Some people in this life are wisps, pale fragments of themselves, delicate grey skin and skinny bones broken from being shoved into winds meant for greater strength than they possessed, caught up and trembling, probably addicted in one way or another, too scared to change, too self-pitying to try, too sick to care, too angry to love.
Two of these people had a son.
And a house by extension. Family members, headed by a formidable "Aunt Angie", scraped together funds for a new life-- do it for the child, Martha-- funds for the option to be better, an order to stop being people blighting the family name, to stop being embarrassing to mention at Christmas dinners. Do it for us, maybe, if not for him?
The stone path leading to this house is grey and stumbling, stained with stories. Holmes could deduce quite a lot about its inhabitants from it, "Observe here, Watson, the beer glass broken. The old stain of rust-- no, not rust. The mud caked on the edge of this rock from a lazy shoe. And in the middle-- the pattern of smoothness from feet is different. The walkers of this house stumble their way to the front door. Conclusion? Alcoholics."
But oh, what a front door. Only the best from Aunt Angie; a chunky white frame greets you, or it would be white if there weren't fights going on that made bottles fly and strike the house's structure, like it's a punishment, like it's an insult, like they are so determined to be unhappy… Well, full stop, actually.
The walls are crumbling and slotted together from chunks of granite. It used to be a farmhouse, used to house cattle or horses or pigs. Perhaps it's where they were kept before going off to be packaged and processed and wrapped up in plastic. Do you like it? Said Aunt Angie. You'll be back to society in no time. Clever Aunt Angie. If worst comes to worst, there's a building all ready for her poor, slaughtered pigs, with blood already on the walls. It's used to atrocity, at least.
It certainly makes things easier.
Finally, there are rickety stairs inside, where the son of these two broken people has a warning bell built-in for when they come up-- probably stumbling drunk, with his luck. He knows their shadows outside his door, knows from the creak of their footsteps what kind of mood he's looking at-- and he buries himself deeper in the comforter, nine times out of ten, to pray they walk past and ignore him, this time, please this time, let him get some sleep, he's so sick of wrapping bandages around himself.
Aunt Angie is a clever woman, the family said fondly, toasting the end of the uncomfortable problem of Janine and Brad and the son. With a place of their own, things will be much better.
Aunt Angie is a clever woman.
But she's not a kind one.
"Do you think," said the little boy, his eyes on the ceiling, his hands above him, fiddling with a stuffed animal, "do you think there's somewhere I could go?" His voice is sweet and small and has a lilt to it, the adorable lilt of someone growing an accent.
"There are many places you could go," said Shadow. "I think the better question is if those places will keep you." Its voice rumbled, deep and quiet, from under the bed, or at least the son thinks so. He's never sure where Shadow comes from.
"Why wouldn't they keep me?" asked the son, his eyes lowered to his hands. The lamp provides a warm yellow glow in the room, illuminating the faded sheep on his comforter—only the best from Aunt Angie. "Why wouldn't they," he said again, louder when Shadow doesn't respond.
"I suppose there are people who don't like children or something," said Shadow finally, sounding guilty for the son's sake.
He's silent for a long time while his father snores in the next room. "I suppose I'm used to that."
This is not a true story.
In true stories, there is a moral. Something learned, something lost. Something bought, something stolen. In this story, there is nothing to learn because of the quality of the schools in the area. Nothing worth losing because it's ruined already. What money to buy? Stolen things only have value to those who take them.
The moral would probably be to Never Get Caught. If you're caught, you pray for a quick end.
"Are you sleeping up there, little boy?" whispered Shadow the first time they met.
There was a long pause.
"Yes," said the son, his voice hesitant with the lie. "Who is that?"
"I'm bored," said Shadow. "What about you?"
"I'm sleeping, remember?"
"No you're not, then you wouldn't be talking."
"Who is that?" the son repeated, with a voice slightly louder than before (but not so loud, or his mother would be angry) and a tinge more afraid.
"I don't really know," said Shadow, sounding sad. "Can you tell me, please? It's very nice to talk to someone."
