Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Steve Rasnic Tem: Shadow

Steve Rasnic Tem, Shadow, Tales of mystery, Relatos de terror, Horror stories, Short stories, Science fiction stories, Anthology of horror, Antología de terror, Anthology of mystery, Antología de misterio, Scary stories, Scary Tales

“I just wasn’t prepared for them, to have so much shadow enter my life.”

The man in the video is your Uncle Mark, but you hardly recognize him. His face is puffy, unshaven, dirty. You recognize his weary voice only because of the resemblance to other male voices in your family. The poor sound quality emphasizes the weariness in his voice, in the world from which he speaks. This equipment is old—you haven’t watched television in years. At a certain point you found it too irritating to bear—the sounds it made actually hurt your brain. But you can’t remember exactly when that was. If the video player hadn’t already been hooked up to the television you would have been helpless to make it work. You are surrounded, in fact, by numerous appliances you never use and have forgotten how.

You wonder how old he was when he made this recording. You’re not good with ages, especially where men are concerned, but you think he might have been ten years older than you are now, which would place him in his early fifties. You think you must have been eight or nine years old, just a little girl, when he died. Which means, what? You must try to keep yourself from being annoyed by all these numbers because you will no longer be able to sit here and watch this man and find out some things. What, exactly, those things will be and what use you will make of them you have no idea. You do not want to be annoyed—bad things happen when you are annoyed.

Thirty years. It’s been more than thirty years since he made this recording. You wonder if he would be surprised by how different the world is now. From the look of his face you think not.

His lighting is harsh, inexpert, overpowering. Why so much light? Then you notice how it is concentrated in the area immediately around him, as if he were enveloped in some brilliant bubble. The rest of the room is gloomy, hung with curtains, sheets, bedspreads. You think of sailing ships, although you have never actually seen one outside old magazines. Sheets and curtains shroud the furniture, smother the windows.

He says nothing more for a while. He rearranges the lamps, moving them forward, in and out of the frame, burning your eyes so that you have to look away.

“I won’t be seeing you again,” he says, finally. “And you won’t much care, if this is my niece and nephew watching this. But I do wish you well.”

You are so disturbed by his mention of a “nephew” that you slap the Stop button on the player. His image is suddenly swallowed up by dark gray murk. You press the Rewind button, press Play again. “... my niece and nephew watching this.” You press Stop. You hope your uncle will not use Tommy’s name—it wouldn’t seem right. You yourself have not spoken Tommy’s name aloud in years. How long ago was it? You start counting on your fingers, but you don’t have enough. Fifteen years, perhaps sixteen, since Tommy’s suicide. You punch the Play button so hard the player slides back several inches on its shelf. The screen jitters to life.

“Life is hard for all but a few of us—I think it is our business to wish each other well. It’s quite possible you are years away from me now. I’m sure those of your generation still have your dark nights of the soul, do you not? ‘Yea, though I walk,’ and all that? Do you still read the Bible? I hadn’t in years, before these last few days. Not that I’m a believer, I just felt a need to connect to the tormented.

“My hope is that you have someone to hold onto when things go very badly. I suspect you’ll find much to doubt in my account, or it is possible things will have devolved even further than I imagined, and you’ll know what I’m speaking of all too well. You may be watching this from some terrible future.

“And do you remember who I was? Does anyone?”

You’re not sure if you will watch much more of this. You think you feel a vague sort of embarrassment for the man. You can’t remember the last time you felt embarrassment. If your uncle starts to weep, you know you will rip the tape out of the machine and throw it in the trash. So much for being remembered, Uncle Mark.

You have never had any use for the sentimental. Watching this tape is a strange and disturbing exercise for you. Even that word—”nostalgia” is it?—sounds like some illness. You hate the touch of old things; you despise the smell. This house, the one in your uncle’s video, has passed to you, and you accepted only because you needed the roof over your head.

When you first moved in it just seemed easier to pretend these old things weren’t here. You managed to throw everything out of your bedroom, sleeping on a pallet on the floor. Every few months since then you have steeled yourself in order to take boxes of these old things into the alley for disposal.

That is how you found this video, at the bottom of a box in the living room closet, with your name and Tommy’s name and that date scrawled in shaky blue ballpoint pen on the label. You were curious, you have always been cursed with an annoying curiosity, and then when you saw that it was your Uncle Mark on the tape and realized that was the date of his death and your father’s death, or disappearance, you had this immediate and annoying curiosity. You wanted to hear what your Uncle Mark had to say.

