With Shadows, We Play

This is what soul-leeching monotony must feel like.

I wake up, I get ready, I go to work, I leave. By the time I make it back “home”, I’m so exhausted that I do nothing but lay in my shelter and count the new insects and other creepies that my beloved Rebel has invited into our abode, until I fall asleep and repeat everything all over again.

I truly don’t understand how these humans do it. And I’m fortunate enough to only have to work three alternating half-days a week! How do they manage those 40-hour work weeks that I hear so much about?

I need something more. Something else. Something that challenges me, stretches my abilities to extremes I’ve not yet known.

“What’s next?”

I lift my head from my propped elbows on the carpet to the audible sound off the question that I, myself, have been mulling over all morning. “Hmm?”

One of the children in front of me—a twitchy boy with the attention span of a puppy—leans so close to me that I can smell the days that have passed since he’s brushed his teeth. He snaps his fingers in my face, making me blink with each one.

“Are you alive in there—or did you die? You kinda look dead. Not like, nothing-but-bones-dead or I’m-going-to-eat-your-brains-dead, but like oooooo-I’m-a-ghost-dead.”

“I might eat your brains if you don’t get out of my face,” I snarl, swatting at him. I sit up and meet the pressing gazes of the rest of the small humans who are staring at me. “Yes, yes. I’m alive. What is it? What do you want?”

The child beside him answers, a young girl who grows on me more and more every time I see her. Penelope, she’s called. If any of these children will be my vessel to create a nightmare world, it will be her. There’s a darkness inside her. I can feel it rippling off her when she is here. It hasn’t manifested in her fully yet, but I can only hope that the nightmares I’ve been inflicting on her are helping steer her down an even darker path.

“He asked what we’re doing next,” Penelope asks. “We’re bored with the building blocks.”

I roll my eyes. “Must I entertain you constantly?”

She snorts and smiles wryly. “Well, yeah. It’s kind of your job.”

The muscles in my cheek twitch. Do you see why I like this child? You can just tell she’s destined for big things. I can see her ruling by my side when the world is finally cast in darkness. Not that I want her knowing that. Not yet, anyways. Not until she’s ready.

I fight back the urge to call her a smart ass, remembering the reprimands I received last week for using such language around the children. Instead, I grumble, rolling my eyes with even more exaggeration and stand to my feet.

I glance around the room, from the puny, uncomfortable table and chairs, to the teepee that I can’t fit inside, to the infuriating television that I can never seem to get to function, until my gaze settles on a blank wall opposite from where we are sitting now. It might as well be a blank canvas, for it fills me with inspiration, a reminder of something I’ve been thinking about doing for days now, but haven’t had the opportunity to try it because the other teacher is always around. But she’s not here now, though; she’s upstairs trying to get one of the babies to fall asleep.

It’s just me and these three.

“Come, children,” I say, mischief curling my lips. “Let me teach you about shadows.”

I lead them to the corner and get them settled on the ground before turning on a lamp. I leave it near the children, who clamber over it while I circle the room ensuring its darkness. I loosen all of the blinds until not a breath of daylight is coming through from the outside world; I dim the main light, until all I can see is the bright orb emanating from the lamp.

When I return to the children, they’ve already quieted. Darkness has that effect on mortals, I’ve noticed, like they’re afraid if they make a sound, something will lunge for them from the shadows.

They have no idea.

Crouching beside the lamp, I contort one of my hands into the simplest image I know, and let the shadow reflect on the wall.

Penelope giggles. “What is that?”

“It’s a dog!” I protest, glancing back at the shadow to confirm my handiwork. “Look, there’s its snout, and those things there are its ears—never mind,” I sigh, remembering that it doesn’t actually matter if she or any of the children recognize the shadows. It’s more just about them watching them closely.

“Just keep watching,” I growl at Penelope while twisting her head to face the wall again.

This time, I let my hand dangle limply in front of the lamp, so that only the shadow of my fingers are cast at the wall. For a moment, I just let them hang there, motionless and heavy. But then I start wriggling them. I lean my palm further out, the distance created between it causing the shadows of my fingers to stretch across the wall like worms. I slurp and slosh my tongue against the bottom of my mouth in time with the shadow-worms I’m letting slide down the wall.

But, there’s only so much my two hands can accomplish. I let my imagination summon the shadow world into life.

The worms fall to the bottom of the viewing, just as two birds swoop down. There’s plenty of food for them to share, but instead, they both peck at one, plump worm. They squawk and pull and peck until the worm breaks in two and the children—at least two of them—gasp and stumble backwards.

Penelope, though, stays seated. Her gaze never wavers.

I take it as a challenge and decide to step up my game. The birds before us start to snap and lurch, the bones of their wings wrenching upward, becoming additional heads and limbs full of sharp teeth and even sharper claws. The shadow-creature draws breath from the underworld in an earth-shattering roar that sends the other two children whimper.

“Make it stop!” the twitchy boy begs.

But Penelope watches on.

My brow furrows. I want to see her break, I have to.

But perhaps she’s already been broken.

The shadows on the wall fade to smoke and I turn off the light. With a child clutched to either leg, I walk around the room to open the blinds and turn the main light on again before I return to Penelope.

She still hasn’t moved from her seat on the floor, but she looks up at me when I stand before her.

“My shadows did not bring you fear?” I ask.

For a long moment, she’s quiet, but I can see the thoughts calculating behind her eyes, like she’s trying to determine just how much honesty she can supply me.

“The truth,” I encourage, unsure if I’ll receive it.

Penelope nods an agreement before shaking her head. “Shadow puppets don’t scare me.”

“And why not?” I ask, sensing she’s still withholding something.

She swallows hard, casting her eyes down to the ground. “Because there are far scarier things in my life than simple shadows.”

Before I can say another word, Penelope bounds from her seat in the room, skipping to another corner to play with some toys as if nothing has happened.

I’m left gaping in the middle of the room, in awe of her strength and wisdom.

“Indeed there are,” I whisper to myself before joining them.

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Melinoë (Jessaca Willis)
Melinoë is portrayed by fantasy writer, Jessaca Willis. She is currently working on a post-apocalyptic fantasy series and a dark fantasy series. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or check-out her current works on Amazon)
Melinoë (Jessaca Willis)

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