I’ll tell you how it starts. Maybe you’ll see. Maybe you’ll know.
It starts as an itch, a splinter in the mind. You can feel it, worming its way forward. The headaches are the worst. Feels like an ice pick lodged in your veins. Feels like someone taking a ball-peen hammer to the side of your head, and just when you’re ready to give in, to move on, and take a sabbatical – ideally, where there is no light and noise and scent – it stops. You breathe relief. Your skin relaxes. You didn’t know that your skin was tight, like someone was holding electrodes to your flesh and making it tighten involuntarily. Then, it’s in your eye. The feeling of something there that isn’t. A pulsing, throbbing, stabbing pain. You close your eye; rub it, thinking something is stuck inside. An eyelash, a crossbeam from the Empire State Building. Water flows from the ducts, but it doesn’t go away. You take a breath, and you think it’s going to burst from your skull, your eye a deflated sac, vitreous fluid streaming down your cheek. Then it stops, and you see. You see them. Them.
They’re shadows. I don’t know where they come from. Maybe some alternate universe where light is dark and dark is light and somewhere, Martha Stewart fucks Mitch McConnell on screen every night precisely at 5 pm. Maybe that’s all they are – shadows. It’s the reflection of a long-dead sun, or a star that burned out millions of years ago, and the spaces where they stood are just now hitting our irises. Maybe we broke something when CERN went online, and they’re something else entirely, swimming through higher dimensions the way birds drift on currents. Maybe they’re devils, and we’re close to the end. Whatever. They’re there, and just because only a few of us can see them, means shit in the long run.
Saw four of them, hanging around the bodega on Ninth. They drifted around the entrance, transparent. The way they move, I’m not sure they know much. Maybe they really are some sort of new species, just learning the ropes of their nascent life. Fuck, that’s a lot of maybes. Anyway, they just sort of hang out. They remind me of finches on a branch, waiting for seed to settle in the feeder. A woman came out, carrying a bag of groceries. The shades just fluttered around her for a moment, like startled mice. She walked on, and they settled by the door again. Part of me wondered if they could go inside, if they’d buy a burrito, maybe a pack of smokes. Maybe burritos and Marlboro are illegal where they come from, and they’re hoping for an adult to buy some.
I waited for an hour before the cops drove by, breaking up my surveillance. They’re not keen on strange men standing and staring too long at any one thing. I’m not keen on having my head broken. I moved on.
More of them, in the park. They flitter among the children. The kids don’t know – they skip and run and shout, bright colors on their coats making ribboned blurs against the eye. The shadows just float there, watching. I wonder what they’d do if they saw a child skin his knee, or bloody their nose. I wonder if there are little shadows back home, Timmy and Sally Dim, maybe with their shadow dog, Sparky. I wonder if maybe they’re closer to animals. Do they eat their young?
Some kid loses his ball and it veers into the road, and he runs after it. I hold my breath. I want to scream out as the traffic on Fifth ripples past the light because he doesn’t see it. My heart skips a beat, and I hear tires squeal on the pavement. Someone’s shouting, but I can’t see who because I’ve closed my eyes. More shouting and I open them. Someone – an au pair, a mother – is carrying the kid back into the playground. My heart slows. The shadows watch.
I keep thinking. What if? What if they’re refugees? Survivors of a dying sun, remnants of us, humanity, slipping back in time, people fleeing from some Xenu-like construct, and they can only get one foot in the door? If it were true, if more people knew, could see them, would we legislate their existence? Would we try to help? Could we? Would causes spring up around their existence, men with guns and men with signs? Would someone try to shoot one, to see what happens? Would someone try to feed them? How would they react?
My head won’t stop with the questions. They bore into me like beetles, doubt and conjecture. In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s all shadows and light, anyway.
I met a man. Hiram, I think. He smoked, like a chimney, and watched the streets like they were filled with wolves. I bummed a smoke off him and stood with him, his scarf wrapped around his neck like a gorget, his eyes hollow. He told me about the shadows, the way they watched everyone. We were in the park, the sky threatening rain. The trees kept making clacking sounds as the branches banged together, and he told me about how he kept seeing those things everywhere, and how he was a raw nerve because they hadn’t done a damn thing yet. I listened and nodded, but couldn’t commiserate. Of course, I saw them. Of course. But they weren’t in my head yet, and I wasn’t letting them in. He left with wet eyes and a hack that told me the cigarettes were in his lungs. After, I watched the leaves on the trees shiver until the rain came.
One of them is in my building. It hangs out in the hallway by Mrs. Kossakas’ apartment. Every now and then, it drifts down the hall and back, like it’s bored, or maybe looking for a way in. I don’t think they can go through walls or doors. This one must have slipped in behind a resident, or the UPS man. I skirted it and took the stairs by the laundry room. I keep my door locked, just in case. Just in case.
