Fiction: The Short Thread
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Every day my shadow creeps closer.
When I was born, once the midwife had slapped startled life into my lungs, she went searching for my shadow while my mother clamped me to her heaving breast.
The longer she was gone, the better. So everyone knew, so no-one said. A minute. Two...
Too soon, she was back, hovering near the door, avoiding eye contact. "It's down the hall, Ms Morton. About fifty feet."
Mother wept, tears further dampening her sweat-soaked gown. A life, then; but hardly a full one. The fates had granted me only a short thread. It was tempting to read fifty feet as fifty years, but shadows move at unpredictable speeds. Mine halved that distance in my first seven years. It slowed after that, but right until I did, it really wasn't clear I'd reach adulthood.
My mother made me sleep with the lights on, as if my shadow was playing a game of What's the time, Mr Wolf? I grew up fearing the dark, fearing sleep, uncertain how much of my life might have ebbed away in the night.
Every single birthday, every holiday, every time she felt anxious, my mother went hunting, tape measure clutched in hand, telling me to sit perfectly still. Because if I moved, so did my shadow.
As soon as I realised this, I couldn't resist. I'd inch away from the direction she’d vanished, shuffling less than a finger’s width, waiting for the terrified shriek from down the hall as my shadow visibly appeared to close the gap. With ghoulish delight, I saw it wasn’t just my shadow getting closer. Before long my mother’s shade overtook mine, a lesson that there was nothing you can do to extend your life, but you can certainly make it shorter.
It was no great surprise when my mother died of a nervous condition, the year I went up to university. To do a degree that was utterly pointless, given how near my shadow lurked by then.
Her inheritance, small though it was, meant those were the best three years of my life. And while my shadow--hovering just beyond the walls of my cramped student accommodation--put some girls off, others, particularly those studying philosophy, were attracted like moths to a guttering candle.
Though the bright lights under which I habitually slept drove them just as quickly away.
By the time I left, with a degree I hadn’t worked for and didn’t deserve, the money and good times were gone. And now, with my shadow sharing the same room no matter its size, I can't sleep unless the lights are off. Mostly, I don't sleep at all and, as my shade taunts me in the bathroom mirror, this too takes its toll.
Death waits in the wings. Potential employers see my shadow stood at my shoulder and pass with a shudder to the next candidate. The eyes of women--and men, too--glaze over as we pass.
I’ve considered taking up residence in an old people’s home, the shadows their constant companions, but I’m barely thirty. They want me no more than I want to be there.
Doctors sign me off without bothering to examine me. Officialdom waits patiently for me to no longer be their problem.
The fated day arrives, my shadow touches. Coy at first; feet pressed to cold feet, leaning in at a jaunty angle. But that doesn’t satisfy for long. Quickly my shade hauls itself up my trembling body. Darkness engulfs me as it clambers over my head.
Almost a relief...
Except I know all too well where my shadow is dragging me.
Liam Hogan is an award winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction 2016 & 2019, and Best of British Fantasy 2018 (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flametree Press, among others. He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London. More details at http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk