“Let’s get down to it. Do you use dark magic?”
“Well, yes, I do use dark magic…” she shifted in her seat. “Oh, don’t make that face. Dark magic isn’t evil, it isn’t bad. It’s just… it’s just, dark!”
I tapped my pen on my notepad, leaned closer. “What is it, then? There are so many warnings, so much stigma regarding dark magic. Can you explain to me why you think you can use it, where others cannot?”
“What do you think of, when you think of darkness? What comes to mind?” She was smiling now, her teeth looked sharp.
I thought for a moment. “Nighttime. Evil. Creatures of the night, danger…” I trailed off, unsure if I should continue.
She smiled again, this time with a hint of sadness. “There is this idea that things that are dark are bad. The night is dangerous, unpredictable, it hides things. That the light is good, safe, we can see everything. But that isn’t quite true, is it?”
She began to pace around the room, gesturing as she spoke. “The light can blind us just as much as the dark. Think of the good that comes with the absence of light. You can see the stars. The night creatures spend their lives without light; does that make them evil? Dark magic is a velvet cloak that embraces it’s wearer. It is unpredictable by nature, wild, powerful. There is freedom in the darkness. I use it, because it feels natural.”
I rummaged through my notes. “Oh! Oh… I meant… black magic. Do you use black magic?”
“Oh! No, black magic is evil. No one should use black magic, bad stuff.”
James stared out the window as the instructor lectured animatedly at the whiteboard. He let his hand drift over the clean white paper, his pen lazily floating across the page. He purposefully kept his eyes away from the notebook, giving his hand free rein.
He usually came up with some interesting scribbles; someday, he knew that he would turn his eyes to the desk and see a masterpiece. He just knew it. He let another few seconds go by, the ticking of the clock on the wall seemed painfully slow. He pulled back his hand, breathless, and turned his face to the page…
“James. What did I just say?” The professor stared at him expectantly, toe tapping the linoleum, scowling at the wide-eyed look of incomprehension from James. “Quit doodling and pay attention!”
“Sorry, man.” James scowled with ferocity equal to that of the professor, glaring at the mass of incomprehensible scribbles in his notebook. “Just spacing out.” He tore off the top sheet of paper and crumpled it loudly. James returned his gaze to the window.
* * * * *
He jerked awake suddenly, elbows sliding off the desk. Had he fallen asleep? James darted a few surreptitious glances at his instructor and classmates; no one seemed to have noticed. Relaxing his tense shoulders with a sigh, his eyes dropped to his notebook, expecting to see the usual mess of indecipherable scribbles.
Instead, the stark image of a tree was scrawled across the page. The roots twisted in a tangled mass, the grim branches stretched alarmingly to the edges of the page. He blinked fiercely, screwing his eyes shut so tightly that they watered. He looked again. Just scribbles… the usual swirls and jagged slashes of an aimless, wandering pen. He was sweating, but a chill shivered through him.
A tree. James shook his head. My mind is playing tricks on me, and for a split second I thought that I saw a tree. He looked at the page again; it hadn’t changed. It was nothing, just a mess of ink scrawled across the page.
But if it was nothing, why wouldn’t his hands stop shaking?
The second time I saw the mermaid, she was singing.
Now, when most people think of a singing mermaid, they think of the red-haired songstress with a penchant for hoarding, bewitching siren songs, etc.
This was more like… well, imagine an old cat yowling for dinner. Scratchy, off-key and off-putting.
She was in the water this time, her back to me, and she was splashing while squawking a familiar tune.
“Are… are you singing Crocodile Rock?” I asked from the shore.
She gasped and submerged, then resurfaced about twenty feet away, scowling.
“Are you following me?” she hissed, her sea green eyes seemed to glow from the sun reflecting off of the water.
I pointed down the beach. “I am living in one of the beach houses for the summer, I just walk the beach a lot.”
“Whatever. Get a life.”
She was gone with a flick of her strong tail, leaving a wake of bubbles and Elton John stuck in my head.
The office was silent. Usually filled with the sound of keyboards tapping, mouses clicking and hushed conversations, it was unnaturally quiet. My coworkers all sat still, some with heads tilted, as if listening.
A few moments passed.
“What… what is that?” the intern hissed.
“You hear that too, right?”
“Oh, thank god I am not imagining it.”
“What IS that?”
The chorus of whispered questions died down, as everyone listened again.
“It sounds like it is coming from outside…”
Without speaking, they all stood, and filed out of their cubicles. Other offices were emptying into the hallway, everyone speaking softly. Listening.
“Bells… like, sleigh bells.” One woman gasped.
“No, it is definitely a violin. Beethoven!” Someone else chimed in.
“No one else hears… singing?”
They drifted towards the exit, entranced. I followed them out.
The street was filled with people. Many appeared joyful, as if they were listening to beautiful music. The mass of people was starting to drift down the street, laughing, listening, looking to the sky.
“Where is it coming from?”
“It sound like the angels are laughing!”
The crowd grew and grew. People came out of their houses as we reached the suburbs, joining the exhilarated group.
Soon we were at the city limits, open fields and blue sky for miles.
I noticed a small group had stayed back, and did not join the euphoric crowd, who were now dancing and hugging and gleefully cheering to the sky.
I moved towards them. They looked how I felt; fearful.
As I stepped close, a man in front looked me in the eye.
“You hear it, too? Don’t you?”
There was no music from the sky. No bells, no laughter or gentle singing.
I knew without asking that we all heard the same thing.
Screaming and the crackle of flames.
It was following me again.
I could see it out of the corner of my eye; a dark blur of movement here, a darting shadow there.
He was back.
I was very small when I first saw the Shadow Man.
Someone called my name, and I woke with a start. He stood at the foot of my bed. Inky black, ominous, and too real.
I screamed, he was gone. A glass of water and many hugs later, I was asleep.
But he was back the next night, and the next night. Every night thereafter, for years.
Closer he crept. Sometimes taller, sometimes small. He sat on the foot of my bed. He tried to hold my hand. He stood in the doorway, sometimes he laid down beside me.
The worst was when he pushed on my chest. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t cry out. Solid shadow, fear corporeal, he watched.
Night terrors, they told me. Sleep paralysis. Overactive imagination. Attention seeker.
I stopped talking about him. At night, I cried alone. I barely slept.
As I grew older, I started to see him during the day. A silent, unwanted companion, stalked my footsteps. Always there, always waiting. Shadow Man.
I tried to ignore him. If I didn’t acknowledge him, sometimes he let me sleep. Sometimes.
Pale and empty, I walked home from school, Shadow Man flitting ceaselessly.
I didn’t notice the woman sitting on the park bench, quietly smoking a cigar, and peering at me. I was used to being watched, as the dark silhouette never left my side.
“Hey, Shadow Man!”
Startled, I whirled to face her. She looked past me, at my pursuer.
“Yeah, I see you, Shadow Man. Leave that child alone.”
Shadow Man stepped forward, menacingly solid, too real.
“You heard me, Shadow Man. Go.”
Shadow Man lurched closer. I swear I heard it growl. The woman laughed softly.
“Oh, Shadow Man. I dare you!”
She took a deep drag on her cigar and blew smoke at Shadow Man. A soft hiss, and he was gone.
Shocked, I stared at the woman.
She laughed again. “That will last you a while. Remember, dear. Sage, cedar and sweetgrass. Hurry home, it is getting darker out here.”
I slept through the night, for the first time in years. Shadow Man was gone.
I took a deep breath, and turned around.