The sheets, swiped from a motel (only the best from Aunt Angie), crinkle as the son rolled over. "Why dontcha talk to anyone?"
"There's nobody else," said Shadow.
The son considers this, spectacles still on and cutting marks into his forehead, his little face red-cheeked, dark hair sprawling over his skull. Young and delicious and new, thought Shadow.
"I don't know," said the son. "Maybe you're my shadow. Arabella says shadows are you, just different looking, and they follow you wherever you go. Can I call you Shadow?"
"Go ahead," said the newly named Shadow, attached to a word now and pleased about it. "What can I call you?"
"I got a name," said the son. He told Shadow.
"Who's Arabella?" Shadow asked.
The son considers, toying with the edge of the frayed comforter. "You wanna come up here and talk?"
"Not really," said Shadow, annoyed at the avoided question.
"I'm very scary-looking, and you would scream."
"I wouldn't scream," frowned the son. "If I did, it would wake Mummy and Daddy up and then they would be really mad. I don't want them really mad."
"I don't want to come up," Shadow decided. "But we can talk like this. Who's Arabella?"
"Really smart," said the son, flopping back onto his pillow, the light from his lamp catching his glasses. "She's in my class, but Mummy says her mother is a b-b- botch, so I don't talk to her."
"What's a botch?"
Shadow listened to the son’s breathing, to the breathing of his parents, to the quiet creaking of a house that is never quiet. Its claws curl, wherever it is.
"Something bad," the son replied.
In the daytime, the house is rarely quiet, much to Shadow's annoyance. It stayed in corners and coat closets with hands over ears (in the descriptive sense only, however, as Shadow had its own way of blocking out the noise without the use of hands or ears, neither of which it possesses.) Janine and Brad have their own daily activities to go through. Often a fight in the morning, with the son leaving hurriedly for school, then one of them disappearing for hours at a time to make a grocery run or perhaps meet with a hookup, they're not picky. The routine changes, Shadow has noticed. But sometimes they stay inside sitting in their own filth, sometimes their friends come and join them in the filth, in the pigsty, in the slaughterhouse all ready for the slaughter, (if worst comes to worst, according to Aunt Angie, and one of those fools overdoses.) Once Janine cooked, but she burned it, and Brad burned her with the frying pan, and she never cooked again.
The noises she made as he did are the reason Shadow no longer listens to them.
In the evenings, it's Burger King bags the son carried from school, as he enters the house with his head down and his eyes flat, sliding the food outside their door like one feeds a tiger at a zoo.
Shadow doesn't think he should have to be afraid of his own family.
"Why do they hurt you?" Shadow asked from the corner as the son gets ready for bed.
He paused in the act of pulling a white tank top off. Shadow averts its eyes.
"I don't know," the son said, tall and broad and thoughtful, still with spectacles, still with posture hunched over from years of ducking, wearing cheap camo pants (only the best from Aunt Angie) and his face shaved in uneven jabs from the razor in need of a replacement blade. Sixteen years old and still unable to answer the question of a child. "Why do you think they hurt me?" He spoke softly, as is their custom.
"They hate you," Shadow answered as a guess. The son shrugged.
"Perhaps, but I'm not so sure. They certainly hate, but I don't know if it's me they hate." He laughed a little, with bitterness. "I think they need a punching bag. I don't think they see me at all sometimes."
He'd finished dressing for bed and had gone over to lock the door and to grab the baseball bat concealed behind it, the end sharpened to a point. Only once has Shadow seen him use it, but as it remained in his room, he doesn't think Brad remembers the incident.
"They're animals," Shadow said. Another guess.
"No," the son replied, coming over to his bed and sitting down carefully, so it doesn't creak. "They're very human. Humans are mean; animals act on instincts."
Mean. A child's word.
"Do you have parents?" the son asked as he tucks himself in. This question has come up numerous times over the years, in different variations. What are you, who are you, where do you come from, why can't I see you, how can you talk?
"No," said Shadow. A beat. "I don't think so." It finds the idea strangely disconcerting to not have parents. To be… origin-less.
