Once, there was a girl who had a shadow. Of course, everyone has a shadow, but this girl’s shadow followed her everywhere. She could see it in the house and she could see it in the dark. Yes, even in the dark, it would follow her, standing up against the wall at night, all inky, like a black satin stain.
“Go away,” she said.
“NO.” The shadow answered and it had a deep, deep voice like it had come up from the ground or out of the sky and had pulled in the whole world to say that one word.
The girl covered her head with her comforter and hid from the shadow, but she knew it was there. It was always there.
The girl asked her brother, “Can you see my shadow?”
Her brother sneered at her and thumped her on her forehead with his finger. “Dummy. You can’t see a shadow inside.” Smirking, he walked away.
The girls’ shadow pulsed behind her.
Every night, the girl would say to the shadow. “Go away.”
Every night, the shadow would say to the girl. “NO.”
When the girl grew older, she wore black, all black to match her shadow.
Her mother said, “You’d look prettier if you wore this.” She held up a flowery dress.
The girl turned away, her shadow heavy behind her.
One night, after the shadow refused to go away, the girl hid under her comforter like she always did, but this night she did not fall asleep. This night she grew angry. As she lay in her bed, she grew angrier and angrier until she flung back the covers, leapt out of bed, and threw herself at the shadow.
She hit it with her fists and kicked it and hit and kicked and hit and kicked, screaming at it.
“Go away! Go away!”
But the shadow did not go away. It grew stronger. With each punch and each kick, it grew stronger and harder until it felt like a cement wall.
A knock on the door and her mother’s voice, concerned. “Are you alright?”
The girl, breathing hard, lying on the floor in the fetal position in front of her shadow as it loomed over her, called out. “Just a bad dream.”
She listened as her mother went back to her room. She kicked out at the shadow one last time, but it did not move.
The next morning the girl woke on the floor of her bedroom and before she opened her eyes she muttered to herself, it will be gone, it will be gone, it will be gone, like a mantra. When she opened her eyes, she gasped and let out a wailing moan.
The shadow had grown in the night. Taller. Thicker. Darker.
And she knew.
Fighting it had made it stronger.
The girl’s alarm went off but she could not move to turn it off. Her nightstand felt so far away, much too far to get to, so it blared, beep, beep, beep, beep, until her brother banged on her bedroom door.
“Shut off your alarm!”
The girl roused herself off the carpet, keeping one eye on the shadow, and slapped her hand over the alarm, silencing it.
The girl went through her day with the shadow looming behind her. When she got home from school, she threw herself onto her bed, arms spread out, legs hanging over the edge, and stared at the ceiling. The shadow will not go away. If I fight it it gets stronger. As she thought about it, the room grew dark, and she fell asleep.
She dreamed she was flying. Not just flitting from rooftop to rooftop as she’d done in other dreams. No, this was really flying, arms spread out and zooming through the sky. She flew over her house, her street, her neighborhood, her town, out over mountains, forests, canyons, and the ocean. She flew and flew and flew.
She woke with a gasp. Turning her head slowly, she stared at the shadow. And stared. She rose slowly and stood in front of it. The shadow did not move.
“What are you?”
“I AM YOU.”
She stepped back from the shadow. And she fled.
She ran out of her room, down the stairs, and out the front door. She ran and ran and ran until her breath came in ragged gasps and a stitch raced up her side like a knife had sliced through her. She stopped to catch her breath and looked back. The shadow was right behind her, as calm as the night.
And it had grown.
The girl sat down where she was, not caring that she was in a nearly empty parking lot, the lights illuminating the few remaining cars. She could hear the soft hum of the neon lights from the store sign.
She could not get rid of the shadow. She could not fight it. She could not outrun it. It would not go away.
With a resigned and weary sigh, she got up and headed back home, the shadow right behind her. She went into her house and got into bed.
The girl grew older and left her childhood home, but the shadow remained with her. She had stopped fighting it, but every night she still asked it to go away and every night it said no. She did not have friends or a partner because the shadow was too heavy, too much of a burden.
One night she had the flying dream again. She wanted to stay in the dream forever, to fly unfettered forever. When she woke, she bolted upright in her bed with a realization. In her dream, she had let the shadow go. That was how she could fly. She turned her head to look at the shadow. It was as it always was, standing against the wall of her room, silent, steady, oppressive.
The woman got out of bed and stood in front of the shadow. She recalled the night she had fought with it. This time she would not fight. Instead, she reached out her hand and placed her palm on the shadow. She hesitated at first, fearing what would happen, but nothing happened. It was warm to the touch, like touching someone who was asleep under the covers. She understood that she found comfort in the shadow, even as it weighed her down.
She took a deep breath and placed her other palm on the shadow. This time something happened. She could see and feel and hear a memory. Not one she wanted to remember, but one that needed remembering. As she felt it, the fear and anger melted away. It was so long ago, what was the point in hanging on to it?
Something hit the floor next to her foot. Drip. She looked down. A black drop hit the floor and then disappeared. Another drop, and then another, until a small puddle lay at her feet before disappearing into the floor.
She pulled her hands away from the shadow.
It had gotten smaller.
Tired, now, the woman climbed back into bed and fell fast asleep.
The next night she dreamt of flying again and when she awoke again she placed her hands on the shadow until she could see and feel another memory. She let that one go. And another. And another until her room was a flood of black shadow slowly disappearing into the floor.
Every night the shadow grew smaller. Until one night.
The hardest memory. She clung to this one. What would she be without this memory? Would she even be herself? Would she disappear out of this world like the shadow, one drop at a time? The woman put her hands on the shadow and pulled them away as soon as the memory hit her. She could not do this. She went back to bed.
For many nights she tried to feel that last memory, to let it go, and for all those nights she failed. The shadow was small now, as small as the child she’d been when the memory happened. She was lighter and nearly free. But not quite.
One night, she rose, not tentative, not hesitating. She would do this tonight. As soon as she placed her hands on the shadow, she saw the memory, felt it, heard it, even smelled it. At first she wanted to pull away again, but then she took a deep breath and dug her hands in even further. They sunk in, in, in, into the shadow, into the memory. Until…
The shadow burst into a million pieces. This time it did not drip drop onto the floor. This time it shattered like a sunburst, throwing the darkness everywhere, before it dissipated like fog in the early morning.
It was gone. The shadow was gone.
The woman crawled into bed and watched out the window as the sun slowly brightened the curtains, highlighting her room bit by bit. A ray of light landed on her calendar. It was the anniversary to the day of the event that happened to bring about the shadow. She had not known it. She got out of bed, raised her hands above her head, and took a deep breath. It was light. Free.
She looked to the wall where the shadow had stood.
“Go away,” she said.
There was no answer.