Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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swodahS

by J. E. Deegan



For Ned Reece, Limboland was the perfect hunting ground. Prey was abundant and easy to catch in this bleak and wasted section of the city. Others of Ned's kind stalked the weak and the vulnerable for their meager possessions, which allowed them to survive day-to-day. Ned hunted them for the sheer euphoria that came with killing them.

He had watched them for quite some time. Precisely how long is of no matter, for in Limboland the only significant measures of time are dawn crawling toward dusk and dusk toward dawn. But for a goodly number of nights he had furtively studied their every move from the dark doorway of an abandoned building across the street from the debris-strewn lot where the General and Little Tom Richardson resided in a patchwork tent of canvas and rags. He knew of the two men, for both, like Ned himself, were long-time residents of Limboland.

For those damned by chance or choice, Limboland provided ample means to satisfy any affliction or addiction. And in its indifference to the human condition, this dreary tract of Hell provided sanctuary from civilized censure as well.

General John happened upon Limboland after slipping out of a VA hospital in 1989. Mad beyond repair, he wore a Vietnam-era combat helmet and spent the majority of each day at his headquarters in a nearby alley devising strategy to foil the Tet offensive while barking out commands to an imaginary staff.

His tent-mate, Little Tom, had arrived four years later, having chosen the undemanding illusions of cocaine over a respectable life as an advertising executive. Banished from civility by family and colleagues, he had stumbled upon Limboland where he quickly withered into a frail, neurotic scarecrow whose singular objective was to fill his veins, nose or mouth as often as possible with whatever opiate he could acquire.

But it wasn't General John and Little Tom Richardson whom Ned Reece had so assiduously observed those many nights from a darkened doorway. Rather it was what they birthed in the shimmering glow of the fire that blazed outside their tent each night.

Their shadows.

The black featureless two-dimensional beings that glided so nimbly and effortlessly upon the concrete wall at the rear of the lot...shifting and swaying in sweeping, graceful arcs...twisting and turning in a scintillating dance of foreshortened then elongated shapes...stretching, compressing, rolling upon themselves...blending then dividing...coupling then separating like plumes of dark smoke in a fickle breeze.

It was they Ned Reece watched those many nights with such spellbound interest.

And the time came when he resolved that he must have those sinuously beautiful silhouettes that curled and interwove with such eerie, ethereal elegance. He had to possess them... control them.

But to have them, he first must have those who birthed them.

And now he did. General John and Little Tom Richardson awaited his instructions in the basement storage room of Limboland's ruined jail.

####

There were few vacancies left in Limboland, as virtually every derelict building was occupied by one form of vermin or another. Despite the dearth of real estate, the citizens of Limboland spurned the jail's rotting, rat-infested basement, which was all that remained of the building.

During the jail's heyday, Ned Reece had been a frequent guest of the local constabulary, and his foul mouth and pugnacious nature had repeatedly earned him detention in the isolation cell adjacent to the storage room in the basement. But that was before fire gutted the jail in 1984 ... before it and every other structure in the quarter of the city then known as South Square succumbed to an irrevocable advance of depravity. That was before South Square mutated into Limboland, a perverse pit stop on the road to Hell where the decadent and the demented perfected the skills they'd need upon arrival.

The ruinous fire of '84 caused the jail to collapse upon itself, rendering it unfit for habitation by even the most wretched of Limboland's inhabitants. But not so for Ned Reece, who made his home in the basement storage room.

Not long after Limboland sprouted from the wreckage of South Square, Ned's search for adequate lodging brought the ravaged jail to mind. On his initial exploration of the moldering, utterly lightless basement, he dropped the candle he carried into a pool of fetid water, and wending his way back to the stairwell that led upwards to daylight proved a daunting task. But that harrowing experience underscored the importance of planning and precaution, and he exercised greater care during his subsequent trek. Gripping a torch fueled by tar-soaked rags and marking his way from the stairwell with chalk, he searched the rubble-choked corridors until he came upon the storage room. His inspection found it perfectly suitable, so he retraced his steps to the stairwell then repeated the trip until a torch was no longer needed: twenty-three steps straight ahead...a left turn then seventeen steps...then right for eleven more.

