Behind me, hundreds of papers rustle like the wall is trying to shed its skin. Rain and snow have reduced the pigments on the pages to a neutral gray blob of featureless faces. The names are no more than bleeding words stabbed with longing.
These pictures cover tantalizing pictures of dipped cones, old-fashioned fountain drinks, and mountains of ice cream oozing with caramel and fudge. Even the thought of these treats makes my stomach growl.
Above, a moon beam descends through a giant hole in the ice cream parlor’s ceiling, illuminating me like a spotlight in my own private play. This image coaxes a semi-hysterical snicker from me before I can hold it back. Oh, the irony.
Outside, shadows gather in the streets, whispering through alleys, reaching through broken windows, scraping their voices against the cracked tile floor of the ice cream parlor.
“Geneva, Geneva,” says one of them. Its voice is high-pitched and urgent like my mother’s used to be when she leaned out the front door at dusk and announced dinner time to the neighborhood.
“I carry light.” I brandish my flashlight like a knife.
The shadow flinches.
I do not bother to mention that the batteries in my flashlight have been dead for several months. If the shadow presses against my circle of light or a cloud covers the moon, I can light the last birthday candle in my pocket to hold it back.
“How long until winter?” I ask. Negotiations always begin with talk of the weather.
Shadows lie about a lot of things, but they love to share weather forecasts. Although it isn’t why I came to the parlor this evening, I need to know how many gathering days remain until snow arrives.
“Two-score and five. North winds descend bringing frost and hunger.” The shadow almost sounds gleeful, if that is possible for a disembodied voice.
Now down to business.
“I’ve come for my mother.”
I try to keep my tone neutral as if the request means almost nothing to me, but I need to talk to her. I have things to say that she alone might understand. Last winter I almost went crazy with solitude, tossing and turning every night in that ramshackle shed I call a home. The ceiling creaked and groaned within inches of my face. If I’m honest, more than once I almost wished the whole thing would collapse and bury me alive.
“What have you to trade?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the blurred posters on the wall. Shadows have no need of food, shelter, fur, or water. They like things with faces, which gives me an idea.
I pull out a silver pocket watch I recently scavenged in an abandoned house on the east end of town. Its hands no longer turn. The cracked face obscures the two, three, and eight. It might be nothing. It might be everything. I holds it up in the air.
“Such a small face,” the shadow says. “Such a large ask.”
I bite back my disappointment and take a deep breath to regain my composure.
“What about my brother?”
He is a pain in the ass but better than nothing. At least he can help with gathering food, repairing the shelter, keeping the fires going at night. I could tell him what I did. He might be angry at first, but he’d have to forgive me, right? Blood is, after all, thicker than friends.
“Smaller,” the shadow responds. We are close on this negotiation.
If my mother and brother are too large, then that leaves only one thing.
“Tomorrow. Midnight. We trade the face for the dog.”
The shadow recedes, but that could be a trick. I stick to the middle of Main Street. The road’s smooth skin has sprouted green whiskers. I kick every weed I pass, as if one tiny violent act could hold back the memories poking through my own fissures.
I think about Max. The last time I saw him, he licked tears from my cheeks. His forehead creased with concern, he whined and pawed at my arms, nudging my hand for attention. My mother tried to tie a party hat around his tiny head only to have it slip around his neck. Max didn’t seem to mind the hat or the fact that all the seats in the dining room were empty except where my brother sat, dipping his fingers into the cake’s silky, white frosting.
His is not the only face I see. When I close my eyes at night, I see Tiffany with her freckled cheeks, eyes rolled back in exaggeration, legs and arms crossed and trembling, pretending she could no longer hold her bladder; Hannah with her newly pierced ears, earrings swinging madly side to side as she tried, through snorts and giggles, to say my name; Crystal with a trembling mirror in one hand, a tube of lipstick in the other, trying not to draw a pink line across her chin as she laughed; Elsa with her blond bangs covering her blue eyes, leaning so far back in the desk that one more guffaw would send her sprawling across the classroom floor; Mrs. Lewis with her thick glasses, head tilted backward so she could see her computer through the bottom of the lenses, her double chin jiggling as she did nothing.
When Max returns tomorrow, I will confess the words I mumbled before I blew out the candles on my last birthday cake:
“I never want to see their faces again.”
If I knew shadows were listening, I would have given specific names. I would have requested something more substantial in return, but I didn’t know faces were currency. You can trade for anything you want with the right face.
It has taken me years of loneliness, but I think I finally understand the language of shadows. One day I may even trade my own face for something I need more.
Jeff Gard is an assistant professor of English at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa. When he isn’t writing or teaching, he enjoys board games, disc golf, binge-worthy television shows, and music. Friends describe his humor as “dark” or “twisted,” but he prefers to think of it as an acquired taste much like lutefisk or sauerkraut. His stories have appeared in The Arcanist, Daily Science Fiction, Dark Fire Fiction, and Flash Fiction Magazine.