Don’t get too close! He’ll see us.
Devon turned to look over his shoulder. The street was empty. Of course it was. There’s not a lot of people out a 5am. Street lamps, store fronts, and whole lot of pavement. He kept walking.
What was that? said another voice. The first one had been cold, but the second was sharp, anxious.
Nothing! He’s an idiot. It’s fine.
Devon stopped again. There was no one on the street, but those voices had been plain as day. He felt his whole body deflate. Devon had learned when he was a kid that schizophrenia just show up at any time in your life. He’d been terrified of it ever since.
Oh this is fantastic, said the cold one. He’s freaking out. This happens sometimes. It’s hilarious.
No, no no no, said anxious. We need him. We gotta back off.
There was an angry pause, and then Fine. Devon didn’t hear the voices again all day. Or the next day. Or for the next week.
Devon lay in bed. He was still half in dreams, although he couldn’t have told you what he was dreaming. Street lights were shining through the window, and his phone glowed on the bedside table.
He is so gross! It was the anxious voice. He recognized it immediately. His heart started to race.
No more gross than any of them, said the cold one, and we’ve seen, what, thousands by now?
Nah, he’s worse. There was a nasty laugh in his voice. The way he sleeps on his face, like a baby. An actual fuckin’ baby.
I think he’s perfect. A perfect useful animal, the cold one again.
Devon shot up, sweating, heart pounding, head whipping back and forth.
He opened his mouth, but no sound came out. Dry throat. He swallowed hard a few times, and then he finally managed “Who’s there?” It was a raspy whisper.
What’s he doing? asked the anxious one.
Devon saw something out the corner of his eye. On the wall opposite the window was his shadow cast by the street lamps, but the jaw was moving. Who knows. Making more noises. It doesn’t matter.
“Who the fuck are you?!” This came out as a screech.
I dunno what he’s freaking out about. It was the cold voice, but spoken by the shadow. Just let him freak out.
Yes it does matter! He has to stay sane. You know that! This voice came from the other wall, from another shadow above him, cast by the light from his kitchen. It was the anxious one. If he’s losing it, we’ll have to kill him and start all over.
Devon jumped across the apartment to his tiny kitchen, where the lights were on. The voices stopped. He sat as his table, alternately weeping and staring blankly at his bed.
Devon didn’t have any money. He looked up a few therapists online, and they had sliding scales, but he didn’t have any money. He hadn’t gone to church since he was 14, but it was all he could think of. It was free.
He found a church and asked the priest for help.
“Are you Catholic?” the priest asked.
“I mean, yes? My ina made me go. I was baptized and all that.”
“Sure. Moms do that,”
What do you need help with?” He was a friendly man in his 40s. He had that dad vibe, like everything’s going to be alright now that he’s here. I didn’t hurt that he was Filipino.
“I’m…” The words wouldn’t come out. He looked up at the stained glass. It wasn’t the fanciest church, but they all had those big windows. He looked at the candles. It was comforting. “I keep hearing these voices, and they’re talking about me, and I’m starting to get really scared.” He felt tears well up and heard his voice crack.
The priest didn’t look so sure of himself any more. “Well, that’s something that happens to people sometimes. It’s… it’s nothing shameful? Um. What do these ‘shadows’ say…?”
“One of them said that they’d kill me,” Devon said.
“Oh. That’s. That’s very upsetting,” the priest answered.
“They talk about me like they’re watching me, but—”
What is he doing with that other one?
“Oh God,” Devon said.”
Devon turned to the wall and saw his own gigantic shadow cast by the votive candles. The head bobbed like it was talking.
I keep telling you it doesn’t matter. He turned his head to the floor where a long shadow stretched across the aisle of the church, cast by the light of the stained glass.
“Son?” said the priest.
“They’re here,” Devon said, “in the shadows.” He pointed to the wall, to the floor.
Is that little piece of crap pointing at us? asked the cold one, from the floor.
Looks like it, said the anxious one, on the wall.
Devon was frozen, body tightening.
“My son, are you alright?”
I told you! the anxious one again. It’s like they’re… hearing us.
I’m so tired of this. Humans are stupid. They only kinda sorta know we’re even here, said the cold one. They don’t hear shit.
I’m telling you, we gotta kill him and find someone else, said anxious.
“Can you hear them now?” the priest asked.
“Yes,” Devon said in the tiniest whisper.
No. I’m telling you, it’s fine. He’s still useful.
Is he? the anxious one asked. Is he, when he’s like this? He needs to be stable!
Fine, said the cold voice. Give him a rest.
The shadows took Devon’s shape again, and the voices stopped. “They’re, um, they’re done,” he finally said.
“Done?” the priest asked. “As in, finished talking now?”
“Maybe you’d like to sit down for you some tea.” The priest put out his hand to lead Devon to the rectory, but Devon was already spooked. He hurried out of the church, making excuses all the way.
It hadn’t been a good idea, coming to a church. The priest didn’t understand.
Devon started keeping the lights on all the time, even when he slept, and he wore headphones wherever he went, cranked up loud. He was worried he’d started looking like a crazy person, but this was the best he could come up with, ways to keep the voices from coming back.
Sweet Jesus, hearing himself think like that was so sad.
He was standing at a bus stop, on the way to work, on the same street where he’d first heard them. This was crazy, and he wasn’t going to give in to crazy. He took the headphones off and shoved them in a jacket pocket.
…bite the heads off live rats… It was the cold voice. Devon put the headphones back on, turned the volume up, and waited for the bus. He sobbed silently, all the way to work.
That night, in his apartment, he set up a little office lamp on one side of his bed and put the plug where he could reach it. Then, he opened the blinds and let the streetlamps light up the room. He had two shadows now, one on the back wall of the room and one on the front wall. He waited.
It didn’t take long. They started talking again, about something too gruesome to even listen to. Devon sat still, hoping his heart would slow down enough that he could move without shaking. Finally, he slowly extended his arm to the back wall, where the anxious one was talking.
What the hell is that? it asked.
Of for… it’s nothing, you freak. They point. They run around. They’re meat sacks. Ignore him, said the cold one, but by then, Devon had moved his hand. He was pointing at the other wall, at that cold one.
What is that?! the anxious one yelled, so Devon pointed at that one again. It yelped. That is not a coincidence! He’s hearing us!
The cold one was quiet for a long moment. And then said, Huh. That is strange. Devon put his arm down. Oh. Nah. It’s fine. False alarm. He’s still a stupid animal. And you! You’re projecting.
Then Devon turned and put his feet on the floor, and stared directly at the cold one, its shadow cast by the desk lamp.
What’s he doing? the anxious one said.
The cold one’s head turned, the shadow shifting around on the wall. It regarded Devon.
Devon said, “I can live without you. Can you live without me?”
It tilted its head, regarding him.
Then Devon yanked out the plug, which turned off the lamp. For the briefest moment, the anxious one screamed in existential horror, but then there was silence.
(C) Copyright Orion Ussner Kidder, 2018