Jan 122014
 

“And that is why we always wear a helmet, people,” Campbell quipped as he stood over Jonah, who lay unmoving where he’d landed, slightly to one side of home plate, arms and legs splayed out. That is why we always wear a helmet, people, was something the coach liked to say; Campbell quoted the saying now as an ironic understatement.

Peter was not amused. He bent down and shook Jonah’s shoulder. “Hey Jonah, you okay?” Jonah’s head wobbled slightly, and a moist choking noise rose up from his throat, but he didn’t respond. His eyes were open, but unfocused.

“Did you see the way his feet flew up in the air?” shouted the third baseman, a kid named Dylan, as he drifted over toward the scene of the accident. “That was sweet!”

“Shut up,” Peter snapped. The sensation of his bat hitting Jonah’s head reminded him sickeningly of the time when, for fun, he had thrown small watermelons into the air and smashed them with his bat to make them explode in glorious bursts of red flesh.

“Shwoop, bam!” Dylan used his hands to re-enact the trajectory of Jonah’s body.

“I said shut up!”

All the other guys were gathering around now, too.

“Is he dead?” Rusty asked.

“No.” Peter could feel a heartbeat, but he wasn’t reassured. He noticed an ugly bulge forming on top of Jonah’s head. That couldn’t be good. That couldn’t be good at all.

There was a long silence as everyone waited for Jonah to show signs of reviving.

“What do we do?” Rusty asked.

Peter glanced around. “Someone go to the school for help,” he said, “and someone call 911.”

For a split second, no one moved.

“Now!”

And Rusty took off running.

 

~ ~ ~

 Motion Blur Stretcher Gurney Patient Hospital Emergency

After the bat hit his head, Jonah’s world flipped upside down and exploded in hundreds of fireworks. Then the sizzling and snapping faded into darkness; and then, snippets of light and sound. . . .

. . . his body lying in the gravel behind home plate, pale and bloodied. . .

. . . Peter bending over his body, his face wet with sweat, or tears . . .

. . . the sound and flash of sirens . . .

. . . his body being loaded into the back of an ambulance as a small crowd of students and teachers looked on . . . grim faces . . . hands in front of mouths . . . crying . . . a cell phone held up in the air to snap a picture. . . .

. . . darkness again, a feeling of heaviness, the unintelligible sound of voices . . .

And then he was observing his body, small and white, as it lay on a table in a hospital trauma center. The room was crowded with people wearing blue scrubs and face masks; some were working on his body—cutting off his clothes, attaching wires and tubes and cuffs, packing ice around his legs—and others were monitoring computer screens or preparing equipment. He could hear them talking to one another.

“No verbal communication. Breath sounds are symmetric and clear. . . .”

“. . . any other injuries?”

“. . . why don’t you make it five-forty. That’s ten cc’s per kilo. . . .”

“. . . suction the airway. . . .”

A young nurse whose tag identified her as Phoebe Weaver shone a light in his eyes. “Jonah,” she called to him. “Jonah, can you hear me?”

Two people bent over the top of his head, gently probing where the bat had made contact.

“It looks like it broke into three pieces, with some fragmentation along the occipital edge,” one said. “There has to be a good-sized hematoma under there.”

“Mmm-hmm. Have we heard from imaging? We should get an MRI.”

This was no dream, Jonah realized; he was really floating above his own body, watching a medical team try to save him. Strangely, he felt more curious than frightened. The people working on him were intensely focused, their words and movements efficient and controlled. Professional, like the crew of a crippled airliner preparing for a crash landing.

Not the most encouraging image, he thought.

Jonah found he could see and hear everything perfectly, once he focused on it. Every detail popped—the light sheen of sweat on a nurse’s forehead, and her dilated pupils; a reflection of the entire room wrapped around chrome tubing; the sound of people breathing; the steady, syncopated beeping of the monitors. The room was flooded with light from powerful lamps; each person and every object cast eleven pale shadows that fanned outward like the hands of a clock.

Heads turned as a man walked into the room pulling on gloves. The tag clipped to his scrubs identified him as frederic howell | pediatric neurology.

“All right, what do we have here?” Dr. Howell asked the room at large.

“Young adolescent male with trauma to the parietal plate, probable subdural hematoma. Blood pressure’s been dropping. Consensus is a GCS of six. Kid got hit in the head with a baseball bat—supposedly by accident. Other than that, we don’t have a medical history.”

“Mom’s on the way,” Phoebe offered.

Mom, Jonah thought, is going to freak.

Dr. Howell moved around the table and began gently touching the top of Jonah’s head with his gloved fingers.

“Accident, huh?” Dr. Howell said. “Pretty good job for an accident.”

An alarm started beeping.

“Blood pressure’s dropped below one oh five.”

“Okay, we’re not going to have time for imaging,” Dr. Howell said. “Start prepping him now.”

The room erupted into a flurry of activity; everyone seemed to have a job to do, but the one who really caught Jonah’s attention was the nurse who was wielding an electric razor around his head. As she began shaving, large clumps of dark brown hair fell to the table and the floor.

Okay, now I hope I do die, Jonah thought, thinking it would save him the embarrassment of going back to school with a bald head. But then it occurred to him that if he died, he’d be bald at his funeral. It wasn’t like he was going to be able to grow his hair back after he was dead. Do funeral homes use wigs?

It seemed weird that he could have a sense of humor when his life hung in the balance, but he felt strangely free and unconcerned about the outcome of the drama unfolding below him.

Then an alarm on the heart monitor went off.

“Whoa, where did that come from?” someone asked. “What just happened?”

“All right, Weaver—defib. Tyler and Hernandez, stand by to begin CPR compressions.”

“I’m clear. Is everyone else clear?”

His body jumped as the defibrillator shocked his heart, then a nurse stepped forward and began pushing down rhythmically on his chest, so hard his whole body jumped.

“Begin compressions. Go ahead and prepare an epi needle.”

Viewing the scene from above, Jonah was suddenly overwhelmed with dread. It wasn’t dying that he was afraid of—at least he didn’t think so. Something else was going on.

He felt like he was being watched—or hunted—by some unseen predator . . . like a wolf, or a shark. Something with teeth. Something that made him want to curl up and hide, or run.

The urgent sounds of the medical team became muffled and distant, as if he were hearing them underwater. His consciousness took in the whole room, looking for the thing with teeth. Not having a body to shed his fear—a pounding heart, tingling arms and legs, darting eyes—somehow made it worse.

And then he saw it, the thing with teeth.

It was the shadows.

Before, under the glare of the trauma bay’s floodlights, the shadows had been the palest of shades; now, they darkened and darkened to the deepest black. They came unmoored from the objects casting them, morphing into weird silhouettes. The shadows of a bulky monitor shuffled and swelled, then hunched, beast-like, even though the monitor never moved. The eleven shadows fanning out from Dr. Howell lengthened and twisted grotesquely, the heads becoming like gargoyles. Wires hanging off a machine cast a mess of silhouettes that thinned and split and fractured like shattering glass. An otherwise innocent-looking IV stand grew eleven long, bony arms, at the end of which were eleven bony hands, clawing at the walls.

The shadows grew and merged, spilling over the floor like oil, blotting out everything they touched with a darkness as black as caves and graves. The doctors and nurses and medical technicians seemed oblivious; they were working feverishly to prod Jonah’s body back toward life, even as shadows wrapped around their legs and waists. Jonah could no longer hear what they were saying; their voices were lost in the hissing, shushing sound the shadows made as they sifted about the room. They sounded like blowing snow.

If he had been seeing through eyes, he would have closed them against the scene; if he had legs to run, he would have fled. But he was tethered to the scene by his own dying body. It seemed separate from him now, just the body of a boy. The darkness closed around it, washing out the forms of the doctors and nurses and techs, and pinching the lights smaller and smaller until only the body was illuminated.

The world had suddenly become very small.

Jonah saw a shadowy stain spread underneath his body, outlining it in black. It seeped across the table, then slowly gathered together its limbs and pushed up; and as it rose, it took on the shape of the boy, with a skin of burnt ashes.

It crouched there for a moment. It looked up at Jonah with gray, sunken eyes. It wore his face, Jonah saw—or the shadow of his face.

Who are you? Jonah thought.

The creature opened its dusty mouth and whispered: “Who are you?”

Its voice was the sound of sand and bones.

Jonah wasn’t sure whether the thing was mindless echoing him—shadowing his words—or actually turning the question back on him. But if the question was meant to be answered, he didn’t know what he would say. Always before he would have replied with his name: Jonah Wilder, or Jonah Phinneas Wilder, if he wanted to be fancy about it. But his first and middle names had been chosen by his mother, and his last name given by his father before he had even been born.

I am just myself, he thought.

“I am just myself,” the creature whispered. It looked down at the body of the boy on the table and gently touched the eyes, leaving small pools of darkness in them.

Jonah felt himself slowly sinking down toward the creature, like falling mist, until its ashen face loomed as large in his vision as if they stood face-to-face, inches apart.

What do you want?

“What do you want?” Stray ashes fell from its mouth.

Another unanswerable question. One of his therapists had asked Jonah the same thing a couple years ago. He thought of the answer he had given at the time: Nothing.

“Nothing,” the thing echoed.

Their dialogue was interrupted by a set of hands that emerged from the gloom to place defibrillator paddles on the naked chest of the boy. The creature of ash looked on disinterestedly as the shock caused the boy’s body to jump. Then it bent over the boy and gently, gently placed an ashy hand into his mouth, as if to smother him; and Jonah understood that his shadow meant its answer quite literally: It wanted nothing. As in, the absence of anything but itself.

Which it was about to get, because from somewhere very far away, Jonah could hear the urgent whine of the heart monitor.

Jonah thought of his mother, and his friends from the Panda Banshees, and Alaska and Trudy and Peter, and Mr. Berning and the impossibly alive pond water, and the swallows using their wings to describe some secret geometry over the outfield.

That isn’t true, that I want nothing, he thought.

“That isn’t true,” his shadow said. “I want nothing.”

I do want something, Jonah clarified.

His shadow was silent, looking at him with its dark eyes. Jonah hated those eyes. Those dark-as-nothing, dead eyes. He hated them as he hated himself.

I don’t know exactly what, Jonah added, but I do want something . . . something more. I need something more.

“I need nothing but myself,” his shadow whispered.

I need nothing but myself. Ironic—those were his words, Jonah recalled. They had been his rule for some years now. No surprise there. You get beat up and betrayed by enough people and you learn pretty quick to rely on nothing but yourself. Who had been there for him? Not his father. His mother? He loved his mother but he couldn’t bring himself to depend on her. He felt himself sinking into the skin of his shadow; it was an easy place to be.

The voice of Doctor Howell: “I think it’s time to call this.”

The voice of the nurse who had looked into Jonah’s eyes: “We can’t—his mom is out there.”

Doctor Howell: “I’m going to call this—”

The nurse: “Come on! Give him a few more minutes. For the mom—”

Help, Jonah thought. Who could help him? Who would hear him? None of these people. Not his mother. Not his friends. He couldn’t think who might help him, here in the night of his own shadow, but he called out anyway.

I need help! Someone—

And someone must have heard him, because a thin ray of light finally broke through the night. It grew brighter and brighter, like the headlights of an oncoming car, sending the shadows skittering across the walls. The faces of the people on the medical team were blasted white with light—not that they seemed to notice. Not except for Phoebe Weaver, who glanced curiously in the direction of the trauma bay’s swinging doors.

The doors banged open and the place lit up brilliantly, scattering the shadows, and a man on horseback rode at speed into the room.

The horse was a rosy cream color with shining blue eyes that followed Jonah even as it circled the room. The rider was an old man: straight-backed, bare-footed and tanned, his silver hair pulled back into a short ponytail. He sat astride the horse without the benefit of saddle or harness. He wore a rough white shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and pale blue, paint-spattered overalls.

Jonah felt he should know the man and the horse, but he wasn’t able to place them until the man looked right at him.

“Jonah!” the man called. “Jo-nah!

And then Jonah knew—the man was his Grandpa Zograffos.

Grandpa Z?” Jonah answered incredulously. His grandfather had been lying in a coffin the last time Jonah had seen him, four years earlier. Ironically, after more than thirty years going up and down ladders painting houses, he’d fallen off a roof while retrieving a badminton shuttle. “What are you doing here?”

Grandpa Z simply reached out an open hand, his gray-blue eyes sparkling mischievously, and Jonah found himself suddenly astride the horse, steadied from behind by his grandfather.

“I could ask you the same thing,” his grandfather replied. “A bit young to be out dead on your own, I’d say. Come on, we’re getting out of here!”

 

~ ~ ~

 

The horse passed through the trauma bay doors, leaving Jonah’s dying body behind—and the shadows flooded out the door after them.

