Shadow people are cunning.
I could see the shape of your father through the frosted glass of your front door, waiting for me to arrive. He opened it before I had a chance to knock, and greeted me with a frown and a firm handshake. “Long time. It’s good of you to come.”
I matched his grip and felt the pitch of my voice lowering, “Of course. Anything I can do.”
He announced my arrival over his shoulder, and your mother shouted back from somewhere inside the house that she was coming. I stepped to the threshold, but your father held up a hand and motioned to a parked car behind me. “We’re late. We should get going.”
Your mother appeared in the hallway, fixing her earrings. It had been over a decade since I last saw her, but she hadn’t changed. Parents never seem to age. When she saw me, she gasped. “Look at you!” She held me at arms’ length and studied my face for a moment before pulling me in for a tight hug. “Thank you so much for coming,” she whispered into my ear, “he’s still asking for you.”
Please come and see me.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said, giving her back a deep rub. We stayed like that until your father reiterated our lateness.
In the car your mother talked of anything but you. She wanted to know all about my life – my new job, where I was living, about Erica. After so many years, there was a lot to say. Your father, driving, would occasionally catch my eye in the rear-view mirror, but remained quiet. Your mother kept calling me by my name, which made me ashamed to realise that I didn’t know either of theirs. When you and I were children, they were simply “your mum” and “your dad”. It was then too awkward, after so much time and familiarity, to ask them their names.
When your mother started to enquire whether I had any pets, I decided the subject had been delayed long enough and asked a question of my own, “So – how is he?”
Your mother paused momentarily, but then laughed and waved her hand. “Oh, he’s okay. It’s all rather silly, actually.”
I saw your father frown in the mirror. “He’s up and down,” he said. “The doctors say he’s responding positively to the medication. Some days he’s good, but when he’s bad, he’s bad.”
This made your mother catch her breath. Your father said, “Just being honest. We need to look at this realistically.”
She looked as though his words had caused her physical pain – she appeared so lost and heartbroken that, almost as a reflex, I blurted out, “I’m sure I can help him.”
You’re the only one I trust now.
I shifted in my seat. “I know I haven’t… been around much lately -” I thought I heard your father scoff, “- but we used to be so close. We understood each other.”
A warm smile fell on your mother’s face. “Yes, you did. You were so similar.”
“And I feel like, if I could just talk with him I could get through to him, you know? Sort him out.”
“Yes, yes!” Your mother waved her hands excitedly. “I think so too! He just needs someone who understands him.”
Your father sighed and sadly shook his head. “When did you last see him?”
I thought for a second. “Must be about five or six years ago now.”
“Prepare yourself. He’s not the same person he was then.”
“Oh, don’t be silly!” Your mother said. “He’s no different from the boy we’ve always loved. Well, he doesn’t really speak much now. But he’s just… a little confused, that’s all.”
“About the shadow people?” I asked. They both fell silent.
“Best not to mention the shadow people,” your mother eventually said, barely audible. “It just upsets him.”
I know their plan.
We pulled into the hospital grounds, but drove past the main building and parked outside a smaller one further on. It had wooden panels with grass on the roof and looked like a yoga retreat.
“I didn’t even know this place existed,” I said, half to myself.
“I guess you don’t need to, until you need to,” your father said.
We were all asked to sign a visitor’s sheet at the reception desk. I finally saw your parents’ names – Kathy and Robert. It seemed odd for them to suddenly have names. I scanned the sheet for other people I might have recognised.
“Has no one else come?” I asked. Your mother gave a little shrug: “Everyone is so busy these days…” She smiled, though unconvincingly.
“It’s not a nice place to visit,” your father said.
The receptionist asked me whether I was carrying any sharp objects or illegal substances, and requested that I switch my phone to silent. “Some of our guests can become… alarmed by unexpected noises.”
I must have looked nervous, because your mother said, “It’s just a precaution.”
I’m safer here.
I saw you as soon as we entered the ward, sitting at a table by the window on the far side of the room. I was surprised to see that you were wearing jeans and a t-shirt, instead of the classic hospital gown. You were peacefully gazing at the garden outside, and could have been relaxing in a countryside cafe had the wider room not betrayed the truth.
A large old sofa in the middle of the room was occupied by two other “guests”. They were holding hands, watching a blank TV set. A middle-aged man wearing a black dressing gown and slippers shuffled back and forth across the room, gently knocking his head against a payphone on the wall each time he passed it. A girl in a sundress slouched in an armchair, her legs dangling over the side. She was drawing something in a notepad and chuckling to herself. Several nurses came in and out of the room but they never looked anywhere except where they were going.
“Jacob!” Your mother’s voice made some of the other guests look up in hope.
You lazily turned away from your garden view, and when your eyes fell on me, I thought I saw them widen, if just a fraction. You came over to us, and your mother hugged and kissed you, whilst your father gave you a curt nod. I hesitated – we were not usually huggers in our youth, but in light of the circumstances, I deemed it appropriate. I pulled you in for an embrace, and pretended that I didn’t feel you flinch.