You were almost nine, you remember now. You were almost nine and you found out your Uncle Mark was dead, and your father had disappeared, presumed dead. You had a lousy ninth birthday—your mother couldn’t get you to even come out of your room.

“So what news have you brought, Uncle Mark?” you whisper to his sad, flickering face. “What news?”

Shadows drift over his pale skin as he moves across the screen: at first so subtle they might be a veil of dust on the lens, then stark, black bands suggestive of bars or limbs. You have the impulse to get up and turn more of your own lights on, but you make yourself stay in your chair, because you’re nothing like your uncle, or any of those crazy old men in your family. You have been able to protect yourself. You have stayed alive.

“It’s been...” he makes a sound that might have been intended as a laugh, but it fills his throat like a sob. “A hellish year. You remember your Aunt Trish, I hope. I just want you to know, for one thing, that she liked everybody, pretty much. And when they treated her less than honorably she either didn’t notice or she didn’t care. She was a generous woman, maybe too generous. I thought she was my life before she died. And now, I know. I haven’t been able to figure out if her mugger was from the neighborhood or not, but he very well could have been. I don’t know if he was black or brown or white. I’m no racist, understand, it doesn’t matter. But I would like to know. The police say he was probably young. They say he jumped a fence getting away. Like an animal, is the way that sounds to me. A throw-back. A walking piece of garbage. How do you handle garbage in your day? Do you keep it around until it starts to stink, or do you get rid of it?

“They said he evidently didn’t mean to kill her. God knows she didn’t mean to die. Her heart was good, but it was weak. She had a heart attack, and even though there were a dozen people less than twenty yards away, she died. I can’t tell you the number of times she’d get so scared on some ride at the amusement park, unable to breathe. Still, she wanted me to take her, said it was fun. Well, I stopped taking her; I was scared of what might happen. I didn’t deserve her, but I knew the treasure I had in her. That made me angry and cold sometimes, which I guess frightened her even more. Isn’t that a big joke? Being scared of what might happen; that’s what I’d call living a life. Maybe it’s different in your time and place.”

He is making you uncomfortable. You resist the impulse to strike the screen. He is making you think of your father. He is making you think of Tommy, and you can barely control your annoyance. Only the living care about such things. The shadows don’t care.

Your uncle is up on his feet, prowling like a bear trapped in a small space. You know the feeling. Some people do not belong inside walls. But sometimes they have no choice if they want to protect themselves. Every time his pacing brings him near the camera the image shudders. “I don’t pretend I will be able to explain myself,” he begins, his voice deeply hoarse, threaded with brittleness. “So many things happen in a life that you cannot understand, but I wouldn’t want you to think I’ve always disliked people.” Your uncle stops himself, staring at you, then looks around the room with a vague, stupid expression, as if he’s not sure where or when he is. “We’re just a bad fit, I think, people and me.”

He stares into the lens, so close he’s distorted into a thin version of himself, looking a great deal, in fact, like your father. You remember your father reaching down to stroke your face, how gentle he could be for such a tall man, for someone with such large, rough hands, and even though you do not value gentleness, you do not mind this memory. You try to remember what he smelled like, and you remember him crying, and you also remember him angry and out of control.

“I’m sure there are good people out there, trapped by their circumstances.” He leans closer, his eye so large that you imagine you can see yourself reflected in his iris. “But I want you to know that predators watch these streets. They hang out near the back alleys and the parks and the unlit intersections of our cities. They wait there for the weak or the old or the foolish, the ones straggling behind the herd. Then when they see the opportunity they pick them off one by one. For them it isn’t an issue of morality—they have a need and they fill that need as best they know how. You almost have to admire that quality in them.”

He reaches forward then, his rough, stained palms framing each side of the picture, and you draw back, surprised by the feeling that he is trying to strangle you, not you personally, but any of the children that came after. You think this is the kind of person who could kill his own family.

Then your view of him swings, a sudden blur of color as he has apparently detached the camera from its stand, and now it is airborne, shaky and handheld, and he is moving about the house at random, speaking to you, hardly aware of the camera now so it records great jittery expanses of water-stained ceiling, a garbage-strewn floor, rotting leftovers on tables and chairs, scattered across the rug like vomit, smearing the already filthy walls. Then as he continues his speech you can detect the slight deterioration in the image, the corruption of color, which gives a certain hysterical quality to his confession.

