In The Shadows

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I didn’t have the best childhood. But then, I don’t suppose I had the worst one, either. I certainly didn’t expect things would turn out the way they did.

My parents divorced when I was 8. I was too young to really understand what that meant at the time, but looking back now… Well, let’s just say that I honestly believe that the divorce was a catalyst for much of what happened later.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before the split, when we all lived together, I was a happy child. I spent a lot of time outside. I remember that I loved to smell the sweetness of the soil and feel the rough branches of bark against my skin. I used to chase my dog around the block, watching his tail wag ceaselessly above his hind legs. I remember it all so vividly. But I remember the rest vividly, too.

After the split, I spent less time outside. It didn’t matter whose house I was at for which holiday or vacation; I burrowed down in my bedroom, dimmed the lights down low, and spent egregious amounts of time with no one but myself.

That’s not to say that my adolescence completely lacked the happiness of my childhood. I had birthday parties; my mom and her new boyfriend took me to Disney World. Over time, my parents made sure that every box necessary for an average middle-class upbringing was ticked. What happened wasn’t their fault. They couldn’t have known.

Early in my high school years, I began having dreams I couldn’t explain. At first they were relatively innocent, but they escalated quickly. Soon, I was dreaming that my parents, who I hadn’t seen together in a number of years, were both covered in blood, irretrievably dead. Soon after, I dreamt that I was dead. Each night, the dreams became more detailed, and the stream of events leading up to these deaths became clearer. Every time I closed my eyes – even when I dropped off for a nap in algebra – I saw myself roaming the halls of my childhood home, armed with a knife that dripped ominously red.

Some nights I refused to close my eyes, hoping that if I avoided sleep, I could avoid the pain of my dreams altogether. Those nights, I would revert back to the happiness I felt when my life was still whole. I would climb out of my second-story bedroom window, scale the lattice covering the front of the house, and jump the final two feet between the lattice’s edge and the soft grass beneath. There was a time, if I remember, that I didn’t sleep for an entire week straight. I don’t remember being tired; I just took comfort in the relative innocence of my waking state.

Once I had figured out how to evade the darkness in my mind, however, the whole situation took a turn for the worse. I began to see things even when I was awake; what used to haunt my dreams now haunted my waking consciousness just as ruthlessly. At first, I only saw shadows on the edge of my vision, formless shapes that signified nothing but uncertainty. Over time though (just as I feared), these blurred edges became hard lines. They took the shape of human beings, littering my field of sight with unreal creatures indistinguishable from my friends, family, and acquaintances.

The stress that I had previously felt from constant consciousness now seemed insignificant. Suddenly I was faced with the task of sorting reality from manifestations – and I was not good at it. I obsessively looked over my shoulder, checking once, twice, three times, to make sure that the people behind me were steeped in flesh and not privy to disappear every time I turned my head.

One night, I was sleeping deeply (rare for me at the time), when everything turned on its head. As I said, I was sleeping soundly when suddenly the lights flipped on. My father was standing there, wearing an expression I couldn’t quite read. He wanted me to get out of bed, but I was so tired that everything was dragging… my impulses and thoughts weren’t quite processing quickly enough for me to follow what he was saying. He just kept pointing to the door, and I got the feeling he was saying it was time to go.

I don’t think I realized that it was midnight or so until I dragged myself out of bed and stepped outside. It was pitch black, and the air was frigid; I wasn’t prepared for that kind of cold or darkness, and my body recoiled from the discomfort of the crisp Autumn air. My father kept running ahead though, and telling me to follow. Tired and disoriented, I just continued to do as I was told.

At some point, a figure that I identified as my mother appeared alongside my father. As soon as I saw my mother there with us, I began to believe that these figures that had woken me in the dead of night weren’t my parents at all; they had to be apparitions, members of the manifest community that had begun to populate my brain. I hadn’t seen my father with my mother in so long… years, in fact. Why should they be together now? Why running? Why at midnight? I had so many questions, and yet I didn’t stop to ask a one of them.

About ten minutes later, the apparitions slowed to a stop in front of a familiar house. They had taken me right to my childhood home, empty and barren in the midst of a happy and wholesome neighborhood. It was only then, when I saw where these apparitions had taken me, that I began to feel awake and in control of myself.

They walked inside, and I followed. Their footsteps were soft, almost silent, as they pushed against the pillowed carpet that led from the front door into the foyer. They sat down in chairs that I remembered from my childhood, perched in front of a fireplace that was spitting and roaring with life. We had moved out of this house so long ago… Why were these chairs still here? And what had happened to the people who bought it from us? Again, these were all questions I should have asked… But I was either too tired to do so, or convinced that the apparitions wouldn’t have told me, anyway.

The apparitions motioned for me to sit down as well. They had something to tell me; but when they opened their mouths to speak, the roaring of the fire was all I could hear. I can’t hear you, I tried to say, but my own voice didn’t seem to be working, either.

One of the apparitions pointed across the room, and I saw a puppy crawling toward the edge of the furnace. It had a bow around its neck; it looked like a present. My faux-parents smiled and gestured to it, as if it was a gift for me. I had no idea what to think; she was a beautiful thing – a sheltie, just like the dog we used to have when we all lived here… When we were a family.

Just then, the front door crashed open. A barrage of dark figures, hooded and – as far as I could tell – armed, rushed into the house with the fervor and confidence of trained assassins. I knew then what I had suspected; none of this could be real. My manifestations had become something of an alternate reality altogether.

Regardless of the validity of the situation, however, I was terrified. I ran into the kitchen, where I remember there used to be a block of knives. It was still sitting there, poised on the edge of the counter, as if it had never been moved at all. I didn’t think twice, but grabbed the largest blade out of the block. I immediately ran back into the living room to confront the intruders which, I know, is not rational, but I couldn’t take the chance that what I thought were manifestations might actually be real people.

This is when I stop remembering anything at all. Everything goes black. As far as I remember, I’m a kid standing in his old home with a knife in his hand, scared shitless, when the lights all go out and my consciousness – real or fabricated – turns into nothing but blackness. I’ve heard accounts of what happened that night. I’ve read all of the newspaper stories; they do let me have newspaper here in the asylum. But I swear, I don’t remember ever killing my parents.

They say that there were never any intruders. My mother and father, who had been separated for years, had secretly been seeing each other again. They didn’t want to tell me – didn’t want to get my hopes up – until they knew that things were really going to work this time. So after they closed on the old house – late one night a few Autumns ago – they woke me up in the middle of the night, intending to tell me that we were moving back home. We were going to be a family again. They had even gotten me a new puppy; just like the one we had way back when.

They say I reacted violently, ran to the kitchen, grabbed a knife, and killed both of my parents where they sat on the living room floor.

I swear I don’t remember any of it. I swear, none of it was real, anyway. They were shadow figures, multiples, images of people who never would have loved each other again, even if I had dreamt it. But the walls of this asylum say otherwise, and so do the shadows that haunt my shallow sleep.

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