Accepting Mica’s dare was a big, big mistake.
I realize that now that I’m standing here on top of the flight of crumbling stairs, gawping at the height she wants me to jump. The wind is whipping at my curly red hair, blowing it everywhere and making it hard for me to see. I’m scared the wind will whisk me away along with all the autumn leaves, and I know that instead of floating daintily to the ground, I’d become an ugly human jam on the cement way down below.
The old railing of the abandoned Children’s Hospital’s main staircase has long since clattered to the floor quite few feet down, so there’s nothing but the crumbling side wall to hold onto. It’s too late to back out, though, and right now I’m just trying muster up enough courage to jump the thirty orange stairs.
The breeze blows a dusty orange leaf into my mouth, and I nearly choke.
‘What are you waiting for?,’ Mica calls up to me, her voice bouncing off the old yellow and blue walls of the Children’s Hospital. ‘Come on, jump!’
Carefully, scared I’m going to fall and go splatter on the cement, I crane my neck to see Mica staring up at me with her arms crossed, the wind messing with her white-dyed shoulder length hair.
I see her big circle rim glasses reflect the rapidly dying sunlight, and I know I have to hurry; the Children’s Hospital was an awesome place to hang out at during the day, with tons of abandoned rooms to explore, and creepy old things to find and wonder about. But I’d rather not spend the evening here: night time is when the Shadows come out.
And everybody knows what happens when the shadows come out.
‘I’m gonna do it! Get out of the way!’ I shout, just as a particularly strong, cold gust of wind threatens to push me off the stairs.
‘It’s about time!’’
I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and in my head I count the steps in my run-up:
I’m leaping, flying, soaring though the air. The wind whistles in my ears, and my orange curls are in my face again, making it hard to see where I’m going to land. For a few moments, it’s like my heart doesn’t beat at all, it’s like it’s standing still with the rest of the world, the way it only ever does when I’m in the air.
The drop is higher and takes a lot longer than I’d anticipated, and I find myself starting to panic slightly.
Luckily, I remember to bend my knees and form a slight ball with my body, just like Coach had taught me to do when I’m jumping big distances, and my hair is swept out of my eyes just in time to prepare for the landing.
Now it’s just touch down, roll to absorb the impact… bounce back to my feet and stick the landing.
‘Thank you, thank you,’ I say with a smile, bowing left then right then left again, like I had seen the Olympic gymnasts do whenever I got the chance to watch television. I was out of breath, but I was sill going to put on a show. I can’t not put on a show.
‘What d’ya think?,’ I ask Mica, who was standing there, pale as snow with her mouth hanging open slightly. I smile victoriously as I pat her on the back.
'Wasn't that just awesome, Mica? ,’I say. ‘Wasn’t I awesome? I was like, woosh, and it felt like I was flying and was completely weightless, and I’m so gonna tell Coach about it, because it’s the biggest gap I’ve ever jumped, and maybe he’ll- ’
‘’We’re leaving,’’ Mica suddenly interrupts me. She grabs my arm and starts speed walking to where we’d left our backpacks earlier; in one of the crumbling corners of the old, abandoned Hospital. ‘Now.’
Confused, I try to push her off me, but she just tightens her grip on my sleeve and keeps walking. She might be built like a twig, but her grasp on my wrist is strong.
It only takes a moment for me to realize she’s shaking.
‘What's wrong?,’ I ask. ‘Mica, come on, we can leave if you want to, sheesh, but there’s really no need to hurry; we still have an hour before the sun goes down. And can’t we just take a moment to appreciate that jump because- ‘’
‘No,’ she says, hastily slipping into her quilted jacket and stuffing her purple notebook into her bag and slinging it over her shoulder. ‘Tally, we have to get out of here. Now.’
‘Mica, please, why- '
‘Tally, it’s June. Twenty-first June.’
‘So what? What does that… oh. Ohhhhh,’’ my hand flies to my mouth and I hurriedly join her on the ground to pack up my own things. Twice my hands can’t get a proper grip on my water bottle, and Mica has to help me pick it up.
By the time we finally got everything together, it seems a lot darker than before. It feels like my blood has turned to ice, and I shiver even though I’m wearing another hoodie over my pink one.
How the hell did I forget about the Winter Solstice?