“I have sensed this shift in the world for a long time now, even before your aunt’s death. The signs are there; you just have to know what you’re looking for. Often when I would go out I would watch people, when they did not know I was looking. I would stand at the corners of buildings, at the edges of things. Sometimes I would just stand under a window, very still, and bear witness. It was quite subtle at first, but I began to detect a certain aggressiveness in the way people held themselves. There was an aura of illness, for lack of a better term, in the way they interacted. A fevered look in the eyes, a gray cast to the face, an agitation in the fingers, a stumble in the gait. They watched one another, apparently without recognition. I became convinced that a kind of isolation of the soul had occurred in vast numbers of the population. A cataclysmic psychic event, I think. It affected everything. Even the architecture, the nature of the sky, the stars spinning overhead changed.

“If I’m overreacting, then so is the world. Because shadow has come into it, you see. The knowledge of it. That no-man’s land between living and dying, when you are neither, you just are. And you have no hope for better. You look into the mirror, and all you can see is that corpse you will one day be, and there is no fix for it. Your obsessive consciousness of the past and fear of the future have let shadow in, and there is little you can do once that tide has turned.

“That shadow has always been here, but there seemed to be a balance, don’t you think? We had become complacent with the conviction that we could protect ourselves. But a gradual, subtle change has taken place. The tide has reversed itself, the meat has turned, the hourglass has tumbled over.”

Your Uncle Mark is crazy, of course. Was crazy. You know the signs. Tommy was that way, near the end. You could be that way. Locked up in this house, seeing no one. The only person he allowed in that last year was your father. Your missing father, all those years ago. At least that was the story you heard. People lie, of course, but you think that story was probably true.

This is still his house. Crazy Uncle Mark. His crazy house. So much of his stuff is still here. You can hardly bear to touch it.

He is leaning over, the camera dizzy with shuffling walls, rug, that ugly ceiling, remounting the camera so it is now aimed like a gun at the front door. “Your father helped me secure this house. No, let me be completely truthful. Your father secured this house from the threats closing in around us—I have little skill in matters mechanical, electrical, in plumbing, in carpentry. At first he saw no need, but toward the end, I think he was beginning to see things my way. If only he had come around sooner.”

Now he has your undivided attention. Your father and toward the end and if only. Magical words, the doors to the secrets unlocking. You push your chair up closer to the television, your eyes aching from the shifting lights and darks. Your uncle comes up over you, making further adjustments to the camera. The zoom level changes; he blurs out to white and then walking away from you he is back in focus. Standing at the large wooden front door now, he gestures at its detail brought so close to you by the zoom.

“Your father did exquisite work. I asked him to make the strongest door he could make, one that a tank would have a problem getting through, and he made me this work of art.”

You glance at the heavy but rather plain door there currently. You’d like to believe that your father’s door was so wonderfully made, so universally admired, that he sold it, that it could even be hanging in a museum somewhere. Yours is a family of dreamers.

“He put a contented face on one side, counterpoint to the threatening face on the other side. It’s a wonderful door, but he hung it with the wrong side facing out. He was always so careful, I have no idea how he could have made a mistake like this. I would have had him correct it, but we ran out of time.”

Out of time. You are waiting for him to tell you more, but he has stopped talking, and now the camera is jerking forward, so that you imagine he must have gone back and around and is now moving the tripod closer so that you can see your father’s work in greater detail. Your Uncle Mark really wants you to see this door.

The face covers the entire center, probably five feet from top of head to tip of chin. Approximately two feet wide. Long and narrow. The eyes are squeezed to slits, but still you can see the deep, shadowed holes gouged out for the pupils hiding under the lids. The mouth is a sneer, exposing teeth carved so aggressively they look like giant, jagged splinters wedged just behind the wrinkled lips. The ears are narrow and pulled back close to the head like those of an angry animal. At first you think the mottled background of the door is just its natural roughness, but when your uncle drags a floor lamp closer you can see that the remainder of the door around the face is completely carved with shallow reliefs of faces just beginning to emerge from the wood, showing an eye, or a mouth, the top of a nose, the side of a chin. The impression is of people floating up from the depths of dark, liquid wood, the moment of their initial emergence painstakingly recorded.

You cannot believe your uncle doesn’t see it. That is his face on the door! The likeness is unmistakable! Distorted, certainly, mutated, but obvious. It doesn’t surprise you at all. You don’t have to see the face on the other side to know how it must have looked: your Uncle Mark on one of his better days, hair combed, smiling, the image he’d want the outside world to see.

“This door wasn’t the only fortification he made for me. The windows all around are double-barred, deep anchored in hard-cured concrete. He even extended the foundation out another foot, in case anyone tries to dig their way in.”

