Shadow Puppets23 min read

Shadow Puppets23 min read

Originally published on Scare You to Sleep.

I’m not sure what wakes me. Maybe it’s the low thrum of the diesel engine vibrating the walls, or the cold cone of light that spills across my ceiling at two in the morning. Whatever it is, it pulls me toward the window, groggy-eyed and yawning.

I part the blinds, expecting to see some grumbling semi driver clunking another mobile home into place. Instead, I see her. An oil slick of hair over glowing white skin. Her shoulders are slender, perfectly curved and hunched beneath a pink hoodie. The way she climbs from the truck, timid, arms wrapped around her torso—it’s like if she moves too fast, she’ll break.

She cups a hand over her brow and squints up at the streetlight, and I catch a glimpse of dark eyes encased in a heart-shaped face. Her features are delicate—a tiny bubble of a nose and a carved glass chin. She reminds me of the porcelain dolls Mom keeps stashed on the top shelf of her closet, the ones trimmed in lace with the skin glazed and shining.

A thunk! pulls my gaze to the driver-side door and the man within. He’s huge and bald, his head gleaming with sweat. He takes a blanket from the truck bed and spreads it wide, his arms like a pair of over-tenderized meat slabs. He drapes it over the girl and shoves her roughly toward the trailer door.

A slow-rising heat fills my chest as he lurches after her, his face sour. I know his type: the kind of guy who posts up on the porch with a forty and a fat wad of chew stuffed in his lip, ready to have a go at his kids or his wife just for looking at him wrong. Light his fuse and watch him explode. Dad was that kind of guy before he abandoned me and Mom to the trailer park.

I watch them disappear, my breath fogging the glass. Something bothers me about the girl, about the way she moved, like maybe even breathing was too much work. And her face—that slack expression and those eyes—it all made me want to rush outside and give her a hug, tell her things would be okay. And that’s what it is, I decide, identifying what bothers me: I’ve never seen someone so sad before.


I’m up early the next morning and catch her dad, or whoever he is, hanging blackout curtains in the windows. A thick beard crawls up his neck, and I picture a nest of cockroaches mating within, laying eggs in his jowls. His eyes are crooked, buried too close to his nose, like maybe whatever god put him together had a few too many drinks beforehand. His gaze twitches up and down as he works—glazed, one eyelid stretched wider than the other.

I wander into the kitchen for breakfast. Mom sways in front of a frying pan, eggs sizzling and bacon frying as she hums some old Elvis tune. I sit down and trace my finger over an ancient syrup stain on the checkered tablecloth.

“We have new neighbors,” I say.

“Oh, yeah? Who’s that?”

“Some girl and her dad.”

She spins around. She’s wearing her threadbare purple robe and her hair’s up in curlers. “A girl, huh? Your age?”

“I think so.”

She arches her eyebrows.

“What?” I ask, feigning confusion. Valley Acres isn’t exactly teeming with teenagers, especially girls. Mostly it’s a bunch of elementary kids playing in the dirt until their parents can afford a better school district.

“Well, then,” she says, “we better make them some cookies, don’t you think?”


I carry the tin over around noon, waving at our nosy neighbor, Mrs. Amblin, as I cross the street. She waves back from her lawn chair, a vodka tonic already sprouting from her sun-damaged hand, ready to take in the show. She watches the trailer park like it’s a soap opera, and right now I’m the only character onscreen. I feel her gaze crawling over my neck as I amble up steps of the new girl’s trailer and raise a hand to knock.

I stop. The light fixture above the door has been blacked out, glazed over with a thick coat of paint, a few hasty splotches splattered and dripped down the door frame. I stare at the mess, confused, then focus on the door again and knock once, twice, three times before the bolt clicks, and the door inches open.

“What’cha want?” The voice has all the pleasantness of a growl.

“Hi, I, uh . . . my name’s Kyle. I brought you guys these.” I raise the cookies. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”

I try to smile and manage a quick twitch of the lips before the door widens and the man steps out. He’s even bigger up close, his gut leaking over a pair of worn jean shorts, a greasy handprint across the thigh. He says nothing, only stares down at me. I think he’s going to tell me to screw off, but then he reaches out with a meaty palm to snatch the tin.

“You live around here, kid?”

“Just across the street,” I say, my gaze drifting to the dark space behind him. She’s there buried in the shadow, but even from here I can tell her eyes are blue. Her hand flutters up in a wave and I begin to raise mine, but the man steps back inside and slams the door shut with a half-mumbled, “Thanks,” triggering a shower of dust and peeling paint.

“Hah!” Mrs. Amblin calls from across the street as I slump back to my trailer. “Guess they won’t be coming to any neighborhood barbeques!”

I roll my eyes at her, annoyed but hopeful, because I’m pretty sure the blue-eyed girl smiled at me before the door closed.


A few nights later, I sneak back across the street with a handful of pebbles. I  toss one at the window I think is hers. I’m coiled behind the hedgerow, ready to run if it’s not, but on my fourth, the curtains part and I exhale as she peeks through. I stand and raise a hand, feeling stupid, like I’m in one of Mom’s cheesy romantic comedies—except in this version it’s quite possible the girl’s dad will kill me. She cracks her window.

“What are you doing?” she whispers.

“I um, never got your name. From the other day.”

Her eyes narrow. “I never gave it.”

“Yeah. Sorry . . . it’s just—”

“Winter.”

“Huh?”

“My name is Winter.”

Winter. Beautiful. It fits. “I’m Kyle.”

“I know.”

“Oh . . . right.” Idiot.

The corners of her lips curl, and I can’t help but notice her skin is the color of moonlight.

“So,” I say, trying to recover, “me and some friends are heading up to the lake in the morning. You maybe wanna tag along? Meet a few of the other kids around here?”

She blinks slowly, her smile wilting. “I—. . . I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“My dad—he won’t—”

A pair of headlights flash over my shoulder and send her scurrying into the black of her room. She reappears a moment after they pass, all the life drained from her face. “I . . . just can’t. I gotta go. My dad might hear us. Thanks for the cookies.”

“Wait. You maybe want to talk again sometime? Like this?”

Her forehead tightens and I see her jaw move as she starts chewing on the inside of her left cheek. She nods. “Sure, I’d like that. Tomorrow. But wait until eleven, okay? My dad’s usually passed out by then.”

With that, she disappears, and I float back to my trailer helium-happy, struggling to focus on anything other than my rapidly beating heart.


The day passes like quicksand. I skip the lake and help Mom patch a hole in the drywall the size of Dad’s fist, another memory of him sanded away. Good riddance. If only it were always so easy—a bit of sandpaper and some elbow grease, so she could forget him forever. But I know she can’t. I see him in the curve of her once-broken nose and the way she flinches at sudden sounds, like he might leap out of the closet at any minute, fists bared.

The shadowy effects of his rage aren’t so obvious in my reflection. He comes for me at night, in the small, quiet hours. A silver flash of teeth before I wake, drenched in sweat, my hands over my face. Bastard.

I hope he stays gone forever. If he doesn’t, I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t like to think about it. All I know is I’ll never let him hurt Mom again. Ever.


After dinner, I kill a few hours playing some Atari and then tick off the rest until eleven slides around. When it does, I slip through the living room like a ghost, making sure not to wake Mom, who’s snoring in front of Johnny Carson.

Winter is waiting for me this time, her window sliding open at my approach.

“Hey,” she says softly.

“Hi,” I reply, my palms sweating. “So, we—” I nod toward her dad’s room “—we uh, good?”

She tucks a glossy lock of hair behind her ear. “Yeah. He’s asleep.”

A warm buzz runs through me. We have time . . .

“So, where you from?” I ask.

The answer is Stockbridge, Massachusetts, her fifth move in the last four years. She likes Indie music and fried pickles, and her favorite movie is The Goonies because it makes her laugh. She wants to travel to Alaska someday to see the glaciers and the humpbacks.

I tell her a little about myself. How I can’t wait to graduate and move to Austin and start a career in computer programming, do anything other than work in the oil fields like Dad.

I talk about him a little, too, the next night. Tell her how he chased some greasy-haired waitress to Houston and how me and Mom are better off with him gone. Stuff I would never tell anyone else, but for some reason seems to slip out around her.

She does the same, tells me how her Mom died of cancer when she was five and how she inherited her mother’s allergy to the sun. It has something to do with ultraviolet light; it’s the reason her dad won’t let her out of the trailer. She says he cares, that he always does what’s best for her, but the way her mouth tightens when she says it gives me doubts.

On the fourth night, she waves me closer with a playful flip of her wrist. “Wanna see something cool?”

I nod and edge through the shrubs toward her window, feeling heady at her scent. Peaches.

She dissolves into the black of her room and swirls back after flipping on a small lamp near her bed. Scarlet light bleeds through the lampshade in a mix of crimson-pink tones. Her room is bare, a few posters tacked to her wall, one of Joan Jett onstage rocking out, and a gray-black Yosemite shot from Ansel Adams. One of my favorites.

“Watch this,” she says as she raises her hands and laces her fingers together. A shadow spreads over her door. A bird, something a kindergartner would make in art class. But then she flutters her fingers and the shadow grows, transforms into a lush set of wings followed by a bloom of tailfeathers, a beak.

She curves her arms, hands flapping, and the shadow flies—actually flies—across her ceiling, the motion so fluid, so lifelike, I almost expect it to burst through her window.

Then, without warning, the shadow rips down over her wall straight toward me.

I stumble back and trip over a row of flowerpots at my feet. Several crash to the rocks. Winter flashes me an Oh, God look, her eyes snapping wide as a door smacks open down the hall.

“Go,” she hisses, whipping the curtains shut. I dive into the hedges instead. I don’t have time to run, her old man would hear me for sure. I hear him barrel into her room, his voice angry, dripping sleep.

“The hell’s going on in here? Why’s the window open?”

Winter says nothing, and I imagine his concrete eyes surveying the room, looking for something off, something not quite right. I hear her curtains tear open a second later, and I try to still my breathing despite the swarm of mosquitoes ravaging my neck. I twitch as one bites, and I’m sure he’s seen me, is about to jump over the windowsill and snap my neck, when Winter speaks.

“I was hot. I needed some air.”

Silence.

Then: “And the pots?”

“I heard a cat. It—”

She’s cut off by the unmistakable sound of a slap, flesh-on-flesh, followed by a sharp cry.

I cringe and ball my fists in my lap. Hard. Asshole.

“You’re lying,” he says, fury creeping into his voice. “Don’t you lie to me.”

“No, no. I promise. It was—”

“It’s that boy, ain’t it? The one that came by the other day. Don’t think I didn’t catch the way you was lookin’ at him.”

“N-no, Dad. I—I swear I wasn’t—

“Bullshit.”

The window slams down, and all I can do is sit there trembling with rage, thinking, I will kill you, I will kill you, I will kill you, as the lock clicks into place.


He boards up her window in the morning. The sharp tack of nails in plywood wakes me, and I slump over to the blinds with my scalp prickling, wondering what the hell is going on.

He’s out there banging, nailing away as if what he’s doing is as normal as picking weeds. I widen the blinds to get a better view, and the hammer stops mid-stroke, hangs there.

When he turns, his eyes are flat, and shallow, like a trout’s. A toothpick juts from the corner of his mouth. He stares at me, unflinching, and a wave of nausea twists through my gut.

I glance down, unable to hold his gaze. When I look back again, he’s gone.


“She’s in trouble,” I tell Mom at breakfast.

“Who?”

“The girl. Winter. Her dad’s not right.”

She pushes back from the table and reaches for the crumpled pack of Camel Lights on the counter, shakes one loose and plants it between her lips. Lights it. “Hmm. How so?”

“He boarded her window. We need to do something.”

She takes a deep drag, the tip burning cherry red. “Now, Kyle, you know we can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“‘Cause it’s none of our business, is it?” She grabs her plate and stands, apparently done with the conversation. “Now help me clean up.”

And there it is—the broken piece of her—the piece that kept Dad around long after she should have kicked him loose.

I grab my plate and toss it in the sink, my fork clattering to the floor. She spins on me, voice sharp. “Kyle, what’s gotten into . . . ” But I’m already gone, storming back to my room.


It doesn’t take long to figure out his pattern.

Out of the trailer at seven-thirty, dressed in faded-orange construction gear, tool belt wedged beneath his gut. Home by five.

I watch him for a couple days to make sure—out at seven-thirty, home by five—before I decide to go over. The guy is punctual, if nothing else.

Outside, the morning is cloudy, the air so thick with moisture, it feels like I’m walking through a bowl of chowder soup. Mrs. Amblin is already stretched out on her lawn chair, wearing a massive floppy sunhat and reading an old People magazine with JFK Jr. on the front, a set of over-sized sunglasses perched low over her nose. She pulls them lower as I pass, gives me her red lipstick smile that says: I’m watching . . . always watching.

I wave at her—nothing to see here—and bound up Winter’s steps.

She answers on the fourth knock, the door cracking open with a stale whiff of air. “Hey,” she says, toeing a fringe of orange shag spilling over the threshold.

“Hi, you maybe want to—”

She looks up and my mouth goes dry at the swamp of purple devouring her eye.

“He did this?”

She nods.

“Winter . . . ”

Her eyes harden. “He was right to. There are things about me . . . us . . . you don’t know.”

“I know a father shouldn’t hit his daughter.” I say it with more force than I intend, the anger in my voice setting her back a step.

She eyes me like she sees something new. A hidden monster in me waiting to erupt.

“Look . . . I gotta go, Kyle,” she says, moving to close the door. “I’m sorry I scared you.”

“Wait,” I say, planting a hand against the door, “Are you talking about the bird? Because that was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” I’m not lying. It’s all I’ve thought about the last few days, how the hell she did it—the rush of feathers, that oil-smooth motion.

Her face lights up, a pale sunrise, like that first warm glow of the day when everything is bursting with promise.

I take a chance and grab her hand—the first time I’ve touched her, her palm cool against mine—and pull her toward the door.

“What are you doing?” she asks, not really resisting.

“Let’s go to the park for a bit. It’s right down the street.”

She looks skyward with a hard swallow, her Adam’s apple cutting a sharp path down her neck. “I can’t. The sun—”

“Won’t do anything.” I swing up the umbrella I brought—Mom’s purple-striped one—and open it. “And besides, it’s cloudy today. No sun, see?” I step aside for her to look out, which she does with a quick glance up at the gray dome of clouds foaming overhead.

“I don’t know . . . ”

“C’mon,” I plead, “when’s the last time you had some fun?”

“It’s been . . . a while.”

I give her my best puppy-dog eyes and curl my hands over my chest like a set of paws. “P-p-please.”

She giggles—like water bubbling—and blows at her bangs with a sigh. “Yeah, okay. But only for a minute.”


The park is busier than I’ve seen in ages, the playground buzzing with kids. Moms fringe the sides and chat in clusters of twos and threes. Dogs wheel over the grass after brightly colored frisbees. A group of knobby-kneed sixth-graders enthusiastically smash into each other, playing flag football.

I lead Winter away from all the chaos, and we sit on a bench beneath a dense set of birch trees. The wind rustles softly through the leaves. It takes a good five minutes for her shoulders to unclench and five more before she stops glancing at the sky like she half-expects to catch fire.

Then she’s staring at me with those dazzling blue eyes of hers. They’re, clearer out here in the light, cleaner, the color of lake water.

“Thanks,” she says. “I needed this.” Her hand slips into mine and my heart beats a little faster.

“I figured.”

We stay like that, hand-in-hand, quiet, enjoying the breeze while I work up the courage to ask her the question that’s been bothering me since she moved in. When I finally do, my voice nearly cracks.

“Are you . . . okay? I mean, with your dad and all?”

She blinks, sighs. “He means well. He’s a little overprotective after what happened to Mom.”

“With the cancer?”

Her eyebrows arch like she doesn’t know what I’m talking about, then they settle quickly back into place. “Cancer? Yeah—I mean, sort of, but it’s more than that, it’s . . . ”

She rubs her arms and glances around like she just realized she was outside. “I—I can’t talk about it. I . . .  should go. I’m sorry, Kyle, this was a mistake. I’m not safe for you.”

My mouth unhinges as she stands, and I’m kicking myself, an apology already halfway out of my mouth when a football thumps down nearby. A boy runs up to retrieve it, his cheeks puffing red beneath a pile of rice-colored hair.

“Sorry,” he says, bending to grab it. “We . . . ” He trails off, his eyes flicking first at Winter, then at me, his mouth agape.

“Wh—what is that?” he asks, pointing at Winter’s feet.

It takes me a second to see her shadow rippling there, moving like a sheen of placid water disturbed by a rock. I blink at it, rub my eyes.

It’s still there when I open them, wavering, expanding across the turf like an anorexic version of Winter. The arms are unnaturally long, the fingertips wire-thin and quivering.

She gasps at it, her face suddenly glue-white, and stumbles back, trips. The umbrella flies from her hand.

I realize the sun’s burning through the clouds.

Her shadow writhes in the sudden spray of light. The entire thing seizes up, congeals into a black pitch pool of darkness. A ribbon of flame sparks around the shadow’s edges, the grass catching fire.

