PodCastle 556: Shadow Boy
By Lora Gray
I am sixteen and sitting on the edge of an empty subway platform when Peter, forever small, reappears. His black eyes are bright, and he smells like licorice and cinnamon. He is wearing purple mittens and a pigeon-feather skirt.
“Who the hell dressed you today?” I ask.
“I did.” Peter tips his head as if considering. “My taste is terrible. Tragic, really, but I didn’t have much choice.”
“Everybody has a choice.”
“Do they, dear Prudence?”
“Don’t call me Prudence.” Tugging my jeans more snugly around my hips, I shift. Chains rattle over the metal platform, and a safety pin fingernails across the yellow line at the edge.
“It’s your name.”
“Nobody calls me that anymore.” I tap a cigarette out of my pocket. It takes me three tries to light up.
“I call you that,” he says.
“You don’t count.” I drag and exhale into Peter’s face.
Peter doesn’t cough. “Feeling sullen?”
“I’m lonely.” I grit my teeth and shrug.
“How can you be lonely?” he asks. “You and me, we have a whole city to play with.” He kicks his legs back and forth, heels denting the platform gleefully. Thump. THUMP. A grin stretches his mouth wide.
My skin prickles and I feel the familiar lurch, reality threatening to wobble around me. “Why are you smiling like that?”
Peter levels his black eyes at me and says, “I found your shadow.”
I am eight years old.
We arrive at midnight, Momma, “Uncle” Leon, my shadow and I, crammed into a Buick the color of old piss. The long stretches of upstate soybean peel away to reveal an army of high-rises marching into the light-polluted never-dark. My shadow surges up from the floor mats when the headlights hit him. He is excited and starry-eyed. He has never been to The City before.
He still believes in adventures.
“It doesn’t work that way,” I whisper. Adventures don’t begin with dodging landlords and eviction notices and shoving unwashed clothes into black trash bags.
“What was that, sugar?” Leon’s voice is Georgia-thick and he is dirty-grinning at me in the rear view mirror. He strokes the back of Momma’s neck, pressing greasy circles into her hairline, and my shadow bristles.
“I’m not sugar.” I tug my sweater over my fingers.
“Sugar and spice and everything nice.” Leon’s fingers dip beneath the collar of Momma’s shirt. “Isn’t that what little girls are-“
“I said this car smells like shit.”
“Prudence!” Momma whips around, but Leon’s hand turns vise-tight, and he glares the rest of the ride into silence.
My shadow seethes and I press my forehead against the rear window glass, neon lights flipping my reflection from infant to ancient. From ugly to divine. From girl to boy. I cling to that last like a secret as my shadow winds himself around me. Sinking into his embrace, I count cars until Brooklyn.
By the time we arrive, my shadow is strong. He hefts trash bags easily over his broad shoulders and pounds his new kingdom flat with giant boy feet as we walk to Leon’s apartment. I shuffle, but my shadow struts. He leaps up broken concrete steps and hurdles winos. He dodges dumpsters and conquers trashcan castles and ignores Leon’s angry shouts of, “Hurry up!” and “Oh for God’s sake.”
My shadow and I only stop when we reach the neighbor’s stoop. There is a small child there, huddled in an oversized trench coat, a paper bag lumped onto his small head like a fedora. For a moment, he seems to float, and my stomach swoops sideways, a boat tipping beneath my feet. My shadow begins to tiptoe around him when the boy looks up. Black eyes pin me.
“I’m Peter,” the boy says. His breath is licorice and cinnamon.
I lean closer to my shadow. “Peter?”
“Yup. Peter Pan. Peter Rabbit. Saint Peter. Take your pick.” He shuffles toward the edge of the stoop and squints, one pudgy finger inching over his nose. “What’s your name?”
Peter laughs like my name is a joke, the baby fat under his chin puckering. Then, very carefully, he shoves the brim of his paper hat back and looks directly at my shadow. “And who are you?” he asks.