‘’Tally, now probably isn’t the best time to tell you but… I -I think I saw a Shadow, earlier, just when you started taking your run- up,’’ my best friend turns to me, her eyes darting this way and that, terrified. ‘’No way it was a Faded Shadow. No way: it was huge. At least fifteen feet tall, pure black and sort of faded around the edges. It had these massive yellow eyes and – I’m scared, Tally. I’m terrified. You know what happens when the Shadows come out.’’
‘’Hey, it’s okay, it’s gonna be okay,’’ I say. ‘’I’m scared, too, but we’re gonna get out of here, I know it. I didn’t bring mine, but you have your phone, right? Shadows can’t stand light; we’ll be perfectly safe as long as we have a torch.’’
Mica looks up at me, her glasses slightly fogged up, her big blue eyes one blink away from giving into the tears.
‘’Tally, my phone’s dead.’’
There’s only one way out of the part of the building we were playing truth or dare in, and unfortunately that’s through Room Hallway.
We call it ‘’Room Hallway’’ because of all the rooms you can access through it. When the Hospital still accepted patients, Room Hallway was probably where they had all stayed, awaiting diagnosis and recovering or dying from illnesses and injuries. During the day, it’s an awesome exploring space for us, but during the night, it may as well be called ‘’Certain Doom Room Hallway’’: there are endless nooks and crannies for Shadows to hide in and pounce out from.
And everyone knows what happens when the Shadows come out.
‘’Come on,’’ I say as I grip my bag’s shoulder strap with one hand, Mica’s hand tightly with the other. ‘’We can do this. On the count of three, we’re going to sprint as fast as we can. Just outside Room Hallway, there’s that building that was definitely an operating room while this place was still in use, remember? There’s that massive rip in the wall there I showed you last time. We jump through and we’ll be out.’’
I was talking really fast, and I was getting out of breath. It seemed to get darker every passing second; and the lighter it was, the better were our chances of surviving the trip home.
‘’There are Shadows in the Forest,’’ I say, gripping Mica’s hand even tighter. ‘’Hundreds of them; it’s practically their home. But we’ll only have to run a short way. There are Light Guards just outside the forest, they’ll be able to help us get home.
Mica nods, a tiny nod, and peers into the darkening hallway. Her brother, Mitchell, is obsessed with the Light Guards, and he knows everything there is to know about the heroes who protect our cities with their glowing armor and light sabre like weapons.
Lucky for him, he’s never been out late enough to need their help. And neither had we before today.
‘’We still have some daylight left. The Shadow you saw probably was Faded; you're just being paranoid. Are you ready?’’
‘As I’ll ever be, I guess.’’
‘On the count of three. One… two… three!’’
We run. As fast as our legs can carry us, even though it doesn’t feel extremely fast at all. It’s already hard to see in the faded light and combined with the dark atmosphere of the building it’s nearly impossible. Once, Mica trips over some rusty metal contraption, and while in the daytime I would’ve stopped to examine it, now was not the time to.
Because it would’ve made us even easier prey to the Shadows.
Because everyone knows what happens when the Shadows come out.
The hallway seems to stretch out forever, and while we’re running, I can feel Shadows’ wispy arms reaching for my hair, grasping my ankles weakly and tugging at my hoodie. From the corner of my eyes, I can see little spheres of yellow light bobbing up and down, Shadow eyes.
Mica’s sweaty hand starts to slip in mine, and at the end of the hallway we make the sharp left turn into the old operating room, nearly skidding on an oily red part of the floor. Years of brutal parkour training finally pays off when I expertly lazy vault over the crumbled wall, and dive roll into freedom.
Also known as the forest floor.
I’m actually pretty proud of myself: two perfect unprepared stunts in one day.
Unfortunately, I don’t have much time to bask in the glory of my deeds, because I’d let go of Mica’s hand when I slithered over the gap in the wall, and she was struggling to get herself rolled across the wide concrete pile.
I trot back to help her out, and just as she drops safely to the ground -bending her knees to absorb the impact like I had taught her, I’m so proud- I look back and stare straight into a pair of massive, glowing yellow orbs.
School taught us many things about Shadows. Every kid knows what Shadows look like, even if they’ve never seen them in real life. Every kid knows that Shadows thrive in and feed on the very thing they are made of, darkness, and that that’s why they are afraid of or perhaps allergic to light. Every kid knows that you should always carry a light source with you, just to be safe. We know that, although most of them are vaguely human shaped, they have no ears, noses or any sign of reproductive organs, and we’ve yet to discover where they come from.
