By Robert Moriyama

    Timmy Morgan had a secret.  He knew something that no one else -- and especially, no grownup -- knew, or even suspected.

    Timmy knew that shadows were alive, that they were parasites (a big word, but Timmy understood it all too well) that clung to everything, every animal, and every person in the world, living off the life force (juice, Timmy called it) of their hosts.  The one time Timmy tried to explain this to his father, the man had laughed and turned on a goose-necked lamp so he could make shadow-figures on the wall.

    "Look, Timbo, I can make a dog, or a duck, or a rabbit," the big man said.  "Shadows are just like pictures from a movie projector; they’re just places where the light gets blocked or partly blocked."  Then he ruffled Timmy’s hair (a little too roughly, an impartial observer might have said) and walked away.  He didn’t see the dog shadow and the rabbit shadow reappear with nothing between the lamp and the wall except air.  He didn’t see the dog shadow attack the rabbit shadow, catching it by the neck and shaking it until the long ears and gangly hind legs went limp.

    Timmy saw, and Timmy understood the message.  Don’t try to tell anyone else -- or else.

    For almost a year, Timmy had kept his secret.  But on this particular October day, he had slipped.  Amy Tang, the prettiest girl in Timmy’s second grade classroom, had been growing pale and thin over the past few months.  Miss Hartman had explained that Amy was ill, that she had something called leukemia, and everyone must treat her nicely and help her to catch up after her frequent absences from class.

    But Timmy had noticed that as Amy had grown more and more pale, her shadow had grown denser, darker; as Amy had grown thinner, her shadow had grown larger.  It was killing her, he knew, taking too much juice.  Maybe her shadow was too young or too stupid to know how things were done; maybe it was sick, and couldn’t control its feeding.

    At lunchtime, Timmy had tried to talk to Amy’s shadow, to tell it that it was doing things wrong.  Amy, of course, had heard him, and he had been forced to explain what he was doing, and why.

    From the expression on her face, Timmy had known that Amy didn’t quite believe him.  But he thought that she didn’t quite disbelieve him either.  And Amy’s shadow, whether it understood him or not, had not been happy that he had been telling tales again.  For an instant, as Amy turned to walk away, part of her shadow had peeled itself off the dusty asphalt like a snake rising to strike, reaching for him with impossibly long fingers of solid darkness.

    Then Zachary Zucor had galloped by in pursuit of a soccer ball, and the shadow had contracted like a punctured balloon, returning to its normal shape and place at Amy’s feet.

    Timmy understood that the shadows would not try to hurt him as long as there were other people around to see, and maybe -- just maybe -- to learn the truth.  But when he went to bed, he would be alone in his room, and then -- he pictured the shadow-rabbit, shaken to death in the jaws of a grotesque version of his father’s crude shadow-dog.

    After an early dinner -- macaroni with cut-up weiners for him, salads and stinky cheese for his parents -- Timmy’s mother rushed him through his bath.

    Timmy winced as his mother guided the washcloth through an accelerated tour of his body, leaving a trail of reddened and tender skin in its wake.

    "Ow, Mommy, too hard," he whimpered.

    "We have to finish up and get you into your jammies so Mommy can get ready for the party," she said, neither slowing down nor reducing the force of her scrubbing.

    "Ow!" he said again.  "Mommy -- "

    "We’re done, my little whine factory, so no use complaining any more," she said.  She pulled the lever to let the water drain, lifted him out of the tub, and applied the big white bath towel as roughly as she had the washcloth.

    It seemed like only moments later that Timmy was in his pajamas, his hair still damp and his skin still stinging.
"Into bed, kiddo, and go to sleep.  Mommy’s friends will be here any minute."

    Mommy’s friends would be there any minute -- and Timmy knew that his guests would arrive soon after.

    "Mommy, let me stay up," he begged, clutching at the cloth of her skirt.  "I’m not sleepy at all.  I want to play with the nice people."