The son smiled up at the ceiling. "That's okay that you don't," he said, reading Shadow's mind with annoying ease. "Mine suck, so maybe you're lucky."
Shadow hesitated, fiddling with its thoughts. "Maybe parents are less who creates you and more who... teach you?"
"Maybe," mused the son. He laughed. "In that case, I'm the world's greatest father. Look how nicely I turned out, teaching myself." He chuckled at this, finds it humorous, but Shadow does not.
"Goodnight, Shadow," the son said after a few moments.
The light stayed on, as per their custom. The bulb winked and crackled. Only the best, from Aunt Angie.
Seventeen years earlier
The family reunion is warm, awkward, with people you know and people you don't remember acting like they know you, like they recognize you. Aunt Angie holds sway in the living room. Janine and Brad are nowhere to be found.
"Probably out working," said Marcy, with a tinkling laugh, even though everyone knows the opposite is true: probably, they are hunched in an alleyway sucking on morphine, squirming like the white, pale maggots they are.
Aunt Angie smiled from the front of the room. "Not likely, Marcy."
They are startled. Nobody talks about those two and smiles.
"Janine's pregnant," said Angie.
Once, the news would have meant applause and screaming and crying for Janine, for the sweet blond Janine she used to be, and a proud clap-on-the-back for Brad, for the husky military man from Mexico he used to be.
"That poor child," sighed Marcy, in a very what-can-you-do-about-it voice. "It'll grow up on a street corner selling old pennies for drugs."
"Maybe not," said Aunt Angie smugly. "I have a solution."
The family frowned. "What kind?"
Angie raised her wineglass and took a long sip for dramatic effect. The others waited patiently.
"We buy them a house," Angie said simply. "I have the perfect house, too. Isolated. Quiet. In a run-down town, and nobody will go near that old building."
"Your solution is to give them money?" someone asked with a snort. "Yeah, sure, they'll spend it on real estate."
"My solution," Angie said, leaning forwards, so her wine slopped dangerously, "is to buy them a nest. Somewhere we can keep track of them, for goodness' sake. They already bop around so much, and if they continue this way it'll be hell for the baby. My solution is to give that child something stable."
"Why doesn't one of us take the baby instead?" Marcy frowned.
Angie made a fretful face. "My house is already very full, dear; I just don't have the room for an infant. But if you want it, be my guest. Good luck raising the little bugger after its mother makes a mess of its infancy." She laughed, but her comment was loathsome, and it's only with reluctance that the others join in.
"The house has a couple side benefits as well," Angie said, smiling wider. "Have you heard the stories? Mulberry Farm. I'll give you a minute to look it up…"
There's a brief silence as everyone pulls out their phones and begins googling. Eyebrows raise. "Jesus Christ," said a cousin Charlie. "Are we sure…?"
"No one will go near them with that nastiness hanging around the building," Angie promised. "They'll be by themselves, safe and in one spot, with their expenses taken care of. Maybe they'll be able to cut back or quit once they have a life in order. For the sake of the baby. They're human, remember?"
No one believed this, but the glittering intensity of Angie's eyes made it hard to argue, and they murmured agreement, slipping phones into their back pockets.
"You don't believe the rumours, then?" Charlie asked, tapping a giant index finger against his wine glass, trying to figure out if this plan was Christian-friendly.
"Oh, of course not," Angie said airily, waving a hand. "Just because a few dark little incidents occurred doesn't mean there's anything unnatural going on. It's simply people being people, that's all. People get angry. They hurt others. Simple."
"But they think there's something in--"
"Who's buying this place, then?" Marcy interrupted with an appropriate degree of suspicion.
"We'll all chip in," Angie said. "Here. I brought a collecting tin. I say a hundred pounds or so each, minimum, for the renovations and to get them started. We can ship supplies every once in a while too." She held out a box lined with blood-coloured velvet.
There was a general pause.
"Go on then," Angie snapped, and everyone was reminded Janine is her sister. They slipped in the money and made their way to the kitchens, not certain if they were doing the right thing but sure as hell convinced in the plan by Angie's, dear Aunt Angie's, impressive powers of persuasion.
Angie smiled into the box.