And, most importantly, we know that Shadows range from light to dark, and that the Darker their colour, the bigger and more dangerous they are.
The one I’m staring at right now has to be at least fifteen feet tall, and pure black. It’s taking up nearly the whole back wall of the operating room where it’s squatting, staring at me with its huge, shimmering yellow light bulb eyes. The edges of its large translucent black body blends nearly perfectly with the dark grey wall, and I know that the moment it was merged completely, the only clue to its existence the scary yellow orbs, it would be invisible.
And deadly. Really, really deadly.
‘’Shh,’’ I whisper-interrupt my best friend, not daring to take my eyes of the monster that was rapidly bleeding into the wall. ‘’Don’t panic, just stay calm and back away carefully. Slowly. I know a place we can hide; it’s not perfect, but it’s surrounded by light and right now it’s closer to us than the forest edge. We can stay the night, and we’ll get home first thing in the morning.’’
Mica appears by my side and slips her hand into mine again. It’s sweaty and shaking, but warm and it’s comforting to know I don’t have to face this alone.
‘’Okay,’’ she whispers. ‘’ Where do we go?’’
‘’Left, then do a full one-eighty and go straight ‘till we come to the Whirly tree.’’
‘The whirly tree?’’ Mica whispers. ‘‘That’s barely any distance from the Hospital, and last time I checked, there aren’t any lights. Tally, let’s just-’’
‘‘It’s a long story,’’ I cut her off. ‘’You just have to trust me on this one. Unless you want to run through the whole wood without any lights to get to the edge, and risk facing even more of these monsters?’’
She grips my hand tighter, and I squeeze back.
‘’I trust you Tally. Let’s go.’’
‘’That is officially the most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to me. EVER.’’
Mica flops onto one of the mattresses of the Whirly Tree Treehouse. We call it the Whirly tree because its branches twist this way and that, making the trunk look like a knotted rope. Until a while ago, there wasn’t even a treehouse here - just the tree and its curly branches- but Mica’s birthday was around the corner, so I thought…
‘’We’re gonna be in so much trouble.’’
‘’Nah, we won’t.’’
‘’How can you be so sure?’’
‘’No one’s gonna find out, that’s how,’’ I say, rummaging through the tiny wooden cupboards I’d installed here a few months ago, in search of the food stash. ‘’We just don’t tell anyone.’’
‘’We can’t just- ‘’
‘’Crackers and cheese or dry cornflakes?’’
‘’Is that even a question? But-’’
‘’Fair point. Water or- ‘’
‘’Tally,’’ Mica says, sitting up straight. ‘’We can’t just not tell anyone.’’
‘’Can we just forget about it?’’ I say, avoiding her pleading gaze when I hand her a plate of crackers. ‘’Let’s just eat and go to sleep, please.’’
‘’Forget about it? Just eat and… and go to sleep? Tally, have you lost your mind?’’ Mica says, startled. ‘’ We just saw a midnight Shadow. Midnight! The sun wasn’t even down completely yet, how the hell did it get there?’’
‘’Don’t know, don’t want to know.’’
‘’We have to tell someone!’’
‘’You sound like our teachers!,’’ I spit. ‘’Don’t you get it? If we report the Shadow, we’ll have to tell them about the Hospital!’’
Mica goes quiet. The Hospital means as much, if not more, to her as it does to me. I know I struck a nerve. She couldn’t report the Shadow, it would take away everything we’ve built in the forest, all our games and hiding places, the ruins we’ve claimed and named after ourselves.
And my birthday gift to her; it would take away the treehouse, too.
‘’Look, Tally, I really don’t want to fight with you,’’ Mica says after a long silence. ‘’I don’t want to lose the forest any less than you do.
So, we’ll do what you suggested; eat, go to sleep and get home first thing in the morning. Then we can decide what to do about the Shadow, because we have to do something about it. Deal?’’
She gives me a pat on the back, sits down next to me and together we nibble at our crackers in silence.
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.
Oh my gosh. Wow. This story is just so beautifully written, and the writing style feels poetic in a way. The ending is very open, which I also like. Beautiful work.
This is kind of a repost, but I really like this piece I wrote and want to get more feedback on it, so I edited it according to some criticism I recieved a while back. I think it's more polished now (even if just slightly so). Hopefully I'll be posting more regularly. :)