Grandpa Z urged the horse into a gallop, and they took off down the hospital corridor, neatly swerving around a nurse pushing a woman in a wheelchair and a doctor walking with his eyes glued to a tablet computer. Open doorways flashed by in a blur. Jonah clenched his jaw and clutched the mane of the horse tightly. He’d ridden a horse once before, but that had been a trail ride that never moved faster than a walk, and he’d had a helmet and a saddle and a bridle. This was completely different; he had the sensation of flying each time the horse surged forward, its muscled back rippling under his legs. He leaned back into his grandpa’s chest, smelling the combination of soap, spearmint gum, and fresh paint that he remembered so well from his childhood.

Some dusty back room of Jonah’s mind wondered exactly how he suddenly had a body—including hair, which he could feel blowing—when he’d just left his body behind, pale and still (and bald) on a hospital gurney, but the rest of his mind was too busy holding on for dear life to give the question any thought.

The horse whipped sharply to the right down a side corridor, and then neatly jumped a laundry bin being wheeled along by an orderly. The guy didn’t look up, flinch, or blink. They shot past a counter where nurses stood laughing together, and veered down another hallway, and then another, until finally they were flying down a long, empty corridor—just shiny tile flooring and bare white walls lined with open doorways. Jonah couldn’t see the end of the passageway; it seemed to go on forever.

He could hear a whispering, rustling sound behind them so he twisted around to look and not more than ten feet back was the ashy form of his shadow, riding an ashy mishmash of a beast; and in the hallway beyond, a horde of other shadows clattered along the ceiling and walls.

Jonah yelped in surprise.

“Did I mention not to look back?” Grandpa Z asked.

“What are those things?” Jonah asked, shouting above the noise of the chase.

“They are the Shadow—it’s a parasite. Hides on the dark side of human souls, feeding on fear, violence, selfishness—whatever garbage it can scavange. Uses its host as a breeding ground for infecting other souls.”

At that moment the Shadow’s whispering became a hiss, and the sound of dead rustling became a loud, dry, bug-like clattering that made Jonah’s skin crawl.

“The thing usually lays low like any good parasite would,” Grandpa Z continued, “but it gets kind of vicious if you try to get away—as you can see.”

“Can we outrun it?”

His grandfather laughed. “No—it’s your shadow. You can’t outrun your shadow.”

Jonah waited for more—some kind of plan, or a word of encouragement, perhaps—but Grandpa Z only leaned forward, urging the horse on faster.

“If we can’t outrun it,” Jonah finally prompted, “then what can we do?”

“You’re going to have to drown it.”

What?

“Drown it—look!”

And as his grandpa spoke those words, Jonah saw it: far off where the lines of the corridor vanished into a point, there was a light, and the light was growing stronger with every beat of the horse’s hooves. It was rushing toward them like a storm, like a hurricane—like something fierce, powerful, and very much alive.

Jonah hadn’t logged more than four hundred hours watching the SciFi channel for nothing; he knew exactly what the light was. This was not just any light, but the Light—the Light that people saw when they were dying, and it was coming to carry him over the brink of eternity.

And then the floor dropped away, and they were falling, and Jonah fell off the back of the horse. The animal kicked and surged away, and his grandfather grabbed Jonah’s hand before they could tumble apart. The Light was liquid, it was so bright. Brighter than the sun, but not like sunlight at all, because its warmth did not stop at the surface of Jonah’s skin; the Light poured through him, filling him, overflowing him, catching him up. The Light was liquid, a living water.

We aren’t falling; we’re swimming.

They were swimming, or at least being swept along by a powerful current, and it was carrying them up toward the surface, up toward Light and air and the endless horizon of a vast sea.

Something tugged at him—at his hand, or his heart; it was hard to tell.

Jonah looked back and saw his shadow. It was drowning, its terrified face coming apart before Jonah’s eyes. It gripped Jonah’s ankle with one hand and reached up desperately with the other, but even as it did, its arm drifted away in clouds of ash. Behind it, the awful beast it had been riding disintegrated and disappeared.

Jonah felt his grandfather tug at his hand.

He looked into his shadow’s eyes and saw some of the terrible things he had known, and some of the terrible things he had done. Those were not just the eyes of his shadow; they were his eyes, too. It wasn’t just his shadow that was drowning, but a part of him. Who would he be, without all the dark things that had chased him since his childhood—that had made him who he was? Looking into the eyes of his shadow, he found he couldn’t let them go.

So he let go of his grandfather’s hand  instead.