I had imagined that when I finally saw you again, everything I had been planning to say would flow out naturally. But all I could manage was, “Hey.”
You returned the greeting, and stared at me with narrowed eyes for a touch too long.
It looked just like you.
“Look who’s come to visit!” Your mother said, in a rather condescending way. You reacted by just staring at me some more, until your father suggested that we sit back down at the table.
“He’s been telling us all about his life,” you mother tried once again. She repeated the highlights from the car journey, “He’s married now! And can you believe he spent a year in Japan!”
All the while you nodded patiently, not really looking at anything except a spot on the table.
“Didn’t you want to speak to the nurse?” Your father said to your mother, after several minutes of her gushing about me.
“Oh, that can wait,” she waved her hand.
“Look, she’s free now. She might be busy later on.”
“Oh, okay – if you’re sure…” She looked at me, and I shrugged. As she got up from the table, she gave me an encouraging smile. Your father huffed a large sigh, took out a newspaper he had been concealing in his jacket and began to read.
“My life’s not been as exciting as she made out,” I said to you, with a nervous laugh.
“Right,” you said, still not looking at me.
“In fact, rather mundane. Just, regular, you know?”
I wasn’t fooled.
I looked to your father for some assistance, but he had pulled the newspaper up high, hiding his face.
“Listen,” I said to you, “I’m sorry I’ve-”
I was interrupted by a sudden flurry of activity. The man in the dressing gown had paused at the payphone, and was banging his head against it with increasing force, moaning louder each time. A smear of blood appeared on his forehead. Several of the nurses had to run over and restrain him. They tried to lead him back to his room, but he put up a struggle. He flopped his body down on the floor and started screaming, like a toddler having a tantrum. The nurses grabbed hold of his arms and dragged him away down the corridor, his screams eventually muffled by the closing of a distant door.
“I call him Screaming Terry,” you said, quietly.
It probably should have been harrowing, but instead you made me laugh. Your head snapped up at the sound of my laughter, and you looked confused for a moment. But then you broke into a smile, and began laughing with me. Sharing humour like that, over something quite inappropriate, helped me see that there was still some of the old you there.
It was so realistic.
“Do you maybe want to play some cards?” I asked, pointing to a games shelf by the TV. You had always been keen to play cards when we were younger, but I had mostly refused – I found it so boring. But, at that time, I was happy to indulge you.
“Sure…” You sounded cautious, as though I was trying to play a trick on you.
The girl that had been lounging in the armchair jumped up, grabbed the cards and brought them over to us. “Can I join in?” She sat in the chair next to me, pulling it too close to mine.
“No,” you sneered, snatching the pack from her. She grunted, and I sensed history.
The girl leant into my ear. “I’m not wearing any knickers,” she giggled.
“Okay…” I tried to sound casual, but my eyes instinctively flicked down. She had pulled the hem of her dress up, and I saw that she was telling the truth. “Ah.”
I looked around for professional help, but there were no nurses to be found. Even your father ignored the situation, still hiding behind the newspaper. The girl laughed louder. “Look how embarrassed he is!” She jabbed a finger into my cheek.
“Just ignore her,” you said, “she’s a nymphomaniac.”
She nodded her head vigorously. “Yep. I’ve fucked over three-hundred men.” She reminded me of a child that had learnt a naughty word, and couldn’t wait to use it.
“Is that so?” I wasn’t sure if I should be praising or condemning her.
“I love to fuck,” she said with wide, wild eyes. “The only person I won’t fuck is that idiot!” She pointed at you with a big grin. That made me laugh again, but you didn’t join in. You slammed your hands on the table and started hissing at the girl through clenched teeth. Your face had gone entirely red – I had never seen you act so aggressively. I froze.
“Settle down, lad,” your father calmly said, lowering his newspaper. “Settle down. Never mind her.”
You were breathing fast and heavy, but began to shuffle the cards again.
“Do you want to play or what?” You said, hitting the deck against the table. I apologised, and you dealt the cards out between the two of us. We played through several games, all the while ignoring the girl. She tried to distract us by pulling down her dress top, exposing herself, but was eventually chased away by a nurse who came back into the room with your mother.
“Everything okay?” Your mother raised her eyebrows at me. I gave her a dissatisfied shrug. She put her hands on your father’s shoulders. “Perhaps we should go and get a coffee from the cafe?” She said to him. “Give the boys some proper time to catch up.”
Your father hesitated before relenting. It was clear that he was unhappy about leaving us alone together, but your mother was able to lead him away. She widened her eyes at me, and I understood that she was yearning for me to speak with you.
“Shall we continue playing?” You waved your cards at me when your parents had gone. I shook my head.
“Let’s… talk for bit,” I said.
“Okay…” You absentmindedly shuffled the cards, waiting for me to say something. I knew what I wanted to say, but it took me a while to get the words out.
“Jacob…” I checked the rest of the room. The couple were still on the sofa, watching their non-existent television show, and there was a single nurse sitting at a desk in the corner, but other than that, we were alone. I took a deep breath.