He looks at you as if he wants to send an apology across the years. “I miss him tremendously—he had been good company since your Aunt Trish’s death. I really wish he had stayed.

“Six months ago I locked myself up inside this house. Windows shut, curtains closed. They deliver my food, but I never see them, I just know when they’re gone, and when everything looks clear I go out and drag it all inside. You can do this so easily nowadays.

“Your father worked on this house for months. Certainly he thought I was over-reacting at first. Then for a long time he said nothing, just showed up, worked, and left here before dark. He never liked being here after dark. The last few months, however, there was a change. We talked about many things. We talked about the world, history, politics. We talked about the family, how we had always been with each other. He talked about you, his children, and your future. We talked until after dark, until long after dark, until he felt compelled to sleep here, because he was uncomfortable going out to his truck after dark, winding his way down that long walk to the bottom of the hill where he had to park, finding his way through all those layers of shadow. Those times we often talked most of the night, both of us reluctant to go to bed. We talked and talked, and still I think I got very little sense of how he really felt about things.

“He has not been back for over a month. I don’t believe that has been intentional. I burn the lights all night long. I drink. Sometimes I drink too much. I imagine what it is like outside. And I try to imagine solutions for myself, to fix myself, without much luck.

“Maybe in the future you will understand better. You will know what I’m talking about. Maybe in the future you won’t think me crazy. It is almost dark now, I don’t know how much we’ll be able to see, but I think you will have a better understanding if we look outside. I don’t know what I can show you, but I can show you something.”

He walks unsteadily up to you, above you, and out of focus, blurred fingers shaking into some kind of gauzy representation of a spirit abandoning its body, and with a great deal of fiddling and wildly swinging views of the ceiling, his hands, his pale, sweating face, the floor, he removes the camera from its mount and suddenly it’s as if you are stumbling drunken down the hall, dizzy with the multiplying views of skewed ceilings, tilting walls, the crashes as objects fall, glass breaking, furniture exploding out of nowhere and just as suddenly disappearing. You are hugged tightly to his chest, enveloped by his filthy clothes, in darkness and then glimmers of light, food stains on cloth, and you imagine you can smell his stench. Suddenly you are staring at his feet, and you can hear keys going into multiple locks, the clang and snap of metal. This requires some time, allowing you to examine his feet at your leisure: the mismatched, filthy socks, one bloody toe emerging from a tear. Then you are outside, some kind of porch roof below you, a vertiginous display of aerial views of the ground, trees, sidewalk. It all stops and you are looking into the gleam of his sweaty face, surrounded by the dark silhouette of trees appearing like some massive hair-do above his shining forehead, or his over-stimulated nerves that have pushed their way out of his skull and into the sky. The camera waves unsteadily across the streetlights and traffic below, as if this is what he wanted you to see, as if it were evidence of anything, and you are staring up into his dark, wet nostrils, his eyes like pale tumors mounted high up on his face, and from the sharp angle of limb you see that he is holding the camera at arm’s-length to speak to you.

You are disoriented as he shakes the camera, pans it too rapidly. You’re not sure if he’s even trying to show you anything. Street lights smear across the surfaces of the gray buildings. Passing cars ripple, then melt into the pavement. Here and there angry faces run together, burning like frantic candles. Your eyes weep from the strain of watching.

“I don’t know how much you can see, but I have this telephoto lens,” he says, and then his image falls sideways. You’re covered in darkness, the muffled noise of his hand working metal against metal. You catch a glimpse of his face as if at the end of a long tunnel, then a distant view of figures moving, crossing in front of each other, fires in oil drums, blurred. Everything is closer, in focus so sharply it’s as if you’d taken something to clear your head and it just kicked in.

You see not exactly a gathering, more a random passing in close proximity, of shabby figures, male and female, although the two are difficult to distinguish, hunched and leaning, weary, dumb.

Your uncle’s voice begins to narrate, like in one of those nature films you saw as a girl, a hint of desperation, as if from a teacher who knows his student is too stupid to understand. “I see more of them every day. Some are homeless; most I think live somewhere else, but have nothing to do. Nothing satisfies them, nothing speaks to their hearts. Maybe they had a job and one day they forgot why they were journeying every day to this place. Or they were returning to their homes after a long day at work and lost their way. No matter how much they thought about it, they could not remember the place where they had lived.”