4 | over the brink of eternity

 

“And that is why we always wear a helmet, people,” Campbell quipped as he stood over Jonah, who lay unmoving where he’d landed, slightly to one side of home plate, arms and legs splayed out. That is why we always wear a helmet, people, was something the coach liked to say; Campbell quoted the saying now as an ironic understatement.

Peter was not amused. He bent down and shook Jonah’s shoulder. “Hey Jonah, you okay?” Jonah’s head wobbled slightly, and a moist choking noise rose up from his throat, but he didn’t respond. His eyes were open, but unfocused.

“Did you see the way his feet flew up in the air?” shouted the third baseman, a kid named Dylan, as he drifted over toward the scene of the accident. “That was sweet!”

“Shut up,” Peter snapped. The sensation of his bat hitting Jonah’s head reminded him sickeningly of the time when, for fun, he had thrown small watermelons into the air and smashed them with his bat to make them explode in glorious bursts of red flesh.

“Shwoop, bam!” Dylan used his hands to re-enact the trajectory of Jonah’s body.

“I said shut up!”

All the other guys were gathering around now, too.

“Is he dead?” Rusty asked.

“No.” Peter could feel a heartbeat, but he wasn’t reassured. He noticed an ugly bulge forming on top of Jonah’s head. That couldn’t be good. That couldn’t be good at all.

There was a long silence as everyone waited for Jonah to show signs of reviving.

“What do we do?” Rusty asked.

Peter glanced around. “Someone go to the school for help,” he said, “and someone call 911.”

For a split second, no one moved.

“Now!”

And Rusty took off running.

 

~ ~ ~

 

After the bat hit his head, Jonah’s world flipped upside down and exploded in hundreds of fireworks. Then the sizzling and snapping faded into darkness; and then, snippets of light and sound. . . .

. . . his body lying in the gravel behind home plate, pale and bloodied. . .

. . . Peter bending over his body, his face wet with sweat, or tears . . .

. . . the sound and flash of sirens . . .

. . . his body being loaded into the back of an ambulance as a small crowd of students and teachers looked on . . . grim faces . . . hands in front of mouths . . . crying . . . a cell phone held up in the air to snap a picture. . . .

. . . darkness again, a feeling of heaviness, the unintelligible sound of voices . . .

And then he was observing his body, small and white, as it lay on a table in a hospital trauma center. The room was crowded with people wearing blue scrubs and face masks; some were working on his body—cutting off his clothes, attaching wires and tubes and cuffs, packing ice around his legs—and others were monitoring computer screens or preparing equipment. He could hear them talking to one another.

“No verbal communication. Breath sounds are symmetric and clear. . . .”

“. . . any other injuries?”

“. . . why don’t you make it five-forty. That’s ten cc’s per kilo. . . .”

“. . . suction the airway. . . .”

A young nurse whose tag identified her as Phoebe Weaver shone a light in his eyes. “Jonah,” she called to him. “Jonah, can you hear me?”

Two people bent over the top of his head, gently probing where the bat had made contact.

“It looks like it broke into three pieces, with some fragmentation along the occipital edge,” one said. “There has to be a good-sized hematoma under there.”

“Mmm-hmm. Have we heard from imaging? We should get an MRI.”

This was no dream, Jonah realized; he was really floating above his own body, watching a medical team try to save him. Strangely, he felt more curious than frightened. The people working on him were intensely focused, their words and movements efficient and controlled. Professional, like the crew of a crippled airliner preparing for a crash landing.

Not the most encouraging image, he thought.

Jonah found he could see and hear everything perfectly, once he focused on it. Every detail popped—the light sheen of sweat on a nurse’s forehead, and her dilated pupils; a reflection of the entire room wrapped around chrome tubing; the sound of people breathing; the steady, syncopated beeping of the monitors. The room was flooded with light from powerful lamps; each person and every object cast eleven pale shadows that fanned outward like the hands of a clock.

Heads turned as a man walked into the room pulling on gloves. The tag clipped to his scrubs identified him as frederic howell | pediatric neurology.

“All right, what do we have here?” Dr. Howell asked the room at large.

“Young adolescent male with trauma to the parietal plate, probable subdural hematoma. Blood pressure’s been dropping. Consensus is a GCS of six. Kid got hit in the head with a baseball bat—supposedly by accident. Other than that, we don’t have a medical history.”

“Mom’s on the way,” Phoebe offered.

Mom, Jonah thought, is going to freak.

Dr. Howell moved around the table and began gently touching the top of Jonah’s head with his gloved fingers.

“Accident, huh?” Dr. Howell said. “Pretty good job for an accident.”

An alarm started beeping.

“Blood pressure’s dropped below one oh five.”

“Okay, we’re not going to have time for imaging,” Dr. Howell said. “Start prepping him now.”

The room erupted into a flurry of activity; everyone seemed to have a job to do, but the one who really caught Jonah’s attention was the nurse who was wielding an electric razor around his head. As she began shaving, large clumps of dark brown hair fell to the table and the floor.

Okay, now I hope I do die, Jonah thought, thinking it would save him the embarrassment of going back to school with a bald head. But then it occurred to him that if he died, he’d be bald at his funeral. It wasn’t like he was going to be able to grow his hair back after he was dead. Do funeral homes use wigs?

It seemed weird that he could have a sense of humor when his life hung in the balance, but he felt strangely free and unconcerned about the outcome of the drama unfolding below him.

Then an alarm on the heart monitor went off.

“Whoa, where did that come from?” someone asked. “What just happened?”

“All right, Weaver—defib. Tyler and Hernandez, stand by to begin CPR compressions.”

“I’m clear. Is everyone else clear?”

His body jumped as the defibrillator shocked his heart, then a nurse stepped forward and began pushing down rhythmically on his chest, so hard his whole body jumped.

“Begin compressions. Go ahead and prepare an epi needle.”

Viewing the scene from above, Jonah was suddenly overwhelmed with dread. It wasn’t dying that he was afraid of—at least he didn’t think so. Something else was going on.

He felt like he was being watched—or hunted—by some unseen predator . . . like a wolf, or a shark. Something with teeth. Something that made him want to curl up and hide, or run.

The urgent sounds of the medical team became muffled and distant, as if he were hearing them underwater. His consciousness took in the whole room, looking for the thing with teeth. Not having a body to shed his fear—a pounding heart, tingling arms and legs, darting eyes—somehow made it worse.

And then he saw it, the thing with teeth.

It was the shadows.

Before, under the glare of the trauma bay’s floodlights, the shadows had been the palest of shades; now, they darkened and darkened to the deepest black. They came unmoored from the objects casting them, morphing into weird silhouettes. The shadows of a bulky monitor shuffled and swelled, then hunched, beast-like, even though the monitor never moved. The eleven shadows fanning out from Dr. Howell lengthened and twisted grotesquely, the heads becoming like gargoyles. Wires hanging off a machine cast a mess of silhouettes that thinned and split and fractured like shattering glass. An otherwise innocent-looking IV stand grew eleven long, bony arms, at the end of which were eleven bony hands, clawing at the walls.

The shadows grew and merged, spilling over the floor like oil, blotting out everything they touched with a darkness as black as caves and graves. The doctors and nurses and medical technicians seemed oblivious; they were working feverishly to prod Jonah’s body back toward life, even as shadows wrapped around their legs and waists. Jonah could no longer hear what they were saying; their voices were lost in the hissing, shushing sound the shadows made as they sifted about the room. They sounded like blowing snow.

If he had been seeing through eyes, he would have closed them against the scene; if he had legs to run, he would have fled. But he was tethered to the scene by his own dying body. It seemed separate from him now, just the body of a boy. The darkness closed around it, washing out the forms of the doctors and nurses and techs, and pinching the lights smaller and smaller until only the body was illuminated.

The world had suddenly become very small.

Jonah saw a shadowy stain spread underneath his body, outlining it in black. It seeped across the table, then slowly gathered together its limbs and pushed up; and as it rose, it took on the shape of the boy, with a skin of burnt ashes.

It crouched there for a moment. It looked up at Jonah with gray, sunken eyes. It wore his face, Jonah saw—or the shadow of his face.

Who are you? Jonah thought.

The creature opened its dusty mouth and whispered: “Who are you?”

Its voice was the sound of sand and bones.

Jonah wasn’t sure whether the thing was mindless echoing him—shadowing his words—or actually turning the question back on him. But if the question was meant to be answered, he didn’t know what he would say. Always before he would have replied with his name: Jonah Wilder, or Jonah Phinneas Wilder, if he wanted to be fancy about it. But his first and middle names had been chosen by his mother, and his last name given by his father before he had even been born.