    His mother smiled, eight thousand dollars in orthodontic work gleaming, but her eyes were narrowed and not smiling at all.  She pried his fingers from the folds of her clothes and held his hand high enough that he had to stand on tiptoe as she checked her ensemble for obvious damage.

    "Oh, no, sweetie, you wouldn’t like this party," she said at last, releasing his hand.  "It’ll just be a bunch of grownups talking and eating and drinking things that you don’t like."

    "I’m almost a grownup," he said.  "I’m almost eight years old.  And I can eat cookies, and have some milk or some juice instead of what you have."

    Now his mother’s mouth seemed to tighten as well, her lips drawing taught against her too-perfect teeth.  "No, sweetie.  You have to go to bed now.  You have school tomorrow."

    Timmy did not cry or whine.  He knew that these things would not work, that they would only bring anger that would be expressed in unpleasant ways after the guests had gone.  His eyes stung and his lower lip trembled, but he did not cry.

    "Off you go," his mother said.  Her voice seemed cheerful and loving, but Timmy could hear the edge hidden within, like the sheathed claws of a cat, and he turned to obey.

    He was alone now, in bed with his Space Commando sheets pulled up so high that only his eyes and hair were exposed to the dim glow of the nightlight.  The sounds of raucous laughter and the thumping of dance music filtered through the closed door.

    In the darkness, Timmy couldn’t clearly see the shadows, but he knew that they were there.  He wondered how long they would wait before they came to punish him for his betrayal.  He wondered what they would do -- would they bite and shake him like the shadow-rabbit?  Would they drain his life away, like Amy’s leukemia but a hundred times faster?

    The hours passed, and still the shadows did not harm him.  Outside his room, the voices grew louder; now and then, Timmy heard a noise, tinkleSMASH, and knew that someone had dropped a glass or a plate.  He wondered how his mother and father would punish the grownups who broke things.  Would the clumsy brats be sent to their rooms without dessert?  Would they receive a stinging slap to the rump (or the face) as Timmy would?

    Eventually, the voices grew quieter.  Timmy heard the front door open and close at irregular intervals, heard car engines rumble to life and then fade in the distance.

    Timmy’s bedroom door opened, and Timmy’s mother leaned in to check on him.  "Timmy, are you awake?  It’s almost midnight!"

    Timmy closed his eyes and said nothing.

    "I saw you looking at me, you little faker," his mother said, her voice slurred.  "Well, you’re getting up in the morning and going to school, and if you’re tired, it’ll just be your own damn fault."

    She closed the door, a little too hard, and Timmy heard her complaining (for the umptieth time) that she had never wanted kids, and this kid wouldn’t be any prize even if she had.  Timmy’s eyes stung again, and this time he let the tears fall.

    More time passed.  The thin line of light at the bottom of the door vanished, and his parents’ voices faded away as they went to bed to sleep the heavy sleep of the very well lubricated.

    Now he was truly alone.  There would be no unexpected intrusions, no one to see what they could not be allowed to see.

    Outside Timmy’s window, the moon had risen to the point where it cast a skewed rectangle of silver light on the opposite wall.  Timmy stared at the illuminated area, waiting.  Somehow he understood that the shadows wanted him to see what was coming for him, that they wanted him to be afraid.

    A shape appeared, so black that it looked more like a painted silhouette than a mere shadow.  It was unlike any animal that Timmy had ever seen or heard of.  It was something like an ape, and something like a spider, and something like a big, black bird Timmy had once seen tearing at the remains of a raccoon in the alley behind his house.

    Timmy wanted to scream, but he knew that his mother and father were sleeping too soundly to be awakened by anything so unimportant as the terror of their only child.  He wanted to cry; he wanted to scramble out of bed and run as fast as his seven-year-old legs could carry him.  But he knew that he could not escape, and he knew that the shadows wanted him to show his fear.  Something inside him hardened into a knot, a knot that had at its center a pearl of stubborn courage formed by the long torture of his parents’ contempt and polished to diamond brightness by his hatred of these things that were killing Amy Tang and that would probably kill him as well.

