After You Look

I was waiting for my visitor — probably the last one I’d have for a while. Not that I had many before. I sat in my townhouse, feeling an absolute loneliness. I was never one to keep many people around, so in a way I’ve always been preparing for the life I have now. I glanced at the work on my desk, thankful that perhaps I would still be able to support myself when all the dust settled. I walked around, convincing myself I felt lighter without a Shadow to weigh me down — because I lost mine.

There was a knock at my door, and I braced myself for the imminent reaction.

“Grant,” my friend said, “I — woah. It’s really gone isn’t it?”

“Yes Chip.”

I made way for Chip and his Shadow to enter my home, all while being conscious of the gaping space behind me. It was once filled with a dense me-shaped fog, alive with colour and movement. Everyone has one, unless you break the one cardinal rule.

“Do you want something to drink? Water? Juice? — Can you stop staring at me?” I said.

“Sorry man, it’s just weird. I’ve never been so close to a Shadowloss before.”

“I’m glad I can serve as an educational tool for you.” I shook my head while I got us both glasses of water with some peanut butter and pretzels.

“Well, aren’t you gonna tell me why?” he asked, getting straight to the point, “Why’d you do it?”

“Because of this man. A stupid random run-in with a stupid drunk man,” I started, “One night I was just walking home when an old man tumbled out of an alley and fell on the sidewalk. I was repulsed at first, not just because of his smell or his clothes, but because he didn’t have his Shadow.”

“On the streets, tattered clothes, smells like something you’d find on a farm? Sounds like a Shadowloss to me.”

I ignored the subtle insult as I continued, “There’s more. It was clear he was drunk when he started yelling about me looking at him, slurring his words. Just to be polite I asked if he was okay, and he laughed loudly asking, Are ye? Are any of ye?! I pointed to the empty space where his Shadow would have been and said, At least I’m doing better than you are.”

“He sounds like he’s out of his mind. At this point you should have just run for it.”

“Yeah but then he was really still, looking at me with glossy eyes. I thought it was just the booze, but then it seemed like he was gonna cry. Kind of quiet he said You have no idea, the things I’ve seen. I just said All right Sir and tried to scoot around him and be on my way, but he called after me saying You won’t see until you look! I just hurried home, trying to forget the whole thing.”

“What a quack,” Chip said as he really dug into the snacks.

“I tried to put it out of my mind, I really did, but everywhere I turned there were his eyes and his words you won’t see until you look. What was there to see? For five months it ate away at me. I was close so many times before I finally did it.”

“What was it like? What did you see, uh exactly?” Chip asked sheepishly.

This was new territory for most people, as those that considered themselves upstanding citizens followed the rule. You’re not supposed to look the Shadows in the eyes. It’s a heinous act, the worst taboo, and one that everyone knows you’ve committed. Because when you look, they leave. But after a life of averted gazes in the mirror, being scolded as a child for threatening to peek — even though you never would, or being in public and just generally pretending the Shadows weren’t there, I couldn’t contain temptation any longer.

“I saw…I don’t think it looked like me. Well, not really, it was crying. I think they all cry. I try to really look at them now and they all have the same kind of miserable expression. I don’t know if they want to be here.”

“Not wanna be here? Where else would they want to be? Living together in some magic fairy forest without us? How would that even work? What shape would they take if not ours?”

He was right of course, how would that work? But they had to come from somewhere. There had to be a reason why we had them, but no one really knew why, or at least no one was saying they knew why. There were theories of course, but I wasn’t sure what I believed. I just knew what I saw. Probably the same thing the old man saw that led him to drinking in alleyways. The possibility of an entire world of trapped Shadows was an unhinging thought.

“How are you going to deal with the world now? No one’s gonna want to talk to you or anything.”

“I can’t deal with all that now, I just know that when I finally ventured outside they all looked at me. And I don’t mean us Holders — people will gawk at me when they think I can’t see — but the Shadows are really looking at me. Hoping maybe. Now I notice the way they move. It’s like they’re dragged in space by their Holder. Their edges are blurred like they’re not fully here, as if part of them is somewhere else. And now I think about their families. Are their families the same as their Holder’s family? Or other different Shadows? Do they even actually have families?”

“You are absolutely nuts, man. They’re just there! You’re thinking too much.”

“How does anyone really know for sure though? Haven’t you ever been curious and wanted to know more?” I asked exasperatedly.

“Not really, I mean it’s unnatural — no offence. Plus The Shadowloss are always some sort of petty criminal or pathetic loser. Not exactly a life I wanna live. Again, no offence.”

“I guess that’s the life I have to look forward to,” I said.

“Hey, you’ll be alright man. You’re self-employed, and you got people to support you right? You tell your parents?”

“No not yet.”

“Oh. Well, I’m sure it’ll be fine. A bit of a shock for them but I’m sure they’ll be supportive. Just got to make sure you give them time.”

We fell silent, becoming increasingly aware of the being invisibly tethered to Chip’s back. It had the same grimace I’d seen on so many before. You could squint and say the thing resembled Chip, but anyone who really took a good look would say otherwise. But I guess that’s the thing. No one looks.

The Shadow glanced at me. I felt immense guilt as it took me in. As if I should be doing something to help it. If it could speak, would it tell me of another world? Would it scream at the injustice of its existence here? Or would there be nothing to say at all? Maybe I am just nuts.

Then it stared at Chip. I stared at Chip too as he scarfed down more food. I saw him as I now saw the rest of the Holders. They lived blissfully unaware of the world around them, and were unwilling to entertain any groundbreaking revelations.

“Well I think I should go, y’know…” he finally said as his hands reached into an empty pretzel bag.

“Alright man, I’ll see you soon.”

“Yeah. I mean I’ve been getting busier lately, but I’m sure we’ll see each other around.”

I led him — them out, and turned into the emptiness of my home. After the brief normalcy of Chip and his Shadow, it was weird suddenly realizing that for so much of my life I had never been truly alone. I guess it was a feeling I would have to get used to. I imagined my Shadow breaking away from our attachment, and the rest of the Shadows that would remain tied to their Holder for the rest of their lives. I don’t really understand where they come from, or where they’re capable of going, but wherever mine is I hope it feels free.