“Behind the Shadows” (First complete chapter)

 

Elmore Tolbert was never much of a light sleeper, not even on a night like tonight, with the northern wind rattling the windows of his three-story Victorian flat in the Whitechapel District of London. But on this night, even though Tolbert’s wood-burning stove kept him toasty under his covers, safe from the blistering cold that’s been spackling a thin frost on his windowpane, something else kept him from his usual peaceful and uninterrupted slumber. Back and forth, his drapes swayed in time as the wind howled hard enough to squeeze a whistle of air through the thin cracks around the frames, pushing the curtains aside just enough to cast a trail of light across the floor, which was creeping in from a grayish-orange sky that boasted predictions of a long and brutal winter. But none of this would’ve disturbed the man whose heart is so unaffected by the atrocities that he’s recently witnessed with his own eyes, nor could it chill the blood in his veins that already runs as cold as the ice that’s piling high on his windowsill. No winter, no matter how cold, has ever numbed his bones as they are now, or sent chills down his spine, like the pools that are now accumulating in an icy sweat down the arch of his back. Something else had Elmore on edge tonight.

A few minutes earlier, he heard a noise that made him sit bolt upright in his nightshirt. In a panic, he wedged himself against his backboard and pulled his legs up against his chest, cradling his knees below his chin. He began to scan the dark room before him; his eyes darting to and fro over the top of his rattling knees. He knew he was alone, but he heard two thumps in the corner of the room that suggested otherwise. What little light was in the room came and went as the curtain played back and forth against the oncoming storm. But he could swear he saw a dark figure, or the shadow of a figure, lurch momentarily in the far corner where the light did not reach.

“S-s-someone there?” he stuttered through his chattering teeth. There was no reply forthcoming, but an answer of sorts came in the form of a continuous dripping or trickling sound from the same corner where he’d first heard the thud.

“I can hear you,” he tried again; a little braver this time. “Answer me!”

Still, there was no answer. But he was certain that someone, or something, was lurking in his flat, cloaked in shadow, and quietly watching him quiver with fear. Slowly, his eyes began to adjust to the gloom, and now he was able to make out the form of something small and black on the floor next to his window. He stared at the thing long and hard until his eyes began to lose focus, causing the black shape to meld into the shadow until it disappeared entirely. He shifted his gaze slightly to the right, allowing his vision a chance to refocus, and then back again once the thing had reappeared in the corner of his eye. It was still there, exactly where he had last seen it, but it was just too dark to make it out clearly. The curtains continued to sway, projecting a display of shadow and light on the wall just above the object. The dripping noise continued also, but was now reduced to a slower, quieter, less alarming pace. Elmore chanced averting his eyes again for just a moment as he reached towards his nightstand to find his matchbox and oil lamp. He placed both items in his lap and lit the lamp, adjusting the wick a little higher to get a better scope of the room. He cupped one hand below his eyes to block out the excess light and lifted the lamp a little higher with the other. The curtain near the corner suddenly bellowed inward as though something had brushed passed it quickly. And even though he saw nothing pass in front of the window, he watched as the second curtain at the far end of the room fluttered in the same fashion.

“Who’s there?” he hissed in a panic as he extended the lamp to the full length of his arm. There was still no answer, and now he began to wonder if his imagination was getting the best of him. But even if he had imagined it, that still wouldn’t explain the mound that he saw on the floor. As frightened as he was, he would not be able to rest until he got out of bed to inspect his surroundings.

Cautiously, he swung his legs over the left side of the bed and stood up, putting his slippers on, and keeping a close watch on the opposite end of the room. In a crouched position, he approached the pile on the floor, lowering the lamp to have a better look. First, he saw a series of dark patches that were scattered around the object, and several more streaks of the same substance on the wall. Whatever it was looked as thick and dark as oil, and the few drips on the wall matched that description as well. He set the lamp down, far away from the puddles, in fear that the flame might ignite them if he got too close. Then he knelt down and placed one hand upon the object, but pulled back instinctively when he discovered that the surface of the thing was slick and slippery. Whatever it was, it felt moist, but encrusted like a burnt piece of meat. He hunched over it to get a better look, feeling brave enough to stoop down and touch it again. This time, he picked it up, and he was surprised by the weight of it in his hand. It was heavier than any meat he knew of, and it had a texture that he was also not familiar with. He carried it over to the lamp to have a closer look.

