A Safe Shadow (Fiction – Short Tales for Frosty Nights)
The first time it happened I was up until my nose in blankets, trying to push my lower legs down to the cold end of the bed. It was a daily struggle. I warmed my hands between my thighs and waited for some heat to start spreading. It had not been a very eventful day: outside it was grey, and when it was grey my body refused to do what I wanted it to do. In fact, the whole week had been grey. The afternoon I’d spent trying to sort out addresses for the Christmas cards I would send to friends and family out of sheer forced holiday spirit.
I liked December. Even though I wasn’t the best at decorating the house – my mother would re-hang all the ornaments in the tree after I’d put them up – I enjoyed the warmth of the holidays. Looking at a table full of food made by red-faced aunts and uncles who’d spent ages thinking of the perfect Christmas dinner amused me. It was so bourgeois that it was cute.
Christmas was in two weeks. The festive spirit had somewhat begun to take over the atmosphere, but the sky had decided to still be grey. And take all of the activity out of my body. I clamped my toes together to try to keep them warm. There was a faint tapping on the roof attic: rain had started to fall. Soon, little specks of white appeared on the glass of the window above my head. The first snow. It would probably not last, it wasn’t cold enough yet. Tomorrow I’d have to trudge through the slushy wet remains.
And then, with a loud shove, the other window in my room opened and a dark bundle of limbs and body stumbled into my bedroom. I was too stunned to say anything.
“I’m so sorry,” the bundle said, and stood up right. It was a boy, a tall skinny boy wearing black trousers and a black leather jacket and a black beanie hat, all covered in white specks.
At that moment I should’ve felt scared. It was past midnight, my bedroom was in the attic of the house and this young man had, for some reason, decided to climb in. I should’ve questioned how he’d even got in, worry about ladders and helicopters hovering in the sky. But I didn’t. I just stared at him.
“Truly,” the boy said, “It’s very cold outside. It’s snowing, did you see? I’m just looking to warm up for a second, and then I’ll leave. You won’t even know I’m here. I can be very quiet.”
He then reached for an equally black backpack and pulled out a towel. He patted his face dry, then carefully arranged the towel on my bedroom floor and sat down. He took off his shoes. Then proceeded to be quiet, as he’d promised. I looked at my attic window. It was still snowing heavily. I sat upright and reached for the jumper I kept next to my bed. Pulled it over my t-shirt.
“Do you mind if I turn on the light?” I asked. Somehow, I thought it would be best to be polite. I didn’t want to scare him off.
“Maybe in a while, if you don’t mind. I rather enjoy being in the dark.”
“Yes, okay, I understand.”
He seemed to be my age, but in the darkness of the room I could only see the contours of his body and hear his voice.
“But, you know, it’s not that common to suddenly hijack someone’s bedroom in the middle of the night.” Curiosity won me over.
“I know.” He sounded sad. “And I really am sorry about it. This is merely the best possible option for me at this point.”
I could sense that he didn’t want to talk about the reason he was here. So we talked about other things. We started with the subject of wet snow and how annoying it was to walk through slush, and ended on water dripping from your hair into your eyes. If you wanted, you could talk about the weather long enough.
It was silent for a while. I was finally comfortable under my blankets and rolled on my side. It was warm. I didn’t want to ask for his name. He was two years older than me. I watched him sit stiffly on his folded towel.
“You can sit on my bed, if you like.”
He hesitated for a minute, then stood up and sat on the far corner of my bed. I quickly moved my feet to the other side. He sat with his hands on either side of his legs, clutching the edge of the bed. His fingers were long and thin, two pale creatures coming out of dark sleeves.
I was aware of his presence, but I was tired too. He didn’t say much, he was a mere shadow in the corner of my eye. A safe shadow. I had to fight not to fall asleep and after a while my eye lids started to slowly flutter. Five minutes later I opened my eyes with a shock – I should not be careless like that!
There was no one on the bed anymore. I climbed out and ran to the window, but all I could see down below was our back yard, covered in white. The window was closed. There was no ladder. I shivered from the air coming through. I did not dream this.
The next few nights I found myself waiting for him to come back, even though I knew he probably wouldn’t be. He was running for something, most definitely. Why would he linger in one area? I told myself this over and over so I wouldn’t hope too much, but I couldn’t help doing the exact opposite.
The snow didn’t stay, as we’d discussed. The streets around my neighbourhood were soon empty of any sign of white. Most of the trees had lost their leaves and their dark arms grasped at the sky. The sun was up, and on some nights the temperature fell below zero. I hoped the boy, in his suit of black, was huddled inside somewhere, under a warm blanket. I hoped he’d gone home. I convinced myself to think that way. It was much nicer.
Christmas came and went and the usual aunts and uncles treated us to their usual crafted dinners. It hadn’t snowed, so we shook our heads at the clichéd Christmas songs. It didn’t snow often around here. I had sent my dreaded cards and received a few in return; their words the same as every year. Hope you have a great Christmas! Wish you a nice few days with family! Eat lots of good food!
Sometimes I dreamed about him. He was always a shadow in my dreams, vanishing when I would come too close. I woke up frustrated.
During the days after Christmas my parents prepared for New Year’s Eve, another family event. I didn’t dare going out with friends, or staying over at their places. I took the bus into the old city centre, sat in the library or a café and stared outside with a warm cup of coffee in my hands. The sky turned sunlit pale to dark grey. I was hopeful.
My family and I watched the fireworks and kissed each other on cheeks. It was foggy outside and I didn’t have the mind to go to New Year’s parties. I went to bed and slept through half of the first day of January. Nothing had changed. I decided that I didn’t want this feeling of might-be disorienting my life and resumed being my old self.
During the day I worked in a coffee shop in town and at night I would either go to yoga class or go to my friends’ houses to watch a film. Sometimes we would go to a pub and dance to songs we liked in the back. In the first week of January, I turned nineteen. I cut my hair shorter. I smiled at people in the streets.
In the second week, the skies started to change. They became a pale light grey, a mood shift. It was too cold to wear tights so we didn’t go out dancing that Thursday. I was reading the first page of a new book in bed when I heard the familiar tapping of the rain on the attic roof. It was one of my favourite sounds of all seasons, probably. The book was interesting, but I couldn’t fully get into it so I put it on my night stand and turned off the light. I fell asleep with the rain tapping above my head.
That night I dreamed of him again. He apologised for not showing up earlier.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I’ve been busy.”
“It’s okay,” I answered, “I’ve been living my life.”
Then he smiled at me and left his black beanie on my radiator to dry. When I woke up the day after, I shrugged it off. It was still in my system, but that’s how dreams work. They like to confuse you during your day.
It was still very cold outside, and the sky a dull drab colour. After dinner I took a bath to heat up my body. I poured half a bottle of mint fragranced oils into the water and sank deep into my thoughts. I could hear the wind howling against the walls of the house. In my pyjama t-shirt and shorts I walked up the stairs to my bedroom and opened the door.
There was the tapping of the rain. There were the white specks of snowfall on the glass. There was the black beanie on the radiator.
Half in shock I quickly climbed into my bed, as if that was a requirement. I did not dream it? Had I had some kind of brain freeze? I wondered if I was capable of knowing the difference between fact and fiction, anymore.
I clicked the lights off in my room and stayed still in my bed. He would come for his beanie. I closed my eyes and waited forever, half afraid I was delusional. I opened my eyes. Nothing. Closed them again. The same darkness.
My body tried hard to fall asleep, but I refused. I heard the soft creaking of the window opening and held my breath. Then it closed again.
I opened my eyes and got used to the darkness almost immediately. The tall boy was standing in my bedroom, specks of snow on his black clothes. Without his beanie, his hair was a wet curly mess.
He spread out his towel on the floor. I let out a sigh of relief.