    "Do what you want," he said.  "But make Amy’s shadow behave right."

    For a moment, the shadow-thing seemed to recoil, surprised by Timmy’s sudden display of bravery.  Timmy sensed acceptance of his demand, and nodded, satisfied.

    Then the blackness peeled itself away from the wall, swelling into a boiling cloud of darkness that swept across the room to Timmy’s bed so fast that he barely had time to blink.  It settled over him, and it was cold, so cold that Timmy’s body spasmed in shock and he gasped like a man struck suddenly in the stomach.  The chill spread through Timmy’s body in seconds, bringing a frightening numbness.  Timmy’s eyes fluttered shut; his breath left his body in a long, hissing sigh; his shivering slowed, became sporadic, and then stopped.

    The shadow withdrew.  The moon drifted across the sky, dragging the rectangle of light across the room, shrinking it to a narrow stripe and then to nothing.  The nightlight flared for a second, then died, leaving the room almost completely dark.
Seven o’clock arrived, and with it, Timmy’s mother, her face drawn by the pounding headache that was the price she paid (and paid often) for her love of parties.

    "Wake up, you little brat," she said.  "You can get your own damn cereal this morning, ‘cause my head feels like somebody’s using my eyeballs for batting practice."

    Timmy remained silent and motionless.

    "Come on, you lazy ankle-biter, you have to get ready for school.  Don’t make me come over there and throw you out of bed."

    Timmy did not move, did not speak.

    "All right, if that’s how you want it, just remember I warned you," Timmy’s mother snarled.  She crossed the room in three floor-thumping strides, wincing as each step brought a fresh explosion of pain in her head, and yanked the covers from Timmy’s bed.

    Timmy was like a statue, cold and stiff.  Pigeons would have happily perched on his head with no fear of being disturbed.  His flesh was pale, almost blue; beside him, Amy Tang would have looked healthy.

     "Timmy, wake up!  What’s wrong with you?"

    Timmy’s mother reached down to shake him, then recoiled in surprise as she felt her fingertips go numb the moment they touched his shoulder.  She leaned closer, peering at his face through slitted eyes.  She touched his face, brought her ear close to his nose, touched his shoulder, his chest.

    "Timmy?  Timmy?"  Her hung-over brain lurched clumsily from anger to fear as the wrongness of Timmy’s condition broke through its protective shell of alcoholic numbness.  One fact exploded in her head like a very expensive fireworks display:  cold equals dead.  And Timmy was very, very cold.

    She straightened, then began to cry, keening, howling, surprised by the sudden horrible sense of loss that gripped her.

    "Jesus, Annie, what the hell is going on in here?"  Timmy’s father appeared in the doorway, the poster boy for blood-shot eye remedies, the before picture for a health club ad.  He grabbed Timmy’s mother -- Annie -- by the shoulders and shook her until she stopped wailing.

    "Oh, Jack, Jack, it’s Timmy, Timmy’s dead!" Annie sobbed.  She began to cry again, her body seeming to collapse in on itself.

    Jack pushed her away and leaned down to clutch at Timmy’s pajama top, jerking the little boy’s motionless body upright.

    "Come on, you little bugger, snap out of it!" Jack said.  "You’re scaring your poor mother."

    Timmy’s head lolled to one side, his bluish lips falling open.  Jack suddenly became aware of the unnatural chill seeping through the cloth of Timmy’s pajamas, and he let Timmy fall back onto the bed.

    Something wrong here, Jack.  Something very wrong.

    "Stay here," he said, "I’ll call 9-1-1."

    Annie nodded through her tears, hugging herself as if trying to dispel the numbing cold that seemed to have spread from Timmy into her.

    Jack half-stumbled into the hallway, opening and closing his hand again and again to ease the pain that crept from his knuckles into his fingers and up his wrist.  He picked up the phone, dialed 9-1-1 and said, "We need -- we need an ambulance.  My son -- I think he’s dead.  He’s cold, like ice, not moving, not breathing.  732 Derleth Road.  Please hurry."