Peter, perched on the edge of the concrete like a pigeon, waits, but by the time I open my mouth, Leon’s voice, belting bright and dangerous, jabs the world into motion again.
“We haven’t got all night!”
Goosebumps rocket me to where he and Momma are waiting before I can gather the courage to see if Peter is still watching me.
Later, when Momma and Leon are kissing, I peer out the window of my new room, bare feet on a dirty mattress, and look for Peter, but there is only a rumpled paper bag tumbling end over end down the lonely alley. I imagine an empty world, Peter flying with trench coat wings, tiny naked toes gripping the concrete like talons and lifting it up, up, up! Peeling the skin off the city like an orange.
And who are you?
I look down at my shadow and whisper, “P.J.”
I am twelve years old.
“You’re not wearing that.” Momma circles the living room in a pencil skirt and a broad, black hat. “It’s a funeral. Don’t you want to look pretty for your grandpa?”
“Why? What’s he going to do? Sit up and applaud?” I flop onto the sofa to avoid the pinch of her eyes. “Besides, he’s not really my grandpa. He’s Leon’s dad.”
Exasperated, Momma grimaces at my jeans, my t-shirt, my short hair. I tap my toe against my shadow’s long foot and brace myself for the inevitable, “You used to be so pretty. You used to have such nice hair. If you would just try to look a little more feminine…”
Before Momma can say it, Leon’s voice roars from the kitchen. “Change your clothes, Prudence! I won’t have a freak at my father’s funeral.”
I grind my fingers into the arm of the sofa. “I told you. It’s not Prudence, it’s P.J.”
For a breath, my shadow refuses to move. He stays stubbornly glued to the shag carpet until the memory of bruised wrists and a hard slap send him stomping to my room. I slam the door behind us.
It takes me five minutes to unearth the only dress I haven’t hacked into a t-shirt. The lace scratches my neck as I wrestle myself into it, my wrists torqueing sideways as I shove them through puff sleeves.
When I’m finally done, my shadow gapes at me. His hair is spiked at odd angles, fingers splayed, long legs awkwardly knocked under the wide bell of the dress. Biting my cheek, I turn slowly. Breasts jut out of him, sharp and pointy as new teeth. My shadow snaps forward again, boyish and narrow, but the damage is done. He is quivering and he tugs at my heels, trying to crawl inside me and away from that foreign, curving shape as I hurry out of the room.
At the funeral, Leon parades us through a church the color of old bones. My shadow shrinks further into me as Momma makes introductions. “This is my daughter, Prudence.” This is my daughter. This is my daughter. My shadow clutches at my little finger from the inside, frantic to shake the untruth of the word, but I don’t know how to comfort him and I close my eyes. It’s only when I smell licorice and cinnamon that I finally look up.
Across the aisle, dwarfed by the lily-white rental casket, is Peter. He is no bigger than the last time I saw him, but the trench coat and paper bag have been replaced by a daisy-print dress and combat boots. He lifts his head and winks at me, narrow lips pursed around a cigarette. Dizziness sloshes over me and, for a moment, the mourners, fat and watery and pale, seem to dissolve. I can’t look away as Peter jigs a circle around the casket, stomping a rhythm only he can hear. Black eyes shining, he laughs and then, very carefully, he leans over the casket and taps ash onto the body’s waxy cheek.
Nobody else sees him.
Nobody stops him.
I am sixteen years old.
The October sun tosses shadows across the fire escape. Ropes. Fingers.
And the shadow sprawled beneath me? It isn’t mine. She’s a wide and rounded thing, wasp waist, thick hips, and an empty space between her thighs. Four years of trying to escape her and, still, she clings to me like tar.
My true shadow has become a furious refugee in my own body. He claws at femurs, scrapes bone to marrow, tears muscle apart in bursts of rage. In dreams, he rushes through my pores like water through a sieve, but every morning he is still there, howling for a larger shell.