While turning it over gently in his hands, he examined the soft matter, certain now that his first guess was correct. It was definitely some type of meat, and it was charred and blackened on the outside, yet tender and pliable on the inside. He passed it back and forth, letting it slide from one hand to the next. After he’d turned it over a few times, he accidently applied a bit too much pressure, and the same black fluid spit from the object, spraying up his wrist and onto the floor, dangerously close to the flame. He no longer felt certain that it was an oil-based liquid. In fact, it didn’t smell like any accelerant that he’d ever encountered. If anything, it had an odor that was more similar to burning lard. He was puzzled to find that the meat appeared to be hollow, so he held it closer to the lamp to examine it, running his fingers gently over the surface until he discovered the spot from which the liquid had sprung. Now that he could see it more clearly, he realized that it was not a hole at all, but rather a protrusion of some sort, like a large vein, or a valve or ventricle. It suddenly occurred to him what the object was. Startled by this sudden realization, he let it slip from his hand and backed away. As it hit floor, another stream of fluid sprayed up the wall and spattered onto the slippers. It was an organ of sorts – possibly a heart – blackened from an intense fire, and still full of cooked blood that was now dripping down his walls, pooling on his floor, and stained on his skin and clothing.

He quickly wiped his hands on his nightshirt and bent down to retrieve his lamp. He spun around on his heels to face the far corner of the room, nearly slipping in the puddle beneath his feet. He threw out his hand to stabilize himself, catching hold of the curtain and nearly ripping it from its rod before finding purchase on the windowsill instead. He pressed his back firmly against the wall, and in his other hand the lantern swung to and fro, casting an imbalanced illusion of light around the room, which only added more unease to this already insane situation. He began to feel dizzy from the swaying motion, and he was becoming nauseated by the sights and smells all around him. He managed to steady himself, but the shadows in the room continued to sway; all but one. Looking across from him, against the wall on the opposite end of his octagonal-shaped bedroom, Elmore saw what appeared to be the shadow of the man. It was positioned next to the window, posed in a similar stance as Elmore, frozen in fear and bracing itself against the wall. If Tolbert didn’t know any better, he might’ve been fooled into believing that he was gazing at a mirrored image of himself. He may have even thought, or been tricked into thinking, that the shadow was his own, thrown up against the wall just to mock him, and to show him just how silly he appeared, alone in the darkness, with only his own imagination as an enemy on this cold November night. But Elmore did know better. And even though his third story bedroom was bolted shut from the inside, the windows securely locked, and with no other point of entry in or out of this room, he knew now that he was not alone. Whatever it was that stood across from him now was certainly no part of him; nor was the organ on the floor a product of his imagination, or the blood on the walls simply an illusion of shadow and light. And although he did not know for certain whether that organ was human or animal, he suspected beyond a shadow of doubt that his unwelcome guest had brought the flesh as some sort of a sick offering, just like an alley cat would leave a bird or some other small animal as a present on someone’s doorstep. But what confused him most of all was the purpose of the gift, and the reason why he had been chosen as its recipient.

The logic of this completely eluded Tolbert. And yet, as he stood trembling with fear, pondering over this and many other questions that ran through his mind – like the streaks that still ran thick on his walls – a much more pressing matter was at hand, which demanded his immediate attention. Who, or what, had delivered this parcel? And what was this strange and shapeless form that lingered silently in the corner, oddly indiscernible to Elmore’s heavy and restless eyes? Why could he not see it properly, even though it stood only ten feet away from him? How come it didn’t answer when he called to it earlier, and why did it not make a sound now that it knew it had been discovered? Although Elmore was desperate to have these questions answered, among many others, he could not bring himself to take a step forward. He did not know the intent of this creature, nor was he certain that it would not react violently if cornered. But the sun would not rise for another couple of hours, and although Tolbert was now wide awake, he could not spend the rest of this night fastened to the wall, a prisoner in his own home. Even if it would cost him his life, the time to take action was at hand. He attempted to address the darkness once again, even though his throat was almost literally frozen with fear.