    The telephone receiver fell from his hand.  Jack frowned down at his rebellious fingers, now so numb that he could hardly move them at all.  He could hear the 9-1-1 dispatcher talking, giving instructions, asking for more information, but couldn’t quite make out the words.

    "Jack, help me," Annie said.  "I can’t feel my feet, my legs.  I’m so cold."  She plodded into the hallway, moving as though wading through chilled molasses.  Her face was pale, almost as pale as Timmy’s.

    Jack turned toward her, raised his hand to reach for her.  "Cold," he said slowly.  "Me too."

    Annie fell, and although it was her well-upholstered hip that struck the floor first, Jack heard a crunch like a slab of ice landing on concrete.  She did not cry out.  She did not move once the momentum of her fall was spent.

    Jack tried to lower himself to the floor as a wave of fatigue seemed to follow the numbness spreading through his body.  He was in a half-crouch when he lost his balance and tumbled sideways into the small table that held the telephone and a few odds and ends Annie had accumulated.  The table fell, the telephone fell, the knick-knacks fell, crashing onto the hardwood floor and scattering like fleeing insects.  Jack followed them down, now trapped in his near-fetal crouch.

    When his shoulder hit the floor, Jack felt nothing, but heard again the sound of something brittle shattering against a hard surface.  His eyes, the last part of his body that he could control, rolled slowly from side to side and up and down as he tried to understand his situation.

    It was only when he noticed Annie’s shadow that he understood.  Annie’s shadow was moving, climbing up the wall, while Annie lay motionless, dead or near-dead.

    "Timmy was right," he whispered  "Timmy was right."

    The paramedics arrived a few minutes later to find Jack and Annie where they had fallen, limbs still locked in the same positions.

    "Anybody here?  Metro paramedics -- someone here called 9-1-1?"  Joe Berrigan shook his head.  "Looks like they picked up and left, maybe took the kid to the hospital."

    "Maybe," Tony Merrin said.  "Look -- they left a couple of mannequins lying in the middle of the hall."

    But then Joe leaned a little closer and grunted, "Those aren't mannequins, man ..."

    The two men set to work, moving to shift the bodies into better positions to perform basic first aid.  But both men recoiled when their gloved hands encountered flesh as cold and hard as glacial ice.

    "Holy freezer burn," Joe Berrigan said, shaking numbed fingers.  "No need to check for vitals -- I swear there's ice crystals on this woman's eyebrows."

    "This guy, too," Tony Merrin said.  "Whoever made the call must have made a run for it right after.  No way either of these two picked up the phone."

    They found Timmy's body in the same condition -- except that his face was peaceful, almost smiling.

    "What the hell could do this?" Joe asked.  "They're all colder than a frozen pot pie -- way colder than the air in the house."

    "Liquid nitrogen or hydrogen or some shit like that," Tony said.  "Except it's just them.  Even their clothes are pretty much room temperature."

    "Nothing we can do for them but get 'em to the coroner," Joe said.  He keyed the microphone on his radio and said, "Dispatch, this is unit 23 at 732 Derleth.  We have three, I repeat three D.O.A.s for transport, one adult male, one adult female, one male child.  We're gonna need another unit here..."

    In another house, some miles away, Amy Tang was dressed and ready for school.  Her mother smiled down at her, thinking that she looked better somehow, as if her illness had miraculously receded overnight.  Amy grinned back and ran -- it had been months since she last had the strength to run -- to meet the school bus.

    Amy’s shadow trailed along behind her, a bit lighter and a bit thinner than the day before, but no one noticed.


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    Robert Moriyama is an Aphelion regular, with various stories and umpteen entries in the "Materia Magica" series featuring Al Majius, Githros and company, appearing in this 'zine over the past few years.  (All the stories have the word "Matter" or "Matters" in the title ...)  He is also participating in Jeff Williams's Nightwatch project. His most recent Aphelion story was "Prufrock's Problem" in the September 2004 edition.