by Christopher Blake
We shadows can be anything: the monster under the bed, the robber, the ghost, the serial killer. I trained in the darkest nether pits, and now that I’m out, it’s my turn to put the boogie in bogeyman, the knight in nightmare.
I coalesce in a dank alley: overturned garbage bins and faded graffiti stained yellow by sodium lights. A textbook shadowhaunt. Blue neon flickers from a diner across the street. I skulk behind a dumpster, flitting through various hideous and crepuscular forms, listening for a victim.
Faint footfalls echo along the windblown street and I watch a man in jacket and toque hunch against the cold, striding through cones of streetlight.
“Psst,” I say, though it’s not what he hears. He hears whatever his brain’s disposed to hear. But I’ve chosen the setting, primed his mind for fathomless fear. And now his subconscious will give me shape.
He stops, then takes a step forward. He makes a clicking sound with his tongue.
“Here boy,” he says.
He stretches out a hand, then reaches into a paper bag he’s carrying. He breaks off a piece of hamburger and holds it out.
I sniff the air and emerge into the light.
The new form his subconscious grants me has black fur, whetted teeth, and fearsome claws. A noble mien of shadowstuff. I surge forward and leap at the man, ready to tear him apart, but my new jaws seek only the proffered meat.
“Oh, good boy,” he says, struggling to speak as I lap at his face.
“Heck,” he says, holding out the rest of the burger. “Have it all. You labs are voracious.”
I snarf the burger (displaying dominance) and he checks my neck, looking for a collar that isn’t there.
“You have a home, boy?”
He looks up and down the street, as if offering the universe one last chance to keep me.
“Well, you do now,” he says. “Let’s go, buddy.”
We walk side by side through quiet midnight streets. He whistles as he walks, a pleasant melody. Whistling by the graveyard, no doubt.
He’s terrified already.
As well he should be.
He lets me into a basement apartment, the sort of place that should be depressing. It isn’t much: short window-wells and damp floors. But his spirit lives on the walls in movie posters and horror novels, and I feel, curiously, at home.
He goes into the tiny kitchenette and fills a bowl with water. Then he opens the fridge and dumps some leftover ground meat into another bowl labeled “Rufus.”
“Little midnight snack,” he says, stroking my coat. “Lots of leftovers these days. Haven’t quite got used to cooking for one, yet. Keep picturing old Rufus waiting around every corner.”
I try to resist, but the meat smells delicious, and I scarf it down in a couple bites. No matter. His foolish generosity only feeds my terrible strength.
The man laughs and scratches behind my ears.
“Alright boy, let’s hit the hay.”
He flips down the back of his futon and throws a pillow and a comforter on top, then strips to his boxers and crawls under the covers. He pats the mattress and whistles for me to jump up.
After a few minutes, he falls asleep, his gentle snores filling the small room. I loom over his sleeping form, my slobbering maw quivering.
Now is my chance, a textbook opportunity to terrify.
But it’s been a long night, and I’m tired. And, if I earn his trust now, my brutal betrayal will traumatize him all the more. Yes, that’s it. I’ll bide my time for one more night, then strike when he least expects it.
But for now the futon just looks…
Next I know, I’m cuddling against him, warm morning sunlight bathing us both. I lay alongside him (no doubt siphoning his body heat), listening as his chest rises and falls. He looks so innocent and sweet. It’s almost a shame that I must inundate him with unspeakable horror.
But he gets up and scoops out an old tin of dog food from the cupboard. I devour it voraciously while he eats a slice of toast. He throws me something that looks like a bone, and I gnaw ominously at what I conclude to be the hardened skin of a dead animal. It is incredibly satisfying.
Afterwards, we go to a dog park, and he throws a ball for me to chase. At first, I look down upon this childish pursuit, but soon I am running and leaping through the air, retrieving the ball for him to throw again and again. After a while, I lose track of time. All I know is that we play so long my tongue almost gets tired from lolling.
On the way home, he waits patiently, humming to himself as I urinate on various telephone poles and fire hydrants.
Later that night, we curl up on the futon. He strokes my head as he watches the TV flicker, holding out the last of his vanilla ice cream for me to lick.
And then he falls asleep, and I sit, surveying him.
I am a shadowthing. The best of the worst. Now is the time to terrify.
But I watch his mouth puff a gentle breath, and see his eyes below their lids flicker to the infinitely mutable shadowshow of dreams.
And the thing inside my chest that has beaten all day, always faster when he’s near, beats faster again as I remember at last that we shadows can be anything.
We can be man’s worst nightmare.
We can be man’s best friend.
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About the Author
Christopher Blake is a physician by day and a writer by night. He is a dad (cat and human), by his back of the napkin calculations, approximately 32 hours a day. His short fiction has appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, and Stupefying Stories.