The howling never stops.
I flick open my lighter and pass the razor blade through the flame three times.
Through the cracked living room window, I can hear Momma and Leon, their voices, serrated and angry, cut through the buzz of day time T.V.
“Leon, please, it’s just a phase. She’ll grow out of it.”
“Like she outgrew that haircut? Or those clothes? Did you hear what Mickey Barlow said about her? The whole neighborhood thinks your daughter’s a dyke.”
“Prudence isn’t gay. She doesn’t even like girls.”
“I suppose she told you that.”
“Well, no, but-“
“You’re going to tell me the whole neighborhood is wrong? She’s disgusting. Don’t you look at me that way.” A beat of dangerous silence. “I caught her stuffing a sock in her underwear. You’re going to tell me that’s normal? You’re going to tell me your daughter parading around as a boy is normal?”
The razor blade is still warm as it opens my skin. Blood slugs down my forearm, swerving over the familiar cross-hatch of scars. My shadow strains against the shallow breach. If I just close my eyes and let him ease out of me, if I just let him out…
The window opens with a groan. “Prudence?”
Startled and guilty, I whirl around and the blade resting against my skin accidentally slips sudden and deep. I gasp. Blood fountains over the window sill and the rusted drain pipe and into Momma’s hair as she clamors onto the fire escape. There is a flash. Pain. No, lightning. Momma’s eyes are wide and inches from my own. Heat gushes over my hand.
The world smells like licorice and cinnamon.
There is a rush and a screech, a thousand tires peeling rubber. Above me, a trio of pigeons pause mid-wing, hieroglyphs punched into the autumn sky. Above me, Momma flickers out like a candle snuffed. Above me, the sky is changing from blue to black.
I look down and there, mingled with the blood rushing out of the slit in my arm, is my shadow. He crawls out, prying my flesh apart with long, dark fingers. He curls upward like smoke until he is facing me, dream-heavy and naked. Tension quivers between us and there is a deep, aching pull, a cable stretched too far. He opens his mouth, but there is no sound, no breath, and desperation swells behind his eyes.
He is only a shadow. He will never be strong enough to become a real boy. He’ll never speak. He is nothing but a wailing ache.
In a flurry of teeth and nails, he tackles me. It’s graceless and uncoordinated, his body too new for quickness, but his shoulder slams into my belly and I collide with the railing. A crack of pain, the sharp corner jarring my ribs. The fire escape shudders and we grapple, my hand jammed against his face, fingers full of inky hair, grunting and shoving even as we topple and fall.
We crash into the dumpster below, our bodies a snarling tangle of blood and shadow that bursts apart as we ricochet onto the concrete. My shadow staggers away from me, disconnected and confused. Hands clutching his head, he turns and sprints down the deserted street, dodging smashed cars and cabs, still smoking where they’ve rammed into telephone poles, street signs, each other.
Their drivers have disappeared. The sidewalks are empty. There are car alarms, but no sirens.
The city is silent.
I am crouched at the mouth of the Battery Tunnel when Peter appears beside me, the smell of him sudden and overwhelming. The can of spray paint clatters out of my hand and I scramble back until I hit the tunnel wall. Peter is backlit and wearing a polka-dot onesie two sizes too big. The sleeves spill over his hands, and the collar dangles off one narrow shoulder as he shuffles toward me. He is holding a dead pigeon like a rag doll in one hand.
With a thoughtful hum, he examines my graffiti, the faltering outline of my missing shadow boy, the uneven words. “‘Help, I’m still here.’” Peter snickers. Any part of me that might have been relieved at the sight of another person shrinks. “Oh, that’s cute.”
“They all disappeared.” Distantly embarrassed, I scrub the tears on my cheeks with the heel of my hand.