The room was large, some thirty by fifty feet with a ten-foot ceiling. Shelves and metal cabinets lined the wall opposite the door, many of them stocked with staples needed when the jail was in operation. With the fire, however, the city had written off everything within the razed building as unworthy of salvage. That judgment was much to Ned's good fortune. In addition to customary maintenance supplies, he uncovered a hodgepodge of tools and materials that proved useful as he revamped the room to his tastes. Other items he came upon would ultimately be put to good use as well: spools of thin flexible wire, an assortment of shackles and pulleys, stacks of dust-covered bed sheets, and a few battery-powered flood lights with still-serviceable batteries.

He felt confident that the basement's thick fusty odors, hordes of rats and maze of dark, menacing corridors would convince other homesteaders to seek lodging elsewhere. But what were drawbacks to others were assets to Ned Reece. He easily adapted to the rank odors and even ate the rats when privation demanded. For him, the forbidding ambiance of the basement provided the ideal mix of isolation and inaccessibility.

####
.

Ned sat upon the sturdy wooden platform he had built at the rear of the room shortly after moving in. Wide and deep enough for comfort, and elevated on cast-iron legs to deter the rats, the platform served as his sleeping quarters. It was now his command center as well. He stared into the deep amber glow provided by the candles he had placed around the room. He preferred the dark, but some degree of light had been required for the complex project he had just completed. The candles proved sufficient for that purpose, but their limited illumination would never do for the General and Little Tom. The floodlights, however, would.

His final inspection of the complex structure that filled half the room convinced him that everything was in operating order. And with all in readiness, it was time to attend to his guests. He slipped eagerly from the platform to extinguish the candles. The last was on his command center, and with that snuffed out he sat immersed in total darkness.

Within that darkness, the General and Little Tom hung limply from a steel joist that spanned the center of the ceiling. They were held in place by an immense spider's web of pulleys, shackles and wires that stretched horizontally, vertically and diagonally throughout the room. The wires, attached to their torsos, heads and limbs, converged at the command center, where they fed through a series of holes in a square slab of plywood anchored to the front of the platform. Four wires each were secured to a series of crossed wooden handles by which Ned, soon to be the master puppeteer, would manipulate his shadows.

He had taken General John first, in the alley where the old warrior regularly bivouacked until well after nightfall. He had dispatched him with a garrote that featured a knot for crushing the trachea and a wooden spike for twisting the rope...just as the Spanish, who perfected the device in medieval times, intended. Well versed in the use of this instrument, Ned had employed it on many occasions in Limboland.

But never for as satisfying a reason as this.

After depositing the General in the storage room, Ned went to the lot for Little Tom. The garrote worked quickly and effectively on him, too.

####

It was time for the light that would free his shadows from darkness.

Without light, they could not be. Without light they existed only as shadows exist in the depths of a moonless midnight forest: intangible...still, silent and unseen...hopelessly trapped in a domain of utter darkness. But light would liberate them. And in this bleak and brooding place where they now invisibly resided, only he could create light. This was the power he held over them: he could imprison them in perpetual night, and he could give them life.

He flicked the switch on the powerful flood lamps at his feet and recoiled against the brilliant, soundless explosion of light that instantly filled the room. The searing pain flooding his skull had him gripping his head between his hands and cursing his stupidity in not protecting himself against the blistering brightness of the lamps. He found that gently rubbing his temples dulled the fiery ache, but did not dispel it. Instead, it settled like an annoying splinter in a corner of his brain. He shook off the pain, hooded his eyes with his hands, and squinted through the stunning brightness toward the opposite wall.

His shadows were there...standing clear and black and motionless upon the bedsheet screen he had so carefully sewn together. Rash enthusiasm turned his fingers to thumbs as he groped for the crossed wooden handles that held the wires. He steadied himself with a deep breath then carefully positioned the handles in his hands and instructed his arms, wrists and fingers to move.

They did...and so did his shadows.

But not with the nimble, elegant ease he had hoped for. They instead swung clumsily to and fro, their limbs and heads flailing about in a series of convulsive jerks and twitches.

