said. A mother and her young daughter took one look at me and decided to try waiting for the traffic to slow down enough for them to cross, rather than try to hurrying past me.
Let me take the little one, he said. No one will notice. It's too small to notice.
"No!" I hissed, trying to straighten up. I couldn't let him boss me around like this. I couldn't let him win.
But . . .
It had been three days. It didn't matter that I'd had breakfast only a few hours ago: he hadn't fed, and I was feeling it. He was making sure I felt it. What resolve I had was fading.
"No," I said again, almost as much for myself as him.
An older woman, apparently oblivious to me, walked casually past us.
The old one, then.
My mouth was too dry to speak. I watched dumbly as the shadow at my feet grew, darkened, and than leapt towards the light for the shadow of the woman. It swept one silhouetted claw into the other shadow’s back.
The woman staggered and clutched her heart, and her shadow --the stupid, defenseless thing it was-- mimicked her. Its back was torn and oozing out darkness onto the pavement, but it didn’t try to escape, or defend itself. It lurched when the old woman lurched. It fell when the old woman fell.
My shadow raised its arm once more, knife-like claws fully extended, and slashed at the old woman’s prone shadow.
I screamed. I ran.
My shadow followed.
Why did you have to do that? it said. I had had her right there!.
I kept running. In front of us, people saw me coming and moved hastily out of the way--
“Hey watch it!”
--behind us, a few people were gathering around the woman.
“Ma’am are you alright?”
“Let me help you-“
“Call an ambulance; she’s had a heart attack.”
I kept my head low and ran. I didn't stop running until we were two blocks away. The wail of sirens filled the air. My chest and throat burned.
What a waste. I could have had her.
I ignored him and checked the card again.
2986 Amberview Way.
I clutched the card like the lifeline it was.
Just a little further, I thought. Just a little more.
The shop at the end of the address was small, crammed between an antique store and a fancy bakery and half hidden in the shadows. There were no display windows, and the sign above the door was far too faded and chipped to be read.
I started to shake. This could really be it.
It had taken me forever to find this city, and then it had taken me forever to find out where in the city it was. And then what times it actually showed up. . .
I steeled myself. If I didn't go now, then I'd never find it again.
I opened the door. The place was packed full of junk. Shiny, textured, glass, paper, stone, small, large, odds and ends, bobs and bits junk all crammed haphazardly onto equally haphazard shelves. A bell tinkled overhead, signaling my entrance. An electric jolt coursed through me, and my shadow hissed in pain. I recognized it for what it was: a warning. To see just what, exactly, was entering the shop. The man at the counter looked up from the magazine he was reading, his face harsh.
"It's my shadow," I said before he could start hurling spells or kick me out. "I've got a shadow."
He snorted. "We all got shadows, kid."
"Mine's worse than most."
As though to prove it, my shadow picked just then to try and go for the shopkeeper. He screeched and launched himself away from me, making his way across the room to the counter.
The shopkeeper didn’t even flinch. He kept both eyes steadily on me. Behind him, a writhing mass of darkness rose up along the wall. It flashed a toothy, negative space grin as my shadow reached it. It was bigger than mine. It had more teeth than mine. It stood patiently behind the shopkeeper, daring mine to do anything about it.
With a squeal, my shadow flew back and hid behind me.
I stared. I’d never met anyone else with a shadow like mine before.
“We all got shadows,” the man said again. He slunk off the chair he'd apparently been sitting on and lost a foot of height. He started fumbling around behind the counter. From the way he was moving, I could tell he was picking his way through piles or boxes- probably of more merchandise.
"Please," I said. "I need help."
I need heeeelp, my shadow said in a mocking falsetto. Oh help me, please. You're so fucking pathetic.
The counter-man found something in one of the display containers and pulled it out. It looked like a long, black piece of wood or charcoal.
He snapped it in half, and the room went dark.
It wasn't just that the lights had gone out, or that the curtains over the window had been drawn: they hadn't. In fact, when I looked, I could still see outside, plain as the day it was. But the area around the window was dark. Everything within the confines of the store had been covered over with an impenetrable blackness. I couldn't see my hand when I held it up to my face. I couldn't see anything.
“Why did you do that?” I said, my voice shriller than I’d like to admit. “He can be anywhere!”
“No,” came the calm response. “He’s blind now. They both are.”
“They need the light. Seems counter intuitive, but that’s shades for you.”
I heard fumbling. Boxes being moved. The tinkling of displays being bumped into. The occasional grunt.
“So what’cha need?” he said.
“I need to get rid of him.”
Thumping. Unwrapping. The shuffle of cloth.