The camera slowly pans, Here and there you can see a face more clearly: blank, rough-hewn, the lips moving silently but the eyes disengaged, painted on. You do not see what your uncle is seeing. To you they’re all pretty much the same. Human debris. The “no one special.” You assume they have been here since humanity began. And they will be here at the end, the last human beings alive before the rats and the roaches take over. People who have been eaten by their own shadows.

The camera swings back to his face for just an instant—softly blurred, his image losing form as his voice builds. “You can see it, can’t you? What I’ve been hiding from? This disease? They all look so normal, really, from a certain angle, or at least, harmless.” Then the camera is back on the crowd, the bustling figures, the hot, uncomfortable faces. “Sometimes I think they can smell my fear.”

You realize these people are closer to the house than you had thought. You see them milling like insects seeking safe haven but having forgotten what a safe haven would even look like.

“And there are others out there, I think. You read about them in the papers, or in those terrible supermarket paperbacks. They could be young or old, but they don’t think like normal people. They don’t have the same loyalties. Other people to them are no better than vermin. They are shadow. They act, vaguely, like you. But they are not you. They want to care, but caring is beyond them. They are not you—and there is no cure for that.

“What do you say to someone like that? Do you say ‘please don’t hurt me?’ They see someone like my wife having a heart attack, and they do nothing. It begins in childhood, I think—you can’t always tell, but these children are not like the others. I suspect it develops at different rates. For some it never reaches its final stages. Maybe it’s like cancer, you know? For others, they reach a certain age, a critical point occurs, and they become exceedingly dangerous—mad dogs who need to be put out of their misery. There are more and more of them every year. Before you know it they will fill the cities, then the towns. Before you know it they will be wandering the countryside, like in one of those terrible horror films.

“I saw on the news the other day, they were talking about the economic situation, the job situation, the credit situation. They were talking about how close so many of us are to homelessness. Only a paycheck or two away. Your father was concerned about this. He loved you; he wanted you to have everything. But what if he lost everything?

“For myself, I wondered, if we are all that close to homelessness, to living on the streets, maybe we are close to this new illness as well, this plague of malaise.”

The camera moves quickly, your view becoming a rapid smear of faces as if he was attempting to show you everything he could in the failing light.

“There! Do you see him? It’s your father! Bob! Bob! What are you doing out there? Come inside! Bob, it’s dangerous out there! Stay away from those things!”

The camera flies across warped faces, and one of them might be your father’s, but you can’t really be sure. You wish your uncle would just stop talking. You wish he would just focus a little more and point his camera where it needs to be pointed. You think no wonder he’s dead. You think that’s what happens to people who talk too much.

“Bob, what are you doing? Bob, please come inside! Come to the door! I’ll be right there!”

The trip down from the rooftop is heedless of the camera’s safety. You’re banged against walls, pulled into his shirt, jostled sickeningly with rapid steps. Again you see glimpses of his feet: that toe continuing to bleed, the dark stain spreading through the cloth. His voice is tired now, raw, struggling against silence.

“When you lose someone you love, someone you’re devoted to, a child, a wife, everything looks wrong. The colors, the weather, the everyday actions of everyday people. Even food tastes differently. You can’t put your finger on what’s different—it just happens. Everything starts going wrong, bad luck begets bad. It all seems like some terrible... conspiracy.

“I have never been able to throw away any of her clothes. I have thought about it many times, convinced that I must do some cleaning, some winnowing to rid myself of all this debris, but still, I have kept all of her things. Her toiletries still fill the bathroom and most of the bedroom we shared. Usually I sleep out on the couch. In the living room there is very little to remind me of her. We all drag around with us this enormous shadow. But now I have her shadow as well. I can’t seem to get rid of it.

“One of them out there slashed my tires, went right into my driveway and cut them. Can you imagine?”

His voice sounds increasingly frayed. Sometimes he stops in the middle of a sentence, his throat worn down to silence.

He is at the front door now. More than before, you have the sensation of being a spirit hiding inside his camera, watching. His nervous hand shakes you up and down, bringing the door in and out of focus, as if it were breathing. “I can’t do it,” he says, beginning to cry. “I can’t open the door with those things outside!”

You become aware of the scratching, the scraping. You think it has been going on for a very long time now, but it had become a background to his voice, an odd musical backdrop softly played. A faint pattern of beats, a subtle, insistent drumming. Now, inside his silence, and within the locked-in quiet of the house, you can hear it so clearly.

“You should understand that I didn’t ask your father to help me secure this house, or to spend so much time here away from you. He just came, and he stayed with me for hours, listening to my theories and concerns—it was completely his own idea. When he came over we drank together. We sang together until we lost our voices.”

When he remounts the camera onto its stand you have the strangest impression. As if he has been carrying your head around the house, and has now reattached it to your body, which has been sitting by itself in his living room during the tour. Now, your head safely back in place, he seems calmer. He seems to be trying to talk to you more sanely. But sanity seems incongruous now, what with that loud scratching, that distant tearing, that irregular beating from the other side of the door.

“Your father is a brave man, a rational man. He’ll stay away from them. He’ll find a way to get back inside.” Uncle Mark leans forward and whispers, “Just so you know, I don’t lie to myself. I know that no matter how well I hide myself here, shadow will still find me.”

That, you think, is the wisest thing he has said so far. Shadow always finds you. People think they can protect themselves. They can build enough, they can arm themselves enough, they can pay enough. They are fools.

Your uncle has left the camera running, simply filming this beautiful, ornate door your father created for him. It seems foolish now that your father would go to all that trouble to make this for your crazy uncle. But you are fascinated by this huge, distorted face, and how much it resembles your uncle, how its features mirror the characteristic features you have seen in other members of your family. How it also resembles your father. How it resembles Tommy. How it resembles you. This is your family; this is how your father saw the future of your family. This is how your father saw the future of himself. This is what he was trying to tell them. This is what he was trying to tell his children. But now it’s down to only you to hear. What would happen. How none of you were protected. How the insanity had gotten into the wood, into the grain.

When you first notice the splintering of that grand door behind your uncle, you think it’s just some deterioration, some bubbling, some flaw in the film.

“Our obsession with the past and our fear of the future murder the now. Today arrives each morning as a steaming corpse in the chill air. We are so afraid of shadow, and yet we invite him into our homes without realizing it!” Your uncle is shouting now, because it’s the only way he can be heard over the thunder at the door.

Then those dark floating faces in the door and that one huge, monstrous head come forward and out; as the door comes apart the room is filled by a multitude of shadows, dismantling, dismantling, with a cry that is one voice, yet many.

And the last face in view, before the film runs out, is so familiar. You think it’s your father, but can you be sure? And that screaming? Who is that screaming? Then you know it is your uncle dying.

You sit there in your living room, which used to be your uncle’s living room, watching as the images burn away to gray. The dusty old player stops. Static explodes into the room and you pound at the Power button until it dies. Then you sit there and stare at the empty screen, your curiosity sated.

What stares back at you is a gray-toned image of your own face, a shadow which is also a portrait, the old TV screen turned into a mirror by the lights behind you and to each side. Out of curiosity you get up and move the floor lamps to the left and right, then check your image, then adjust the lamps again, until you achieve the clearest mirror image possible. You crouch in front of the screen examining yourself. You haven’t owned a mirror in years.

Even within the gray cast of the image you can see your fevered look, the darkness under your flesh, darkest beneath the eyes like a woman laid out at her funeral, the embalmer’s makeup unable to hide the basic tones of death. You remember that these were among the symptoms your uncle mentioned, the characteristics of this cataclysmic disease, this “isolation of the soul.” But your uncle was crazy. There is an agitation in your fingers as you pull your hair back for a better look at your face. You were a pretty girl at one time, you believe, until your own shadow ate you.

You have just seen, or at least heard, your uncle die. So who could have left this tape for you? You realize now that it must have been your own father who left the tape behind. It had been his shaky ball point pen writing that final message, before he became whatever it was he became. But what did your father expect you to do with this knowledge? If he thought you would be unhappy with the person you have become he was sadly mistaken.

Would your father have been happier if you had been more like Tommy, and taken your own life rather than be this way? You loved Tommy—he was the last person you have ever loved, and yet Tommy was a fool. Survival is the only lesson here, the only knowledge worth having.

But you are hungry now, and all this speculation has annoyed you, and annoyance is an unpredictable thing. It can make you careless and put you at risk, or it can make you a dangerous woman indeed. You stand and retrieve your sharpened pole from its place in the corner. It is not the most sophisticated weapon in the world, but it is quiet, and keeps you at a safe distance from the hand weapons carried by others of your inclination, and you use it well.

You slip on your thick leather coat, light enough in weight while still offering some protection. You would like to have a front door like your uncle’s, but you have no idea how you might obtain one. You undo the series of locks on your own plain but sturdy door. Knowing that you are your family’s terrible future, before you step outside you slip one hand beneath your shirt and adjust the straps binding down your breasts. You don’t know if it actually helps when you have to move quickly, but you think it does, and besides, you like the way it feels.

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