“Shadow Play” [Fiction]

Mrs. Morton didn’t need her house anymore. Her husband had died the year before; her three children had grown up and moved far, far away many years before that. Even the friendly stray cat, Mr. Tiddles, no longer came to her door, preferring instead to stalk squirrels and mice across the neighbors’ lawns and sleep in the safe corners of the neighbors’ porches. The empty rooms inside Mrs. Morton’s house felt large and cold. The empty space inside her chest felt larger and colder, and filled with a terrible draft. She sold her house and moved into an apartment that was as small and dark as a closet.

The first night in her apartment, Mrs. Morton ate a dinner of a slice of bread and two slices of cheese and immediately afterward decided to go to sleep. As soon as she had settled onto her thin, creaky mattress, however, she heard the noise:

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

Mrs. Morton sat up. The sound was outside of her apartment, on the other side of her door. As loud as it was, though, Mrs. Morton swore it could have been the sound of her own heart instead, pounding against the walls of her ribs.

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

“It’s a good thing I’m not afraid to call the landlord,” Mrs. Morton said loudly as she stood. “No, I’m just very angry that I’ll have to tell him that’s something’s wrong with the place.” With one hand that quivered like the flickering lamplight beside her bed, she slid open the door locks and turned the knob. With the other, she steadied herself against the wall. She opened the door, just a crack.

Right away she saw the girl.

The girl was standing not in front of the door, but a few feet back, at the edge of the stairs leading to Mrs. Morton’s landing. Her hands were pressed to either side of her head, as if she was trying to pop a balloon. When Mrs. Morton opened her door further, the girl turned.

Mrs. Morton considered the girl in the dim light of the stairwell, which puddled around them like dirty bathwater. “Was that you making that noise?” she asked. “What are you doing out here?”

“I just wanted someone to play with,” said the girl.

The girl was not holding a ball or any other toy, not that Mrs. Morton could see. “What about your friends?”

The girl frowned. “The shadows won’t play with me anymore. They just make fun of me. Will you play with me?”

What a strange little girl, Mrs. Morton thought. “Strange little girls should know better than to play with strange old women. Where are your parents?”

“They’re sleeping.”

“Which is what I should be doing. And you should be, too.” Mrs. Morton closed the door and went to bed.

The second night in her apartment, Mrs. Morton gave herself two slices of bread along with three slices of cheese for dinner. Afterward, she brewed a cup of tea, a nice, rich chamomile, letting the bag sit in her mug until the tea looked as warm and golden as honey. She drank it slow, slow, s-l-o-w-l-y. By the time she was finished, she was certain she felt relaxed enough to sleep through anything. She let her body flump like a wet rag onto her mattress.

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

This time, Mrs. Morton didn’t hesitate to fling her door all the way open. “Stop making that noise!”

The girl pressed her hands to her head as if she was trying to cover her ears against Mrs. Morton’s voice. “It wasn’t me!” she said. “It was the shadows. Will you play with me instead?”

Mrs. Morton pursed her lips and shut the door, but only part of the way. She went to her kitchen and made a cheese sandwich, which she wrapped in a paper towel and brought to the girl on the landing. “Take this, and go somewhere and eat instead,” she said, shoving the sandwich into the girl’s hands. Mrs. Morton then went inside, shut the door, turned the locks—clack, clack, clack—and went to bed.

The third night in her apartment, Mrs. Morton didn’t make herself anything to eat for dinner. She had spent the day exploring, much like the way the old stray Mr. Tiddles did, except that she went prowling the quiet hallways of her apartment building and slinking around the corners of the rest of the complex, but she never found the girl. Come evening, she sat on the edge of her mattress and waited. Just as her eyelids were beginning to sink shut—

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

Mrs. Morton stepped steadily through the front door and went to stand next to the girl on the landing.

The girl blinked. “Thank you for the sandwich yesterday,” she said, “but I’d rather have some company. Will you play with me?”

“All right, I’ll play with you,” said Mrs. Morton. “What would you like to play?”

The girl put her hands on her head, the same as she had each of the two nights before, and began to turn and twist. She turned her head almost halfway around. Then, pop! Off of her neck it came, just like a doll that she had taken apart herself. She tossed her head to Mrs. Morton, who instinctively held out her hands.

The girl smiled up at Mrs. Morton. “How about catch?”

Mrs. Morton screamed.

As soon as she screamed, shadows started to peel away from the walls and the floor like wet, blistery skin. They looked like the shadows of strange creatures, with horns and claws as well as arms and legs, and eyes that somehow were darker than the darkest room. They began to dance and shout.

“Let’s play Keep Away!”

“That’s what we play with the dead girl’s head!”

“Keep away from the little dead girl!”

“Here! Throw it to me!”

One shadow lunged toward Mrs. Morton and swiped at her with an arm like a whip. She screamed again, dropped the head, and tumbled backward down the stairs.

When she came to, Mrs. Morton found herself on the landing below with parts of her body bent over other parts of her body in surprising ways. Soon after, she heard the sound:

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

The girl’s head came bouncing downstairs, finally resting next to Mrs. Morton. The girl’s body followed. Once it reached the landing, the body began jumping over Mrs. Morton, back and forth, as if Mrs. Morton were nothing more than a large hopscotch stone.

“No one ever comes out of their apartment here, except for you,” said the little girl’s head. “Now we can play together, forever and ever.”

True enough, Mrs. Morton never went to bed again.

*

Video thumbnail art done by Wesley Wong. See more of his stuff: www.weswongwithyou.com

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