“Ain’t gonna happen. You can’t just get rid of them, not without getting rid of a big chunk of you.”
“There’s gotta be something you can do. I can’t let him go on like this. Anything, anything at all-“
“Yeah,” he said. Something was sliding around. More unwrapping, and the crinkling of crate paper. “I got somethin’ that might work.”
I heard his footsteps heading towards me. “It won’t be permanent,” he said. “It’s just something to keep him off your back for a while.”
A warm, work-roughened hand grabbed my left wrist. Something small and solid wrapped around a soft piece of cloth was put into my hand.
“Hold onto that,” he said. “Each time you to use it, it’ll get rid of him for an hour, and it’ll need to recharge for half that time.”
“How would I-?”
“Set it in the sun, or next to a fire.”
I closed my hand around whatever it was. It was flat, round, and a little smaller than my palm.
“Thank you,” I said. I was suddenly glad for the darkness: it meant the man couldn’t see my hand shaking. “Thank you so much.”
“It ain’t free,” he said gruffly. “Calm down.”
“Of course, right.” I tucked the cloth into my jacket pocket on the left and started digging around in the one on the right, looking for my wallet. “I don’t have much, but--“
“Put your money away, that’s not what I’m after.”
My stomach sank. “Then what. . .?”
There was a thoughtful silence.
“How’s your heart?” he said eventually.
“Your heart. Your heartbeat. If it’s any good, I’ll take it.”
I thought he was-- I don’t know. Not joking. It didn’t sound like any kind of joke. Crazy, maybe. “Okay,” I said, not quite believing him. “Alright. Fine. It’s yours.”
A hand grabbed hold of my shoulder, the other pressed itself to my chest. There was the strangest moment of pulling where I couldn’t breath properly, but it lasted for only a second.
I blinked a few times, though I may as well have saved my energy for all the good it did. There was a familiar dun dun, dun dun ringing in my ears. It took me a second to realize this was because the noise was actually coming from the outside of me, rather than the inside.
“How--? I-- that’s mine?” I tucked my hand under my shirt and felt my chest. I couldn’t feel anything unusual. “That’s really mine?”
“No take backs.”
I heard him and the heartbeat shuffling back towards the counter.
“What are you going to do with it? Am I going to die?” Blood pounded in my ears. “Am I going to die?”
“Relax, kid, you’re fine. Everything’s still working, you just don’t get to feel it anymore. It’s still pumping along inside you. As for what I’m gonna do,” I heard a drawer sliding open. “What d'you think? I’m gonna sell it.”
“To who?” I said, half hysterical. “Who buys a heartbeat?”
“Widows, mostly.” Shuffle shuffle. “People who get lonely at night.”
There was a snap, and the light painlessly returned. He was back behind his counter. Neither of our shadows were anywhere to be found.
“Thanks,” I said, not quite sure what to do. The thing he gave me, the cloth wrapped charm, was comfortingly heavy in my pocket.
“Go,” he said, waving me away. “Go deal with your shadow. I’ve got things to do.” He pulled out a large book from behind the counter and set it down, then he whipped out a cell phone seemingly from thin air.
I left him to make his calls.
* * * * *
My shadow was waiting for me outside.
What did you do in there? he demanded. What did he give you?
I walked down the street, hands in my pockets. He walked along side me as my reflection in a boutique’s display window.
“Some help,” I said. I stopped and smiled at him.
He grinned back at me, but there was something else beneath it. A little hint of. . . fear?
I almost laughed. Almost.
You know you'll never get rid of me.
"Not for lack of trying." I pulled out the jet-black cloth and started unwrapping it.
What's that? he said.
"Just a little present."
I gently eased the coin out of the cloth cocoon. It was warm to the touch, slightly smaller than palm-size, and looked like it could have been made of solid gold. Both sides were etched with a stylized picture of the sun.
His eyes widened. No.
With a small tip of my head and a flick of my wrist, I tossed the coin into the air. It hung for a second before flashing a magnesium-bright light.
He screamed and steamed and was eaten away by the light. When the spots in my eyes cleared, I saw my reflection looking mildly back at me in the glass. I looked down and saw a shadow at my feet, waiting politely for me to move. I moved my arm up and down to test. Both reflection and shadow mimicked me appropriately.
I looked up into my reflection-- my plain, accurate, loyal, well behaved reflection-- and grinned. I stopped almost immediately; it looked too much like his for comfort.
The coin was still floating beside me, spinning idly. I plucked it out of the air and flicked it around my hand, then rolled it between my fingers.
Humming a little song to myself, I started once more down the street, letting the coin flip around my fingers to gather as much of the weak sunlight as it could.
My shadow followed soundlessly behind.