Frustration began a slow crawl through his chest, and it took no small effort to contain it. Be patient, he chided himself. Be patient ... master them.

Training his limbs to function in concert proved more taxing than he anticipated, but perseverance gradually replaced the stiffness and tension in his joints with a steadily increasing litheness. In time, his shadows were gliding smoothly and effortlessly upon the screen, dutifully responding to his every directive.

His triumphant bellow echoed about the room.

But was quickly silenced.

Dumbfounded, he stared at the screen. Surely his eyes were liars, for what they insisted on showing him was impossible. His shadows were breaking into fuzzy patches of blinking light. They slowly faded, then vanished.

But not for long.

The patches slowly reappeared on the screen, blinking like stars through a scruffy cloud. They brightened steadily. They broadened, elongated, then thickened into two distinct shapes. Familiar ones.

An alien dread pulled Ned's jaw to his chest and slicked his brow with clammy sweat. His eyes remained welded to the screen, persisting with their inane hoax. The General and Little Tom were there. Not their shadows. But them...stamped on the screen as clearly and vibrantly as color photographs. And they were glaring at him.

Like a great rusted gear, Ned's mind ground to a halt. Frozen by the unimaginable, nothing within his machinery of thought functioned. Nothing but his eyes, which refused to admit their preposterous error. He squeezed them shut, shook his head, and looked again to the screen. The General and Little Tom glared back, their limbs still secured by shadow-wires but twisted into impossible positions, their faces still warped by sneering grins.

Then totally on its own, the machinery of Ned's mind began to move; the gears again began to turn. An outlandish suggestion hooked a foothold in the confusion clouding his brain and began transmuting into possibility, then into conviction. As it did, a calming sense of satisfaction slowly tugged the corners of his mouth into a smile. "Yes...of course," he whispered. "They're not shadows...but the opposite of shadows. Backward shadows...shadows in reverse. They are ... swodahs."

How or why they had come into being never crossed his mind.

Eager to make his swodahs perform, he reached for the wired handles at his feet.

A gruff, throaty laugh -- not his, he immediately realized -- sounded and yanked his eyes to the screen. The scream he hastily summoned dug its talons in his throat and never made it to his mouth.

His swodahs were moving on their own.

They grabbed the wires holding them suspended and snapped each as easily as would a child breaking a dry twig. As the shadow-wires snapped, those holding General John and Little Tom upright in the center of the room snapped as well. The bodies crumpled to the floor.

The swodahs did not. They remained on the screen a few moments longer, then slid fluidly to the floor. There they turned sideways, as though searching the room, and Ned felt his heart become a blundering gymnast. In profile the swodahs were purely linear -- long, one-dimensional lines that cast their thin, dark shadows upon the screen behind them.

The swodahs spun slowly toward Ned and began moving. They paused at their bodies and carefully inspected them before dragging them to a corner of the room. Then, sneering savagely, they started for the command center.

Ned somehow put his feet in motion and lurched crazily from the platform. He made for the door, but utter terror turned his limbs to anchors and he stumbled to the floor. The swodahs quickly pounced on him and, like twin garrotes, tightly wrapped themselves around his neck.

The world turned dark for Ned ... darker than he could ever imagine.

####

Ned Reese hung from the sturdy steel joist that spanned the center of the room, his torso, head and limbs held upright by the elaborate network of pulleys, shackles and wires that stretched horizontally, vertically and diagonally throughout the room like an immense spider's web. The wires converged at the command center, where they fed through a series of holes in a square slab of plywood anchored to the front of the platform. Groups of wires were secured to small wooden handles controlled by the swodahs, now master puppeteers.

Upon the bedsheet screen, Ned Reece's shadow gracefully obeyed every command.

THE END


© 2010 J. E. Deegan

Bio: Mr. Deegan's work has appeared in various online and print magazines and anthologies, including Aphelion (most recently the ghost story In a Time Past, February 2010). He has two short story collections in print, Limboland (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) and When I Was A Little Guy (children's stories), both available through Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

E-mail: J. E. Deegan

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