I am just myself, he thought.

“I am just myself,” the creature whispered. It looked down at the body of the boy on the table and gently touched the eyes, leaving small pools of darkness in them.

Jonah felt himself slowly sinking down toward the creature, like falling mist, until its ashen face loomed as large in his vision as if they stood face-to-face, inches apart.

What do you want?

“What do you want?” Stray ashes fell from its mouth.

Another unanswerable question. One of his therapists had asked Jonah the same thing a couple years ago. He thought of the answer he had given at the time: Nothing.

“Nothing,” the thing echoed.

Their dialogue was interrupted by a set of hands that emerged from the gloom to place defibrillator paddles on the naked chest of the boy. The creature of ash looked on disinterestedly as the shock caused the boy’s body to jump. Then it bent over the boy and gently, gently placed an ashy hand into his mouth, as if to smother him; and Jonah understood that his shadow meant its answer quite literally: It wanted nothing. As in, the absence of anything but itself.

Which it was about to get, because from somewhere very far away, Jonah could hear the urgent whine of the heart monitor.

Jonah thought of his mother, and his friends from the Panda Banshees, and Alaska and Trudy and Peter, and Mr. Berning and the impossibly alive pond water, and the swallows using their wings to describe some secret geometry over the outfield.

That isn’t true, that I want nothing, he thought.

“That isn’t true,” his shadow said. “I want nothing.”

I do want something, Jonah clarified.

His shadow was silent, looking at him with its dark eyes. Jonah hated those eyes. Those dark-as-nothing, dead eyes. He hated them as he hated himself.

I don’t know exactly what, Jonah added, but I do want something . . . something more. I need something more.

“I need nothing but myself,” his shadow whispered.

I need nothing but myself. Ironic—those were his words, Jonah recalled. They had been his rule for some years now. No surprise there. You get beat up and betrayed by enough people and you learn pretty quick to rely on nothing but yourself. Who had been there for him? Not his father. His mother? He loved his mother but he couldn’t bring himself to depend on her. He felt himself sinking into the skin of his shadow; it was an easy place to be.

The voice of Doctor Howell: “I think it’s time to call this.”

The voice of the nurse who had looked into Jonah’s eyes: “We can’t—his mom is out there.”

Doctor Howell: “I’m going to call this—”

The nurse: “Come on! Give him a few more minutes. For the mom—”

Help, Jonah thought. Who could help him? Who would hear him? None of these people. Not his mother. Not his friends. He couldn’t think who might help him, here in the night of his own shadow, but he called out anyway.

I need help! Someone—

And someone must have heard him, because a thin ray of light finally broke through the night. It grew brighter and brighter, like the headlights of an oncoming car, sending the shadows skittering across the walls. The faces of the people on the medical team were blasted white with light—not that they seemed to notice. Not except for Phoebe Weaver, who glanced curiously in the direction of the trauma bay’s swinging doors.

The doors banged open and the place lit up brilliantly, scattering the shadows, and a man on horseback rode at speed into the room.

The horse was a rosy cream color with shining blue eyes that followed Jonah even as it circled the room. The rider was an old man: straight-backed, bare-footed and tanned, his silver hair pulled back into a short ponytail. He sat astride the horse without the benefit of saddle or harness. He wore a rough white shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and pale blue, paint-spattered overalls.

Jonah felt he should know the man and the horse, but he wasn’t able to place them until the man looked right at him.

“Jonah!” the man called. “Jo-nah!

And then Jonah knew—the man was his Grandpa Zograffos.

Grandpa Z?” Jonah answered incredulously. His grandfather had been lying in a coffin the last time Jonah had seen him, four years earlier. Ironically, after more than thirty years going up and down ladders painting houses, he’d fallen off a roof while retrieving a badminton shuttle. “What are you doing here?”

Grandpa Z simply reached out an open hand, his gray-blue eyes sparkling mischievously, and Jonah found himself suddenly astride the horse, steadied from behind by his grandfather.

“I could ask you the same thing,” his grandfather replied. “A bit young to be out dead on your own, I’d say. Come on, we’re getting out of here!”

 

~ ~ ~

 

The horse passed through the trauma bay doors, leaving Jonah’s dying body behind—and the shadows flooded out the door after them.