Its torso expands.

An arm slithers through the grass toward the boy. Wraps around his ankle, his thigh. A flurry of thin-bone fingers curl over his shin.

Then he’s shrieking—ripping past me through the scorched grass, yanked backward, to the shadow’s cave-black jaw.

I dive for his hand, catch a handful of shirt instead.

He jerks to a stop and I struggle to hold on. A highway of blue veins explodes over my forearm. The boy’s eyes bulge—the whites shining—and all I can hear is his voice pitching higher and higher as he shrieks, repeats: “Help me! Help me!

The seam over his shoulder tears. Don’t you dare let go, Kyle! The stitches pop one by one, snick, snick, snick, before he catapults across the turf.

The shadow’s jaw distends, and the boy’s feet disappear first, grinding away, followed by his legs and waist. Disappearing is the wrong word. It’s more like . . . dissolving, an unraveling of his DNA, strand by strand.

His eyes never leave mine. They’re filled with this awful disbelief.  A question hangs there in them: Why?

I scream as they disappear too. His splayed hand sinks lower, turns to a fine carbon mist.

“Run, Kyle! Run!”

Winter’s voice cuts through the fog in my brain.

I jerk upright and take a step, slam back down. A searing heat bleeds through my skin. Something coils around my ankle.

I roll over to see Winter scrambling for the umbrella, but she can’t gain any traction, the shadow somehow anchoring her in place.

My hands tear out chunks of grass as it drags me closer, my fingers digging desperate trenches through the soil. I howl as I feel my foot near its maw and plunge in.

The pain is incredible, like being dunked into a pot of boiling water so hot it feels cold.

I almost pass out.

Sparks distort my vision. A blur of motion cuts in front of me. Tree-trunk arms and a blanket. A pair of close-set eyes and a shining bald head.

The pressure in my calf releases and I look down to . . . nothing, no foot, no shin, just a pile of charred, oozing flesh and bits of ash drifting higher and higher.


A week after I wake, numb and shell-shocked, the police question me in the hospital. They grill me until a nurse orders them out with a snide, “That’s enough. He’s in no shape for this.”

It isn’t until I’m discharged that they drag me downtown for a second round: No, I don’t know what happened to the girl or her father. No, sorry, I have no clue as to their last name—I wish I did. Yes, the boy dissolved into a shadow, same as my leg . . .

In the end, I guess they have too many corresponding witness accounts, too many strange descriptions of what happened, to charge me—or anyone else for that matter—with the boy’s disappearance. All they have are a bunch of nonsensical statements, a grief-stricken mother in search of answers that will never come.

I know because I want them myself.

Six months later, when I’m out on the porch sipping a tall glass of lemonade with what’s left of my leg stretched out in front of me, throbbing like an open wound, the letter comes.

The mailman spots me, glances at my stub knee, then the envelope in his hand, brings it up the steps. “I think this is for you,” he says, handing it to me with a look I’ve grown accustomed to: a blend of pity and relief. Pity for me. Relief it isn’t him.

I hold the letter in my hands as he shambles away, the envelope wrinkled, the address—Kyle Carrington, 11080 Swallow Way—smudged in spots, like whoever had written it had been crying. I carefully slit the crease with trembling fingers and pull out the piece of paper folded inside.

Kyle,

It’s hard for me to write this. After what I did to you, to that boy . . . there are no words. Nothing I can say or do will fix things.

All I know is you made me happy, and all I did was hurt you.

It’s all I’ve ever done, really . . . hurt the people I love.

My mom. My dad. You . . .  

He saved you, you know, my dad did. Brought you to the hospital after that old woman across the street told him where we’d gone, after he found you . . .

I read the rest of it, my eyes pouring over every word, then go to my bedroom.

I pull the blinds and lock the door. Burrow beneath the covers.

A foul shiver swims up my arms. That . . . thing in the park changed me.

I’ve suspected it for a while now, the way my shadow wavers and curls in the sun, the motion unnatural. And indoors, how it slides over the walls like a flicker of smoke in the lamplight.

I close my eyes and think of the last line in Winter’s letter for the thousandth time already. The words crash through my brain like a thunderstorm.

Kyle, I’m so sorry, but whatever you do, you must never, ever go outside.

 

About the Author

Spread the word!

Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on reddit
Reddit
Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on email
Email

Thank you so much for your support!

blank

Hate ads? Us too. Click here to subscribe.

Post a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.