The wind blows in gusts as the rain starts to pick up. The thin hood of my favorite sweatshirt barely stays up, clinging uselessly to my already-damp hair. I clutch the crinkly plastic bags tighter, hoping they’ll do a better job at keeping my groceries dry. Maybe ‘groceries’ is a generous term; the only things I’ve bothered to pick up from the mini-mart up the road are a frozen microwavable dinner, two cans of Diet Coke, a banana, and a small bag of gummy worms to reward myself for leaving the house that day. And in spite of the rain, too.
I’ll do some proper grocery shopping after work on Sunday, I promise myself. Today I just need enough sustenance to last until tomorrow and enough fresh air to not go stir-crazy.
I’m staring at the sidewalk, my field of vision narrow from the black hood pulled tightly around my face in a vain effort to keep the rain at bay. It’s a risky move, blocking out my surroundings like this, but I’m feeling surprisingly confident. After all, I know I’ve been productive today. My laundry is done, folded, and put away. The bathroom, which I’ve been putting off cleaning for ages, is scrubbed down. Tonight I’ll let the last traces of bleach-smelling cleaner fade away while I run a hot bath— or a shower. Maybe a shower would be better.
I even had a nice long chat on the phone earlier with this girl I’ve been seeing. Marnie. She’s short in stature but dynamic, more outgoing than I could ever be— yet for some reason she asked me out when we met online a few weeks ago. It’s hard to believe it’s only been a few weeks, because the way we’ve connected is… well, as cliché as it sounds, I feel like I’ve known her forever. Of course, it’s hard to imagine that she possibly feels the same way, but still…
I let my thoughts wander off, daydreaming about the lunch date we’ve planned for this weekend, when I see it. A long, skinny black shadow just out of the corner of my eye. I glance over just as it fades out of sight, merging with the trunk of a tree, but I know I saw it.
Fantastic. I shouldn’t be surprised, of course; in fact, I should be grateful that they’ve left me alone for this long. Even if they’ve been following me the way they have for as long as I can remember, I’ve managed to keep them out of sight. Have I slipped up somehow today? I must have. I knew I should have left the house earlier, or gotten more work done…
I manage to shake the sighting off as my street comes into view. The rain is pelting down now, but there’s no point in rushing inside; I’m already soaked through my jacket. Oh well. A quick summer shower never hurt anybody.
Once the thought goes through my head, I’m distracted once more by thinking about how many songs there are about rain. I try to occupy myself for the remaining few minutes of the journey home by listing as many as I can think of, then get sidetracked by comparing the number of rain songs to sunshine songs, then wondering why it seems to be everyone’s instinct to write about weather. Or at least nature. In fact, I can remember a few of my own earliest attempts at writing poetry, and plenty of those were centered around rain. And cold. And wilted flowers, melted snow, pitch-black skies. Typical moody adolescent drivel, right?
I shake my head in mild disgust at the memory. And then just as my apartment comes into view, I catch a glimpse of another shadow… thing. This time it’s small, like a bug, and it darts right in front of me boldly, obviously not caring if I see it. I stop in my tracks, ignoring the rain streaming under my hood and down my bare neck. I stare at the spot where I could’ve sworn the thing was— but once I focus my eyes, I can see that it’s just a piece of dark brown glass. Probably broken off from a discarded beer bottle. It looks fairly new; sharp and clean. My gaze lingers on it for maybe a second too long before I grip the plastic bags tightly and walk briskly away, focusing on my apartment building.
Once I’m inside, I realize just how rain-soaked I really am. My clothes will probably start to smell musty if I don't hang them up to dry right now. I leave my wet shoes by the front door, resigning to pick them up later. The frozen dinner gets stuck into the freezer, and I don’t bother with the rest of the bag. It sits on the counter, the sad contents inside a direct contrast to the bright yellow bowl of fresh produce my roommate always manages to keep full. Whenever I buy produce, half of it seems to get shoved to the back of the fridge and forgotten about until a month later.
Thinking about this kind of thing for too long always bothers me, so I make a beeline for my bedroom before either of my roommates decide to show up in the common area. Suddenly I’ve lost any pride I had in myself for being semi-productive earlier. I’m not in the mood for conversation anymore.
I pretend not to notice the shadowy hand that closes my door at the same moment I do. After a second of contemplation, I lock it behind me.
I enter the bathroom, shed my still-dripping clothes, and turn the shower on full blast. Once I get a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I wish the steam would hurry up and fog up my reflection. The rain has darkened my short red hair and the effect is overall less ‘adventurous and cute’ and more ‘drowned rat’. But that’s kind of what I expected. What I don’t expect is the four or five shadows lingering just behind me. They’re the particularly ugly kind; almost bruise-colored and pulsing with anticipation; lying in wait.
Right now, in this vulnerable state in front of the mirror with no distractions, I look my reflection in her eyes and know the truth. Of course they never left. I know they never do. They’ve become very good at hiding lately, and I guess I’ve been foolish enough to believe that that means they won’t come back. No matter how often I tell people about them, no matter what I eat or how much I sleep or how well I do at work, I know deep down that they’re watching me.
Some of them are crawling on me right now. Those are the worst. The others I can ignore most of the time, but these are so relentless that I can physically feel them sometimes. They almost itch, dancing across my skin amongst the ghosts of the ones that danced before them. The ones I gave into.
But I can’t give in now. I’ve had such a good day. A good week. I have friends. I have a job. Things are going well. Right?
I tear my eyes away from my reflection and step into the shower, turning up the water until it’s almost unbearably hot. That helps a little bit and I breathe a sigh of relief as I’m distracted from the shadows for a blessed moment. I wash my hair, my face, my body, and try to sing some of the songs about sunshine that I was thinking of earlier. Anything to distract me from the shadow in the corner, next to the shampoo bottle. I close my eyes and belt out the lyrics at the top of my lungs. I don’t even care if my roommates overhear me. I find I’m shaking a little bit despite the scalding heat of the water.
Maybe I should call someone, I think to myself once I’m dried off and sitting on my bed in a clean t-shirt and shorts. There could be a shadow-thing under my pillow, but I haven’t been in bed since this morning; that has to count for something. They don’t tend to infest my bed as much when I keep it clean and unoccupied. Anyway, it’s dark outside now and it should be okay to lie down and relax.
I know I should tell someone that they’ve come back, but I want so badly to believe that this is just a fluke. So I saw a few of them while I was out for a walk. So what? That doesn’t have to mean anything.
I know I’m lying to myself. After all, I can hear them whispering, and they whisper the sort of truths that other people are afraid to tell me. That’s the problem with them; they’re painful and they’re ugly, but they’re honest. I know that the only way to get rid of them is to listen to them. And they don’t ask for much. The first thing they usually want is sleep. One night they’ll give me an overindulgence, the next they’ll steal it from me completely.
Next they ask for food. They love to eat, and never anything that’s particularly good for me. Sugar, preservatives, fat, salt, bread. Then once I start feeling bad about that, it’s not long before they cajole me with the thought that alcohol would make it easier to eat a bunch of crap and feel less bad about it. At least until the morning, in which case I can always sleep it off.
One of the worst things about it is that, well, everyone has days like that. And for plenty of people, it isn’t so hard to distinguish a normal day from a day consumed by shadows. But they come, little by little, and gnaw at my life, my energy, my voice, my brain.
I don’t know what I’m going to do about it tonight. I don’t know whether I’m going to listen to them or not. I don’t know if I’ll be able to resist temptation, or if I’ll give in and welcome the crawling black parasites back into my life.
Either way, they tell me, the outcome is ultimately the same.