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Mystery Fiction Suspense

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

All Joan could think about as she scurried through the employee parking lot was a getting home to a nice hot shower, a cup of hot rooibos tea, and bed. It was 11:05 pm, so her girls, Mandy and Julie, would already be in bed. Her husband Brandon could still be up reading and if he was, he might offer to rub her feet. After working a 12-hour shift in the ER her feet, not to mention her legs, were aching. As Joan imagined Brandon’s strong hands kneading her throbbing feet, a figure behind her interrupted her thoughts.  She listened intently, but all she could hear were her own hammering heart and her increasingly quick footsteps. The only other sounds she heard were a siren and barking dogs in the distance.  When she turned her head to look behind her, she didn’t see anyone, but she undoubtedly saw a solid dark shadow juxtaposed against the parking lot lights and her.   It seemed to be the same height as her, 5’6”, but possibly wider.

She felt like her blood had drained from her body. “Who’s there?” Nobody answered, but the shadow was still lurking behind her. Then, as suddenly as it came, it dissipated. She ran the few remaining feet to her white Subaru Outback, hit the key fob, jumped in, and locked the door. What the hell was that she thought as she sat quivering in her driver’s seat. She was so shaken, she seriously wondered whether she could drive the 20 minutes from West Chester to Downingtown. Should I call Brandon to pick me up? No, he’d have to bring the girls with him. Then, they’d be cranky and tired the next day in school. Who could I call this time of night? It wouldn’t be fair to wake up any of my friends just because I’m imagining things. That’s what it was, right? I need to put on my “big girl” pants and drive home. Joan perused the employee parking lot. Nobody was anywhere around except for a female doctor and a male nurse engrossed in conversation as they sauntered to their cars. Joan took some deep belly breaths to settle herself and started her car.

Joan’s two-story mid-century modern house was dark except for the outside lights and the mudroom, kitchen, and master bedroom lights. She turned on the tea kettle and tiptoed up the stairs to say hello to Brandon and get into her pajamas. She forgot about the foot massage. “Hey babe, you’re home a little later than usual. Is everything OK?” said her husband. 

She decided not to tell Brandon about the shadow in the parking lot. He already hated her working at night, especially 12-hour shifts, but that schedule worked best for them at this point in her daughters’ lives. It was only three nights per week. Joan was still able to make sure the Mandy and Julie ate a substantial breakfast and help them get ready for school. On the nights Joan worked, Brandon got the girls off the bus in the afternoon. On the other two days, she did. Their current schedule was the perfect set-up for their family. “Sorry, I was finishing up with a trauma patient who came in at 10:30. Bad car accident. One woman was seriously injured. We’re not sure she’ll make it through the night. Very sad.” She kissed her husband softly on his lips. “I’m going downstairs to have my nightly cup of tea.”

“You look a little pale. Are you feeling alright, Joan? I know how car accident patients can get you worked up.”

“I just do my job and try not to dwell on the patients. I’m OK, really.

Brandon furrowed his brow. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’m just tired, but I’m too wired to sleep. I’ll be up soon.”

Brandon removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m working from home tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll get the girls ready for school. Give you a chance to sleep in a bit.” He worried about his wife working such long hours and driving at night, but that was non-negotiable as far as she was concerned.

“It’s only three nights a week. Besides, once Mandy and Julie are older, I’ll work the day shift,” she’d tell him.

Joan kept her encounter with the shadow to herself and rationalized that she was just feeling over-tired, and her imagination was playing tricks on her. She did find herself hypervigilant since then though. Whenever she went out of her house, she looked around constantly. Her daughters called her out on her odd behavior more than once. “Mom, what are you looking for.” Also, on more than one occasion, she almost tripped over a curb because she was too busy watching behind her to see what was in front of her. People at work noticed her jumpiness. If one of her coworkers placed their hand on her arm, she would jump clean out of her skin. Brandon was also concerned about her strange conduct. It was late May, and they liked to keep the windows open so they could enjoy the sweet, fresh air. Before going to bed, Joan would close and lock the downstairs windows but not the ones upstairs. Since the shadow incident, though, she closed and locked the upstairs windows at night. “Babe, it’s going to be stifling in here with those windows shut. Nobody’s gonna climb up to the second floor to rob and murder us in our sleep,” Brandon teased her.

“That’s not funny, Brandon,” Joan would say checking the window locks again.

Joan’s mind wandered all the time too, and she had difficulty paying attention to conversations. Her daughters and Brandon were constantly telling her that she hadn’t been listening to what they had said to her. Two days ago, Mandy reminded Joan right before bedtime that she was supposed to bring her mom’s delicious homemade oatmeal cookies to school the next day.

“Why are you just telling me this now?” Joan scolded.