I saw Hiram again today. He looked worse, pale, and skinny. Sweat collected on his forehead like dew in the spring. Purple bags rode under his eyes. We found a bench and talked a while, mostly about nothing – football, the local deli, the weather – neither of us followed it, but our mouths made the sounds. In a small copse of trees nearby, three of the shadows drifted. Hiram showed me the gun in his pocket, a little silver thing, and old. Looked like one of those revolvers they’d have on bad cop shows. He pulled it out and stuffed it away real quick, his hand doing a little jitter, like palsy was the thing on tap. He smoked and looked out at the woods, and I could see it in him. The internal math. Do I shoot them now? Does someone hear? What happens? What happens? In the end, he left again, his hand jammed in his pocket, a cigarette drooping from his lip. If the cigarettes and shadows don’t do anything, he’ll find a use for that pistol. I could almost see Damocles’ sword hanging by its thread. The shadows didn’t notice.
I can’t find the thing from the hall. I’m not sure where it went, but I haven’t seen Ms. K in a while. I knocked, but no one answered. She was old. I’m sure she has family, has someone who knows where she is. I don’t know, I’m not her keeper. I thought of something, an idea that clung to me for a while, but when I dug out Hiram’s number, the phone only squealed and the voice on the other end did her little disconnect dance. Maybe he found the solution to his math.
There’s more of them. Less people on the street. Is it Sunday? I only know the number. I only know there are less people on the street on Sunday. I think about them, crammed in their churches and synagogues and mosques, praying, genuflecting, singing. I wonder what they would make of this. Punishment? Angels? Demons? I wonder if I should stop by St. Anthony’s. I call information, but the phone only hums. That’s normal, right? Is Google down? If Google’s down, everything’s down.
I think about going to the library – they have computers there. They’d know. Then a shadow passes on the street, and I think about home. I check the sky, and it’s gray, like steel wool. I think about the way you could unravel it, set fire to the end, and watch the sparks climb the metal spindles like a burning ladder. I wonder if that’s what’s going on in my brain, if that’s why I’m seeing these things. I wonder if that’s how the world ends, a steady slow burn that leaves only black in its wake.
Is it a leap year? I wonder briefly if that’s why this is happening. All those stolen seconds leeching into hours and days and years – are we breaking time? A nice lady picked up Hiram’s phone today. She said she didn’t know where he was, and wanted to know my name. Why would she need that? I hung up. I thought about disconnecting my phone, but what if one gets in here? I’d need to call for help. I could say I was having a panic attack, or I had fallen. Instead, I went to the park.
They’re everywhere. I can’t – I thought I heard Hiram, hacking in the woods, and went to him. They were close enough to touch – I didn’t. I couldn’t. What about space AIDS, or possession, or melting my skin off? I slipped between them while they watched. His pistol was lying in the leaves. There was an empty shell in it. No sign of Hiram. Did he try to kill them? Did he do himself? I took the gun. He’ll want it back. They just watched. What did they see? I didn’t ask – couldn’t find my voice. Would they have answered?
Why don’t they do anything? It’s a riddle wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a cheesy burrito. Taco Bell would be fucking proud. They just stand around and watch. I don’t see many people outside, but it’s been raining for a day. People don’t like the rain. These things, it doesn’t bother. Nothing much bothers them. I doubt their humanity. I wonder at my own. Why can’t I say something to them? Am I afraid of the answers? I hold Hiram’s gun at night and think until my brain hurts. Until the headache throbs and my vision doubles. Nothing. Nothing.
There’s another in my building. I couldn’t talk to it, but I waved the gun. It didn’t notice. Or pretended not to. My skin itches all the time now. I honestly can’t tell if it’s because I got too close in the park, or because anxiety is ramping my senses up to twenty. I almost left today. I called Hiram instead and listened to the dial tone for a while. I wonder if he’s somewhere safe – maybe the cops picked him up after he fired the gun. Maybe he ran off. I wonder if he’s got cigarettes, and my lungs ache for that old burn. I’m not leaving.
Woke up by the sound of something scratching. Could be rats. This is an old building. Tried watching Kimmel. There’s an old girlie mag under my bed, but I’m not that kind of keyed up. Finally decided to open that bottle of Wild Turkey from under the sink. I brought my chair to the entry so I can watch the door. The whiskey burns, but it’s a comforting burn. I wonder when they’re going to do something. That’s what strangers do, right? They wait, and they watch, then they hit you when your nerves are high so you make a mistake. They give you a smile, and you relax, and then you give them your money. Or they slit your throat. I think of Hiram, pale and sweating. I feel the weight of the pistol in my lap and mentally count the bullets. Will it matter? They’ll do something soon. They have to, right? Will it matter? I count the bullets again. Will it matter? One of them will. One of them will.