Peter shrugs and squats in front of me, resting his round cheek against his fist. “I’ve been looking for you for ages,” he says. “You’re shorter than I remember. Paler, too. But maybe it’s all that black you’re wearing.” He reaches out to flick the collar of my jacket, and I twitch my head against the concrete.
“You don’t understand,” I say. “Everybody’s gone. Momma. Leon. Everybody. Like they were never even here.”
My laugh is wild and unhinged. “So are you.”
“Oh I don’t know about that. Maybe you’re just imagining me. Maybe you’re still on that fire escape dribbling all your blood away. Drip, drip, drip.” Peter’s mouth splits into a rubbery caricature of a smile. He has too many teeth. “Maybe you’re the one who disappeared.”
After two weeks of screaming for help and sobbing in the corners of empty delis and bus stops, my brain is sluggish and thick. I blink hard. “Is this hell or something?” Nausea spikes through me. “Am I dead?”
“Do you want to be?”
I shake my head, trying to dislodge the memory of razor blades. “What kind of question is that?”
“A pretty simple one. How do you feel about morgues? Cemeteries? Funerals? You didn’t seem too keen about the last one. And that shadow of yours? He never shut up after that. Day and night, night and day. You know you hated it.” Peter cocks his head to one side. “Listen. He’s still at it.”
“Shadows don’t talk.” I try to believe it and coil my hand against my stomach as if I could stopper the empty space my shadow used to occupy.
“And anyway, mine disappeared. I can’t hear anything.”
“He must be playing hide and seek with you,” Peter says and covers the dead pigeon’s eyes with his thumb. “Count to one hundred and we can look for him together. Oh! Or find a mirror and we can play Bloody Mary. Say his name three times and he’ll magically appear.”
Anger flares past the fog in my head. “This isn’t a game! What’s going on?”
“Everything’s a game. Just because you didn’t make the rules doesn’t mean you don’t have to play.”
A sharp gust of wind tumbles a fistful of newspapers down the vacant street. Peter’s black eyes make the world quiver.
“What do you want?” I finally manage.
Peter raises his finger. “Your shadow.”
My gut clenches cold. “My shadow?”
He swings the dead pigeon idly from side to side. “I don’t have one of my own.” I look down and his feet are completely surrounded by sunlight. He seems like he’s floating and, woozy, I avert my eyes. “Nobody trusts a kid without a shadow and you don’t want yours. He’s been nothing but trouble from the start. I’ll help you find him and then you’ll give him to me and then poof! All is right with the world.”
I hesitate. “If I do that, everything will go back to normal?”
Peter smirks and raises three fingers. “Scout’s honor.”
After three weeks of searching, Peter is wearing a kimono and a ten-gallon hat with a pigeon feather tucked into the brim. The bird’s head dangles around his neck like a bloody talisman. He’s told me that the mannequins in the department stores dress him every night. A ball gown from Macy’s, a purple velvet suit from Barney’s, a pair of neon underwear and lipstick war paint from Bloomingdale’s. It’s hard not to stare, and I’m certain he knows it.
“You should feel honored.” Peter hikes the hem of his kimono up as he climbs over a mangled Yellow Cab.
“Why should I feel honored?” I kick at the dangling headlight and huddle more deeply into my jacket. “This is all a game to you. You just want my shadow. You don’t give a shit about me.”
Peter grunts as he stands atop the hood, hands on his hips as he turns in a slow circle. “My guts are made of chrome and feathers, goblin piss, and griffon tails. There’s no room for shit.”
“Poetic.” I snort and light another cigarette. “Come on. I want to search the West Side before the sun goes down.” I remember how my shadow had warmed when we sneaked into Chelsea last summer, his howling softening when a tall man in a white blazer called me son.
Peter clucks his tongue and leaps off of the car with a spectacularly loud thud. A street sign teeters from the impact. “You should feel honored because I don’t adopt just any shadow. Only the dark ones.”
I roll my eyes and begin walking faster. “They’re shadows. They’re all dark.”
“Oh, no, dear Prudence, they’re not.”