“Mom” Mandy whined, “I told you yesterday morning at breakfast, and you said, “No problem.”

“I’m sorry, honey. You did tell me. I’m sorry for getting mad at you.” “I’ll make them tonight.” Joan vaguely remembered her previous conversation with her daughter though.  Although Joan was looking forward to settling down with Brandon to watch Bridgerton, instead, she was baking until 10:30 pm.

Despite Joan’s hypervigilance and distractedness, she walked through the employee lot for the five days, and everywhere else, without incident. Then, the shadow appeared in the back seat of her car when she was on her way home one evening from West Chester. She had been dwelling on the young mom, who came into the ER the previous night pretty banged up from an automobile accident, and missed her turn. Consequently, Joan had to turn at the intersection where she had her accident 15 years ago. Usually, she avoided it—too many bad memories. A young woman in the other car had died.

Joan cautiously made a left turn onto 340 and almost closed her eyes as she started up the steep, windy road. Abruptly, in her rearview mirror, Joan saw a dark shadow hovering in the back seat.  “What the hell!” she cried and moved swiftly to the side shoulder and almost got hit by the car behind her. When she put her car in park, Joan spun around to get a good look at the shadowy presence but hoped it was gone.  Sure enough, it was still there. She grabbed her purse, flung open her car door, and hopped out of her car. Joan stopped ten feet from her Subaru and felt as if her heart was going to shatter. There’s got to be a logical explanation, thought Joan. She examined the space above and behind the shadow to see what caused it but couldn’t find anything. Then, as rapidly as it appeared, the shadow disappeared. First the shadow in the parking lot, now here. It can’t be a person because it vanishes. Then, she felt a chill undulate up her spine. Is it an entity? Does it want to hurt me?

The shadow emerged again the next night after her shift at the hospital. A nineteen-year-old died shortly after she was brought into the ER. She had sustained multiple internal injuries because of a car accident. Joan was really shaken, so when she sensed the shadow behind her while she walked to her car, she wheeled on it. “Who are you and what the fuck do you want with me?” she screamed. It had the audacity to linger for another minute before it disappeared in the darkness. She was convinced that she was truly losing it. She decided to recount the shadow incidents to Brandon when she got home, but she discovered her husband snoring with his novel opened face down on his chest. She’d wait till morning.

She felt her nerves settle as she sipped her rooibos tea and opened her iPad. This is my imagination, maybe other people have experienced it too, she thought. The first thing she typed into Google typed was, “Can people imagine a shadow behind them?” According to several sites, she was experiencing psychosis. Oh my God, this can’t be happening, she thought as she clasped her face with her palms. Her heart hammered as she scrolled further down the screen. Then, she came across an article about the shadow self. The shadow self was a term coined by psychoanalyst Carl Jung. According to the article, we all have a shadow self. It refers to the parts of ourselves we deem dark and weak, that we hide or deny. I have a pretty good grasp on who I am don’t I?  What could I be hiding or denying about myself? Forcefully, the answer hit her. The impact of it was so tremendous that it almost crushed her. I’m a murderer!

Joan closed her eyes and thought back to that fatal evening when she was 22 years old. Her boyfriend of one year and seven months, Tim, had just broken up with her. She stormed out of his house with tears and black mascara streaming down her face. She kept wiping it with a Kleenex so she could at least see to drive, but she drove down Route 340 as if on autopilot. Just as she hit the accelerator before the light could turn yellow, a blue Buick turned left in front of her. Joan broadsided the car. A middle-aged man drove, his wife was in the passenger seat, and their three children were in the back seat. The man wasn’t injured, the two girls and a boy only suffered minor injuries, but the woman was hit broadside and died at the hospital four hours later.

Along with losing his beloved wife and the mother of his children, the man received a ticket for making a left turn into oncoming traffic.  He must still be haunted with “If only I hadn’t made that left turn when I did.”  Joan wasn’t charged with anything but struggled with the knowledge that, despite the man’s error, she inadvertently killed a woman. Joan’s therapist at the time assured her that the accident wasn’t her fault and helped her to move on, but something was bringing it all back to her. A sickening thought emerged. If I hadn’t been distracted and didn’t barrel through the light, I may have been able to see the turning Buick and apply my brakes in time, and the woman would have lived. Joan was wracked with painful tears spilling down her cheeks. She was afraid she would wake up her husband and kids, but she couldn’t stop. I’ve got to deal with this, but I must find that woman’s husband and tell him to stop blaming himself.

October 28, 2022 21:30

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1 comment

Jeannette Miller
01:05 Nov 06, 2022

An intriguing story and a cliff hanger to boot! I was thinking maybe she had a connection with people who died during her shift in car accidents and it was their shadows following her. Maybe if she met up with the man, they could forgive each other?


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