“Mama?” A tapping sound. “Mama, open the door. Please?” Hesitation, listening, maybe, then three sharp knocks. “Mama, please come out, please!”
Dee burrows deeper into the covers and clamps the pillow over her head. It smells musty, sour, the smell of dried spit and dread. I’m sorry, baby. I can’t. She doesn’t say it. As long as she stays quiet, it won’t hear her.
Ailee’s voice and the knocking stop. Footsteps go away down the hall. Alone again, alone and silent, silent and unseen. She’ll sleep now, disappear for awhile. If only they’ll stay away, she can disappear forever. Then it will never find her. It’ll never get her. She drifts in the dark, where there are no shadows, safe for now.
Rattling, a hand on the doorknob, a scrape and tap, a key in a lock. That small squeak the door always makes when it opens.
No! Go away!
“Come on, Dee.” This time it’s Mirie’s cajoling, older-sister voice, right in the room. Footsteps go cush across the carpet and stop by the bed. The bedside light snaps on and the covers tug back. “Hon, get up. You can’t keep doing this to yourself. You can’t keep doing this to Ailee.”
Cold air hits her. Dee curls up tight, hugs the pillow over her head. I’m not here. Nobody’s here. Nobody.
Mirie works at the pillow. “Deidre, I want you to get up.” She sighs. The edge of the bed dips. “Tell me what’s wrong now.”
The light glares red through her closed lids, and she covers her face with her hands. She lies peeled like a shrimp, curled uncovered on the bed.
“There was something in the mirror, Auntie,” Ailee says in a strained, scared whisper.
“What kind of something?” Is Mirie asking her, or the child?
“A face,” Ailee says, still whispering. “And it looked like…it looked just like…” Her voice catches and goes up.
“It was your mama, punkin. Because if she was looking in the mirror, that’s what you’d see.”
“But it wasn’t Mama.” Ailee is crying now. “It was somebody else, somebody I don’t know, looking out of the mirror. Somebody that looks just like her!”
“C’mon, honey, don’t cry,” Mirie says. “That’s just one of your mama’s silly stories, the kind she tells when she’s playing make-believe.”
Sniffling, the squeak of an escaped whimper.
“Deidre.” Mirie’s voice is stern now. “Get up. She needs you!”
Dee flings herself upright. Her sister sits on the edge of the bed, her daughter stands beside. Mirie looks only tired and resigned, but silent tears run down Ailee’s face, dapple the front of her juice-stained t-shirt.
Dee pulls the child to her and wraps her arms around her, strains her close.
Love and regret and fear seep like blood spoor into the air, around the edges of ordinary shapes, everyday space, into the otherspace behind and in between everything. Into the place where it waits.
Mirie gently extricates the girl. “Go set the table for supper, okay, sweetie? I need to talk to your mama for a minute.”
Ailee’s brows rumple and her small fingers knot together. “Are you okay, Mama?” she whispers. “That was just you in the mirror, right?”
Dee takes a corner of the sheet and wipes the child’s face. And her own. She draws breath to answer, but Mirie speaks first.
“Sure, punkin. There’s nothing in the mirror to be scared of, I promise. And don’t worry about your mama. I’ll take care of her.”
Ailee stands on the sides of her feet, sucking her lower lip, then finally sidles out the door.
“It was there,” Dee whispers.
Mirie doesn’t answer. Silverware rattles in the kitchen, then she says, “I’m really worried about you, Dee.”
Dee presses out the wrinkles in her sweats with one palm. Crumbs, hair, a wadded Kleenex by the bed hold her gaze. She shakes her head hard.
“What’s that mean?”
“You don’t understand,” Dee whispers—the barest breath of a whisper.
“I do understand. I have understood. Why do you think I’m here? For God’s sake, Dee, what can there possibly be that I don’t understand?”
The bare toes of one foot curl and scrunch over the other. The words stick in Dee’s throat like broken pieces of cracker. She swallows, swallows again. “It’s my shadow, the other—” The other me, she wants to say, but the words stop coming.
“A shadow.” Mirie sighs and strokes Dee’s hair. Her fingers snag in tangles. “Well, hon, shadows can’t do anything but follow you. Now come on, you’ve been in this room long enough. Let’s go see about dinner, huh?”
Dee shakes her head again, but Mirie takes her hand and pulls. So she puts her feet on the carpet. They tingle. Blood moves again, muscles flex, carrying her through the door. She’s no longer hidden, from herself, from the world, from the thing that stalks her.
Towed behind Mirie, Dee glances over her shoulder.
Across the room, in the dresser mirror, her own face looks out at her. The image raises a hand as if in greeting. It smiles.
Cold spikes Dee, impaling her. In the mirror, the hand traces the mirror’s edge, then slips outside, becoming shimmering, shadowy. A shadowy form glides out.
Dee crowds backward through the door, away from the swelling, shimmering shape. “It’s there.”
Mirie walks on, unhurried. She doesn’t look. “Stop it. Nothing’s there.” Her hand tethers Dee. Her big, solid form blocks the way.
The shadow grows, filling the far corner of the room, spreading across the bed, blanking the mirror, occluding the dusty curtains covering the window.
The room grows darker. The bed is dissolved, the light Mirie turned on blotted out. Dee’s thoughts unravel, their tattered edges sucked toward the darkness, toward annihilation.
It comes from the otherspace, from the silent waiting place, the place where shadows live, the shadow of every thing.
“Look,” she pants. “Look! It’s there!”
It has no eyes, but it’s watching her.
It has no mouth, but it smiles.
Dee tears free, shoves Mirie aside and runs.
Shouts, cries, a commotion behind her. The hallway disgorges into the living room. A sofa interposes itself, an endtable and lamp with a pleated shade, but her feet find the paths worn in the carpet like trails winding through a forest. Her hand touches the cold metal of the knob then she’s out the door and down the walk, running.
Running is wrong, the worst thing to do. So purposeful, so easy to see!—bobbing against the still silhouettes of trees and sleeping bulks of cars and solid houses. But it’s back there, and it’s already seen her. What else can she do? What else?
Mirie shouts, “Dee! Dee, come back!” Ailee runs after, wailing. Dee almost stops then, but if she stops it’ll get her, catch her, gobble her up until there’s nothing left of her. Nothing at all.
The sidewalk passes cold beneath her feet; the lighted windows of houses open onto inaccessible worlds. The fast patter of Ailee’s footsteps, the heavy slap of Mirie’s dwindle, consumed in the rush of breath. The air turns to fire, burning windpipe and lungs, parching lips. Fiery barbs hook her legs, her side, bright chains of pain in the dim evening air.
Dee slows, stops, holds her breath. It won’t stay quiet. It keeps bursting out in noisy puffs, sucking back in again in little whines. Listen! Hear! She’s here! The streetlight angles her shadow across the sidewalk onto the lawn beside her.
Shadows show there, in the otherplace. She has to try to disappear again, no shape, nothing to make a shadow, nothing but a memory, a name once spoken.
A car’s engine echoes down the street, between the impassive fronts of houses, their fences locked elbow to elbow, small bushes erupting here and there on the smooth skins of lawn. A star peeks out overhead like the gleam of a watching eye.
The car comes closer. Maybe Mirie’s in it, looking for her. Dee moves again, bare feet soft on the sidewalk, taking the fast hard breaths through her nose. Her shadow sweeps along, inching forward as if to head her off. When she can see it no more, she’ll know she’s safe, invisible. It stretches ahead now, attenuated, fraying at the edges, no longer human-shaped. Almost there.
Headlights sweep the curve of the street. Lawns glow suddenly green, shadows dance pavanes around the small bushes. Her own shadow trembles, fluttered by oncoming light.
Then it rears up. Shimmering. Smiling.
Dee stumbles backward, then whirls, fleeing for the darkness wedged between houses. There she’ll be silent, still, invisible.
She casts no shadow in the shadows, and the car passes by.
* * *
Ailee holds tight to the papers, the ones Auntie Mirie made at the copy place, with Mama’s picture on them. “Why are we putting up Mama’s pictures here?” she asks, her other hand in Auntie’s. “It’s a long way from our house.”
She watched all of Spirited Away and Labyrinth on the way here on the little DVD player Uncle Ern gave her. Auntie and Uncle have given her lots of nice things since she’s come to live with them, even a goldfish. Even a kitten.
Auntie leads her down the strange sidewalks with big buildings growing right up out of them, no yards in between or anything. “Well, punkin, because she might’ve gotten mixed up after she ran away. Instead of coming home, maybe she came here instead.”
Ailee thinks about it. Mama did get mixed up a lot. It was scary when she did. One minute they’d be eating tomato soup and Ritz crackers for lunch or playing Fish and all of a sudden Mama would stop talking and her eyes would get big and she’d do something funny, like pull all the furniture into the middle of the room, or tape newspapers over the TV and the microwave and the mirrors.
Sometimes Mama told her why she did those things.
The buildings are really tall and made all of glass, like in a fairy tale. Ailee looks into the glass and sees herself and Auntie there, sort of dim and wavering like they’re underwater. The way her goldfish looks when she peers sideways through the bowl at him. “Maybe all the reflections mix up the person in the mirror.”
Auntie’s hand tightens. “There’s nobody in the mirror, sweetie. That was just a story your mama told.”
Except it wasn’t a story. Ailee knows it wasn’t. Nobody hides in bed under the covers from make-believe scary things. Only real ones.
“’Once upon a time,’” Ailee says, swinging Auntie’s hand, “’there was a magic mirror. When you looked in it, you saw yourself and your bed and your room and everything, just like a regular mirror. But if you looked really close, you could see the flowers on your bedspread were a different color. And the pictures on the wall weren’t the same pictures in your room. Like how your room’d be if you picked different pictures to hang up, and a different bedspread for your bed. Even you were a little different, like the way you’d be if you were somebody else, the kind of person who picked those different pictures and the other color of bedspread. Sometimes things in the mirror could come through, though. When they did, they looked like shadows, but instead of following you like your regular shadow—”
“Stop it,” Auntie says.
The story disappears from Ailee’s mouth like a bite of cotton candy, but the taste on her tongue isn’t sweet. “I’m sorry, Auntie. That was the story Mama told.” Before she started hiding in bed under the covers.
Auntie stops and kneels, right there in the middle of the sidewalk, with all the cars driving by and people walking past. She smoothes Ailee’s bangs back. “No, punkin, don’t be sorry. It’s just that those were silly stories your mama told. I don’t want you to worry about them.”
Ailee frowns. “But what if that other place in the mirror is where Mama is? Maybe she’s looking for something there.” Or maybe—
The idea shoots through her like the feeling you get when you think there’s one more step to go down, but there’s not.
Maybe something from the mirror-place is looking for Mama. Maybe that’s what she was hiding from. But your mirror-self couldn’t do anything to you. Could it?
Auntie hugs her. “No, your mama is around somewhere. We just have to find her.” Letting go, she stands. “That’s why we’re going all over, putting up these flyers. So when somebody sees your mama, they’ll know to call us.”
Ailee looks down at the papers, dimpled and dented from how tight she holds them. Mama’s face looks back at her, smiling the fake smile she always used when people made her take a picture. Smile for once, Dee! they always said. Her hair is even combed in the picture.
She thinks about living with Auntie Mirie and Uncle Ern. About grilled cheese sandwiches cut in little triangles, and the cheese oozing out when you bite down. About Auntie tucking her in and kissing her goodnight every night at bedtime.
She thinks about Pretty Kitty, her kitten. She always wanted a kitten before Mama ran away, but Auntie would whisper, “You’re too little to take care of a kitty by yourself, and your mama will forget.”
Mama forgot a lot of things. A lot of things.
Ailee sighs. Auntie is still watching, waiting for her to say something, so she nods.
But Mama doesn’t want to be found, she knows it. She’s been trying to hide from something for a long time, and maybe she’s finally found someplace safe, where it can never get her.
* * *
Trace’s back hurts. His ass feels like it’s gone flat as roadkill and if he eats one more candy bar or bag of chips he’ll puke. He wheels the rig off the interstate. The pumps stand in an island of white light. Orange glare of sodium vapor pours through the windshield in a sickly mockery of sunshine, leaching color from every surface. The skin of his hands on the big steering wheel looks sick.
Yeah, the money’s decent. But when home’s nothing but a single-wide trailer on a piece of flat dirt with nobody inside waiting at the end of a run, what’s money but something you got to have to have to make it through the next day and the day after that?
By the pumps, it’s bright as daylight. He shuts off the ignition and climbs down from the cab. Parked trucks rumble, their reefer units humming. The air smells of diesel fuel and exhaust. It’s a whole city out here on the backbone of the continent, a city of nomads plunked down for the night on pale dry ground dotted with rocks and junipers. Except instead of wagons or teepees, it’s idling trucks all clumped up together. But in the morning and the dark early hours, drivers will climb into their cabs and take roads to someplace else full of strangers.
His shadow stretches ahead of him, pointing his way to the convenience store and restaurant. The space between seems darker than it should be. Stars fill the sky like dust on a blackboard. A waft of air blows away the diesel fumes and he smells for a moment the desert scents, the pines and sages, a quick whiff of wetness—maybe a thunderstorm somewhere? Yep, there it is, flashing away like paparazzi off to the west, beyond the parked trucks.
In one whiteout flash of lightning, a shape moves, skinny, slouching, hurrying from one big boxy shape to the next. A kid? Not another trucker. This moves like somebody not wanting to be seen.
He hesitates, then turns that way, boots clumping across the asphalt. Now that he’s looking, he sees the shape again, still hurrying, just a glimpse of movement against the night keeping to the shadows of the trucks.
It isn’t his business. Hell, if it is trouble he shouldn’t get himself mixed up in it. But if it was his truck and the next guy saw something funny, he’d sure appreciate it if the nosy bastard took it upon himself to check it out.
The shadow runs—flat out runs, like its life depends on it—across the dim-lit space between the last truck and the building, its shadow bobbing along, a misshapen mimic. Both figure and shadow disappear in the darkness. Trace stops again, in the shadows himself now. There’s a scuffling, shuffling sound and the figure reappears by the restaurant dumpster, long hair, baggy pants and just a t-shirt between it and the storm-smelling breeze. Except it’s not an it, but a she, and she’s opening the dumpster lid and peering inside like it’s a bakery case.
Some runaway stowing away in trailers? Must be, because if she’d hitched a ride, she probably wouldn’t need to be dumpster-diving.
“Hey!” he calls.
She freezes. Doesn’t whirl, doesn’t run, just freezes. Like she thinks if she’s still enough, she’ll disappear. Weird.
“Yeah, I see you, so don’t run away.”
She stays just like she is, one hand holding up the dumpster lid, the other clutching the side. He walks toward her, off to the side a little so he isn’t too close, so he can see her face.
It’s not a kid’s face, and it’s thin, way too thin. And she’s scared to death. Of him? Maybe. A man in the dark, nobody else around? Sure she’s scared.
He sticks his hands in his jacket pockets. “What’re you doing by those trucks?”
Her eyes are flat and empty—lights are on, nobody’s home. He’s seen stray dogs with that look.
“You shouldn’t be out here like this,” he says. “Too easy for trouble to find you. You understand? Some guy sees you hanging around his truck, he won’t be happy and he’ll let you know it.”
Maybe she really will disappear, standing there like she doesn’t exist.
Nuts. He shrugs and walks away. He wants to look back, see if she scuttles off as soon as his back is turned, but she’ll either run or she won’t. Not much he can do about it. Couldn’t ever do much about the dogs, either.
He pushes the door open. The c-store’s bright lights hit his eyes like something from another world, one full of truckers this time of night, full of road-worthy stuff to eat, engine fluids, a few ambitious cans of vegetables and boxes of Hamburger Helper. The fountain drinks and the hot case are back in the corner; the milk, juice and cold pop in a cooler nearby. One trucker studies the beer, contemplating turning himself into 80,000 pounds of unreliably-guided missile.
Trace had in mind a good, hot meal at the restaurant, but next thing he’s lifting the plastic door to the hot case and taking out a cellophane-wrapped hamburger. He steps past the idiot opening the beer cooler and takes out a bottle of orange juice, nukes the burger and carries the stuff to the register. A couple of guys are in line ahead of him. Will she still be there by the time he gets back outside?
Why is he even worried about it? It’s not like he hasn’t seen his share of bag ladies and panhandlers. Just never one so completely alone.
The scanner beeps, money changes hands. The hamburger cools. He’s finally at the register, changing paper into a meal and headed out the door again, along the sidewalk in front of the building and around the corner.
The dumpster is a squatting shape etched out of darkness by the parking lot lights. The lid is closed. No skinny shape hovers nearby.
Damn. Well, what did he expect, anyway? With the burger and juice in his hands, he turns away.
“No!” someone gasps. A woman. “No, keep away! Keep away!”
He spins. The voice moans and he’s moving, moving toward it. Her voice. How does he know? She never spoke, just not-looked at him with those wide, scared, empty eyes.
Something else is moving, too, a sort of shimmer in the darkness. He shakes his head. Stuff shimmers in the light, not the dark. But damned if that’s not how it seems, like peering down into a shaded stream and seeing the glimmer and dance of the water.
A shape breaks from the shadow of the dumpster. The lights pick out a flurry of hair, a mouth stretched wide. It’s her. Her oversized pants flap as she runs. Then he sees it. That shadowy flicker, but shadows don’t just move by themselves. They don’t float upright in the air, blocking out the flash of lightning from distant storms behind them. They don’t swell, and reach…
Cold kneads his shoulders. He shakes it off, shakes his head again, harder. He wasn’t driving that long. It must be something else, maybe headlights behind throwing her shadow on a cloud of diesel smoke.
Except the shimmer swirls around her. She stops as if seized, arms flung wide, fingers crooked, knees half bent, head tilted back. Screams.