“Jacob, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to – to disappear like I did. I just sort of… got distracted. Going to Japan, meeting Erica, you know? And by the time the wedding came around, we hadn’t spoken for a couple of years, and I wasn’t sure if you’d even want to come, so I didn’t send an invite. I wanted to, really, but…well, you know. And of course I feel so bad about it all. But I’m here now. And it’s not just because you’re in this place, I swear. I mean, sure, I guess this was the catalyst, but I was going to get back in contact soon, I really was. I just didn’t know how to do it. But then your mother contacted me, and told me about you, and the shadow people and all that stuff and I -”
Your eyes lit up. “What about the shadow people?” You spoke through gritted teeth, and I realised my mistake. I didn’t really have a choice but to continue.
“Well, she just said…she said something like…” I floundered. “She said something about you thinking…the world is being invaded by shadows, or something…”
My body tensed up, anticipating some strong reaction from you. But after looking me up and down for a moment, your jaw unclenched and you let out a breath.
“You know it’s true,” you said, staring out of the window. “Everyone is being replaced with evil shadows.”
I had to be careful in what I said next. “But…why? How?”
“Because they’re evil,” you said, as though it was obvious. “They’re corrupting everything. Turning the world to shit. It’s what they do. As for how, you should be able to answer that for yourself.”
This took me aback. “You think I’m a shadow person?”
You shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Well I’m not!”
You sighed, and said quietly, “I wish that was true.”
I reached across the table and grabbed your hand. “Look at me. Look at me. You know me. I’m your friend. I don’t want to hurt you.”
You held my gaze, but your hand was shaking violently.
It’s through touch.
“I’m afraid,” you whispered.
“I know.” I kept a firm grip on your hand. “But you need to listen to me. This shadow thing – it’s not real. It’s in your head. You’re not well, Jacob. But I want to help you get better. Will you let me help you?”
“It’s so hard…”
“I know. And it’s even harder when you’re alone, I get that, but I swear, you’re not alone anymore. I’m here, and I’m going to help you.”
Your eyes were searching mine. “You’re saying the shadow people don’t exist?”
I shook my head. “It might be difficult to accept, but, it’s just an illness. I don’t know what caused it, but you’re going to get better. I promise. And then you can get out of this place. You want that right?”
I could tell you were looking for something in my face to trust, and I was willing you to find it. I gave your hand another squeeze. Then, slowly but surely, you started to nod. I let out a sigh of relief.
“Okay,” you said, looking at my hand on top of yours. “I believe you.”
“That’s great Jacob. That’s really great. It’s the first step.” And I really believed it was.
The nurse in the corner came over to announce that visiting times had unfortunately finished, just as your parents came back to the ward. I don’t think it was a coincidence.
“Here,” I said, taking a pen and paper from my bag, “this is my phone number. You’re allowed to use the phone here right? You can call me anytime you want. Anytime. We can talk about anything.”
“Thank you.” You tucked the paper into your pocket.
“How is everything?” your mother asked, approaching the table.
“Good,” you told her, with a small smile on your face. “I think…I’m beginning to understand now.”
Your mother beamed at both of us. Your father was silent still, but looked thoughtful.
“I’ll see you again next week yeah?” I said to you. I got up from the table to give you another hug, and didn’t feel awkward at all.
On the drive home, your mother was full of excitement. “So you really think he’s going to be okay?”
“Well, it’s going to take a little more time, but yeah. I got through to him. I could see it.” I was so sure.
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” She squeezed your father’s arm. “Isn’t that wonderful, Robert?”
“Yeah,” you father said. “He certainly seemed… more relaxed.”
As your mother enthused about the things we’d all do together when you got home, I took my phone out from my bag and turned it back on. I saw that I had a missed call and a message from a number I didn’t recognise.
“Do you mind if I listen to this?” I said to your mother. When the message started to play, I was surprised and confused to hear your voice.
“Matthew. You really need to come and see me. Your shadow has just been to the hospital. It looked just like you – sounded just like you. It was so realistic. Shadow people are cunning. But I wasn’t fooled. It couldn’t quite act like you, but it sure tried. It wants me to trust it, it wants me out of here. But I know their plan. As soon as I leave, they’re going to get me. I’m safer here, but it’s still dangerous. I hope you’re safe too, wherever you are. I now know how they do it – how they get you. It’s through touch. Your shadow tried to get me a few times, but I was able to shake it off. I think I tricked it. But the shadows are everywhere. You’re the only one I trust now. Please come and see me. I miss you so much. I’m so alone… ”
I listened to the message twice.
“Is everything okay?” Your mother asked.
“That was Jacob…”
“Wonderful! See, he’s so eager to talk to you now! I knew you would be good for him. He just needed his friend back, that’s all. See Robert?”
She looked at me with such love and hope and happiness and expectation. Even your father’s eyes in the mirror had a hint of warmth. “Everything’s going to be okay, just as you said,” she smiled at me.
“Right,” I lied to her. I stared down at the phone, then deleted the message.
Matthew Luke was born and raised in London, but have also lived in Tokyo. I recently quit my full-time job to concentrate on writing.