“W-w-who’s there?” he said, but in a voice that was so shaken that it was almost unfamiliar, even to him. He had already guessed that there would be no answer, but it frustrated him to no extent to find that he’d guessed correctly. As determined as he was to end this charade, he forced his feet to carry him forward. He wasn’t even sure if he could will them to do so, and he was even less certain that his unseen visitor would allow him the trespass of such proximity. But he was already halfway across the room now, and the decision to turn back was no longer his to make. He extended the lamp out in front of him and lifted it a little higher, illuminating the entire side of the room where he had seen the shadow just moments before. But now it was gone. As though it was never there at all, it simply vanished without a trace. Now he was standing a mere two feet from the wall, and he began to peruse the area ardently. There’s no way he could’ve imagined all of this, and he refused to believe that his eyes would play such a cruel trick on him, even at this ungodly hour. But the fluid on his skin, clothes and slippers still bore evidence that foul play was at hand, which only proved further that all of this was really happening. No, some intruder was surely in his midst, and he could not rest until he exposed it.

At arm’s length, he ran the lamp back and forth along the wall in a wide and sweeping motion. All he could see was that the walls of his flat were in dire need of a few licks of fresh paint, but nothing more. As he stood there, quietly contemplating whether or not to return to the warmth of his bed, he could hear a faint sound coming from somewhere in his direct vicinity. He stood absolutely still for a time and listened, turning his head slightly to one side to try to pinpoint the exact location. He could hear it clearly now; a tap, tap, tapping noise; the same as the one that had woken him to this unearthly scenario. First, he looked up at the ceiling, expecting to see a hole that the frost may have bitten through the roof, but saw no patches of moisture above him. Then he looked down, and it was there that he saw what appeared to be a pulsating pool of the same black fluid that he’d discovered near the other window. Then it occurred to him why the pool appeared to be pulsating. Apparently, it was still being fed, but from some unknown source, causing the pool to grow larger with each new drop. Elmore began to lower his lamp to waist level to see where the drops were coming from, but as he lowered the lamp, something new began to form directly in front of him. Without raising the lamp again, he looked up, and at eye-level he saw the shape of a figure begin to develop. The contours of a face began to construct, and the face appeared to be staring right back at him, just inches away from his nose.

He gasped and stumbled backwards, tripping over his own feet as he attempted to put some distance between himself and this oddity that now stood before him. But before he had a chance to regain his balance, Elmore found himself tipping backwards, his arms flailing wildly to break his fall. He hit the floor with the heavy thud, and the lamp slipped from his grasp and began to roll beneath the foot of his bed. Frantically, he reached out to stop it, but only managed to slap it into one of the bedposts, cracking one of its window panels and spilling a small amount of kerosene onto the wooden floorboards. In the brief few seconds when the lamp was rocking back and forth on the floor, Elmore could see the abomination on the wall growing larger, then smaller, then larger again as the light seemed to project its shadow in a bouncing motion, up and down. Finally, he managed to kick the lantern within his reach and set it upright, but not before the thin trail of kerosene caught on fire. It burned only for a brief few seconds before the fluid evaporated, leaving a scorch mark where the wood-stain varnish had bubbled up from the heat. Luckily, he prevented it just before the flames had a chance to reach the mattress, only narrowly avoiding a serious catastrophe.

Now that the lamp was still, Elmore was able to study the form in front of him, watching and waiting for it to make the first move. But the figure did not move, nor did it attempt to attack him as he half expected it would. It simply stood its ground, motionless and silent, possibly expecting Elmore to make the first move as well. In fact, it almost seemed to be as terrified as he was, even though it clearly had an advantage here. And now that the lamp was steady, the rising and falling illusion had also stopped. But with the light being as low to the ground as it was, the shadow of the figure now appeared to be towering; monstrous; looming so tall that the top of its head reached all the way to the ceiling and arched over the spot where Elmore was laying. But even as menacing and intimidating as it looked, Elmore was now beginning to understand that it meant him no harm. And as he lay on the floor, gazing up at this strange creature, he began to understand something else as well. There was no figure standing before him; at least, not in the physical sense. What he was seeing was nothing more than a shadow, with no form or substance, no solidity or physical presence. And yet, here it was, inexplicably, but discernible, nevertheless. And now Tolbert understood why this uninvited guest made no sound, and how it managed to vanish entirely when the light was cast on it. No shadow can exist in direct light.

Many things were beginning to make sense to him now, but a few questions remained to defy all reason. How can this shadow exist without a solid form to project it? And why did this bodiless entity choose his home as a place to come in out of the cold? Why reveal itself to Tolbert now, and why come bearing gifts no less? All of these questions and more were running through Elmore’s mind as he stared at the shadow, which was now dancing hypnotically against the wall, swaying in sync with the single flame that somehow appeared to be keeping it alive. So many questions begged to be answered. And yet, only one found its way to Tolbert’s lips.

“It’s you, isn’t it?”

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