And he’s just standing there. Just standing, watching, his boots nailed to the pavement, his lungs and heart and gut all frozen up while that crazy, impossible shimmer envelops her, a shadow come alive to blot out the one who cast it.
She screams again, or maybe shrieks, “No!” except the word is so distorted by terror he can’t tell. She’s blurring, too, like a shape at the core of veiling smoke.
“Please!” she gasps, and finally, finally he’s running toward her.
She sinks, sags to the ground. The shadow shrinks and molds itself to her, growing thicker, more formed.
So far, so far from her! Does the ground stretch under his feet, or does he run only in a dream? She’s silent now, a still, crumpled form. The shadow hunches over her, gathers her into its arms, folds itself over her.
The burger and juice are gone from his hands, and his hands are fisted. What can fists do to a shadow? What kind of crazy man thinks about fighting one?
The shadow doesn’t stay to fight. Like a drop of dirty oil, it smudges her thin features and dusty clothes, then sinks into her.
He drops to his knees beside her. She’s still, so still. Her eyes are closed, sunken. Her mouth is open. The only shadow is the one lying beneath her, and it’s just as still as she is, not a bit of that terrible shimmer.
His breath, still and frozen before, heaves in and out of his lungs now. He reaches toward her, then his fingers curl away and come to rest on his thighs.
“Hey,” he says softly, as if fearing to wake her. Or maybe wake something else.
He looks around. People are coming toward them. They might’ve heard her scream. Or seen them running. And now here he is, hunched over a body lying on the ground a long way from the lights.
“Hey,” he says again, louder.
Her eyelids flutter open.
He lets out a breath and sits back. “Are you okay?”
She blinks. “I’m not sure.” She gets a hand under her, pushes herself up. “Why am I lying on the ground?”
That shadow, he starts to say. His mouth is open, but the words don’t come out. His hand is on her arm. He doesn’t remember helping her sit. She looks at him in a perplexed sort of way, and he takes his hand away and rests it on his leg again. “You—you were running,” he says. It’s all he can think of. All that won’t sound crazy.
The people—men, other truckers, probably—are close now.
“What’s going on?” one man says. He wears a ballcap that says Born to Hunt.
She looks up at the newcomers. “I must’ve fallen.” She puts a hand on Trace’s shoulder, gathers her feet under her and stands. “I’m fine now, thanks.”
The men’s eyes flick between them. Her hand is still on Trace’s shoulder. His hand is under her elbow, a gentle grip on that thin arm. Once more, he lets go.
The men hesitate. “You was screaming,” one says, an old guy with a bald head and a nose with skin like an orange.
Frowning, she tilts her head to one side. “Screaming? There must be some mistake. Why would I scream?”
Now they look perplexed. The first man says, “So long’s you’re all right.”
She laughs, a sound full of life. “Oh, yes. Perfectly.”
They nod and head toward the c-store.
Her eyes turn back, bright and curious. Not scared. Not blank and shattered. “Why is everyone so worried?”
“You don’t remember?” Don’t you remember the shadow? he really wants to ask, but the words still won’t come.
She shakes her head, then glances around. “A truck stop,” she says then looks up. “Oh! Look at that sky. How beautiful!” She draws a breath. “And the smell of rain. Don’t you just love that?” She smiles. “Were you helping me?”
He hitches a shoulder. “You looked hungry. I went in to get you something to eat, but then—” He stops, wets his lips.
She touches his hand. “I guess I should thank you then.”
That night breeze is still cool, but her fingers are warm. After what he saw, they should be anything but. He resists the urge to put his hands in his pockets. “What’s your name?”
She opens her mouth to answer, then shakes her head slowly, brows quirked over the smile. “I—I don’t know. I can’t remember. That should scare me, shouldn’t it? But it doesn’t. Like all that matters is being me, talking to people, enjoying the stars and the smells.”
She remembers…nothing? Nothing at all? Like whoever she was has been erased, leaving someone else to wake on the ground in the dark in the middle of nowhere with a strange man leaning over her. And that woman isn’t frightened, isn’t confused. She smiles, perfectly at peace, perfectly complete.
Her eyes are so full. He glances down at the worn toes of his boots, at the white creases pressed into his jeans from long hours in the truck.
“Well,” he says. “Everybody needs a name. I’m Trace.” Holding out a hand to shake, he looks into her face again, amazed at what he sees there. “How about I call you Joy?”
“Joy,” she says, and laughs again. “I like that. It fits me just right.”
Her eyes gleam like a shaded stream, shadowy and shimmering.
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