Grandpa Z urged the horse into a gallop, and they took off down the hospital corridor, neatly swerving around a nurse pushing a woman in a wheelchair and a doctor walking with his eyes glued to a tablet computer. Open doorways flashed by in a blur. Jonah clenched his jaw and clutched the mane of the horse tightly. He’d ridden a horse once before, but that had been a trail ride that never moved faster than a walk, and he’d had a helmet and a saddle and a bridle. This was completely different; he had the sensation of flying each time the horse surged forward, its muscled back rippling under his legs. He leaned back into his grandpa’s chest, smelling the combination of soap, spearmint gum, and fresh paint that he remembered so well from his childhood.

Some dusty back room of Jonah’s mind wondered exactly how he suddenly had a body—including hair, which he could feel blowing—when he’d just left his body behind, pale and still (and bald) on a hospital gurney, but the rest of his mind was too busy holding on for dear life to give the question any thought.

The horse whipped sharply to the right down a side corridor, and then neatly jumped a laundry bin being wheeled along by an orderly. The guy didn’t look up, flinch, or blink. They shot past a counter where nurses stood laughing together, and veered down another hallway, and then another, until finally they were flying down a long, empty corridor—just shiny tile flooring and bare white walls lined with open doorways. Jonah couldn’t see the end of the passageway; it seemed to go on forever.

He could hear a whispering, rustling sound behind them so he twisted around to look and not more than ten feet back was the ashy form of his shadow, riding an ashy mishmash of a beast; and in the hallway beyond, a horde of other shadows clattered along the ceiling and walls.

Jonah yelped in surprise.

“Did I mention not to look back?” Grandpa Z asked.

“What are those things?” Jonah asked, shouting above the noise of the chase.

“They are the Shadow—it’s a parasite. Hides on the dark side of human souls, feeding on fear, violence, selfishness—whatever garbage it can scavange. Uses its host as a breeding ground for infecting other souls.”

At that moment the Shadow’s whispering became a hiss, and the sound of dead rustling became a loud, dry, bug-like clattering that made Jonah’s skin crawl.

“The thing usually lays low like any good parasite would,” Grandpa Z continued, “but it gets kind of vicious if you try to get away—as you can see.”

“Can we outrun it?”

His grandfather laughed. “No—it’s your shadow. You can’t outrun your shadow.”

Jonah waited for more—some kind of plan, or a word of encouragement, perhaps—but Grandpa Z only leaned forward, urging the horse on faster.

“If we can’t outrun it,” Jonah finally prompted, “then what can we do?”

“You’re going to have to drown it.”

What?

“Drown it—look!”

And as his grandpa spoke those words, Jonah saw it: far off where the lines of the corridor vanished into a point, there was a light, and the light was growing stronger with every beat of the horse’s hooves. It was rushing toward them like a storm, like a hurricane—like something fierce, powerful, and very much alive.

Jonah hadn’t logged more than four hundred hours watching the SciFi channel for nothing; he knew exactly what the light was. This was not just any light, but the Light—the Light that people saw when they were dying, and it was coming to carry him over the brink of eternity.

And then the floor dropped away, and they were falling, and Jonah fell off the back of the horse. The animal kicked and surged away, and his grandfather grabbed Jonah’s hand before they could tumble apart. The Light was liquid, it was so bright. Brighter than the sun, but not like sunlight at all, because its warmth did not stop at the surface of Jonah’s skin; the Light poured through him, filling him, overflowing him, catching him up. The Light was liquid, a living water.

We aren’t falling; we’re swimming.

They were swimming, or at least being swept along by a powerful current, and it was carrying them up toward the surface, up toward Light and air and the endless horizon of a vast sea.

Something tugged at him—at his hand, or his heart; it was hard to tell.

Jonah looked back and saw his shadow. It was drowning, its terrified face coming apart before Jonah’s eyes. It gripped Jonah’s ankle with one hand and reached up desperately with the other, but even as it did, its arm drifted away in clouds of ash. Behind it, the awful beast it had been riding disintegrated and disappeared.

Jonah felt his grandfather tug at his hand.

He looked into his shadow’s eyes and saw some of the terrible things he had known, and some of the terrible things he had done. Those were not just the eyes of his shadow; they were his eyes, too. It wasn’t just his shadow that was drowning, but a part of him. Who would he be, without all the dark things that had chased him since his childhood—that had made him who he was? Looking into the eyes of his shadow, he found he couldn’t let them go.

So he let go of his grandfather’s hand  instead.

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 January 12, 2014  No Responses »