“Ah, ah, ah.” Peter waggles a finger as he falls into step with me, stubby legs churning impossibly fast beneath the kimono. “P.J. is your shadow boy. You don’t own that name any more than you own all those little boy bits you were convinced you needed.”
I keep my eyes fixed on the street ahead of me. “I named him. The name is mine.”
Peter waves a dismissive hand. “You’re giving him to me.”
“It’s my name!”
Peter tugs me to a halt, moon-round face peering up at me, black eyes narrow. “You think he cares what you named him? You think he cares about you at all?”
I shake myself from his grip and flip my cigarette against a rusted scaffold.
“He lied to you every day,” Peter continues. “Told you you were a boy. Take a look at yourself. Why, you don’t look anything like a boy! But that didn’t stop him from tricking you into believing it.”
“I know what I am.” My shadow’s absence is like a stone in my throat. I try to swallow. The stone rolls deeper.
“Of course you know what you are. You’re a smart girl. You don’t like lies. Your shadow is a liar. Why would you want him back?”
My fingers curl, but there is no shadow hand to hold onto. I tell myself that the sting in the back of my eyes is from the cold.
“Everything will be easier without him, Prudence.” Peter pats my sleeve with his tiny palm. “Everything will be normal.”
Jerking away from him, I duck my head and walk briskly down the abandoned street. As Peter patters after me, I try to ignore the emptiness lodged deep in my chest, abnormal and heavy and very, very real.
“I found your shadow.”
Peter’s words propel me out of the subway terminal, through the arteries of the city, past the yawning windows of untenanted store fronts and the twisted wreckage of cars. Peter scampers beside me, laughing. He dances over drainpipes, scales streetlights to crow, hops over an upturned bus and squeals his way into Brooklyn.
The sun is melting over the skyline by the time we arrive, and I am wheezing. Tar webs my throat, wet and thick, and I pause to hack onto the pavement. When I look up, the familiar apartment building is crawling out from behind the shamble of dumpsters in the back alley. I half expect to see Mickey Barlow smoking weed on the corner or Leon and Momma kissing in the window.
But the only one there is my shadow boy. He is slumped against the apartment’s fire escape, his arms twined around his waist, head bowed. The tangled mop of hair obscures his profile, but I can see the plump of his lower lip, the flutter of his long throat as he swallows. He is trembling.
“Ah-ha!” Peter dashes past me and thrusts a triumphant finger at him, legs planted wide. “Get him! Get him, get him!”
My shadow heaves a sigh and I exhale and, slowly, we look at each other. Breath shushes between us, murmurs secrets through the back alley. Edging carefully around Peter, I heft myself onto the Dumpster and grip the lower wrung of the fire escape.
“Don’t let him get away!” Peter is hopping from toe to toe, hands clapping hysterical polyrhythms, but I don’t answer him.
Instead, I climb, fist over fist over fist until I am standing face to face with my shadow boy. He raises his head and, for the first time, I feel the weight of his eyes. This is the boy who for sixteen years has been screaming through the pockets of my lungs. This is the boy in my fingers, longing for a broadness that never was. This is the boy who sobs every month for five days when I bleed. This is the boy who scratches my breasts with sewing needles and demands to know why they are there because they don’t belong on his body.
They’ve never belonged on my body, either.
“What are you waiting for?” Peter is screeching and I can feel the earth quaver. Metal rungs creak. Brick and mortar moans. Window glass crackles. The sky begins to darken. “What are you waiting for?”
I look at my shadow. My shadow looks at me.
He raises one dark hand, my shadow boy, and touches my cheek.
And the moment before our arms and bodies and souls reconnect, I whisper, “I don’t know.”
About the Author
Lora Gray is a non-binary speculative fiction writer and poet from Northeast Ohio. They’ve been published in Uncanny, Flash Fiction Online, Asimov’s and PseudoPod among other places. Lora is a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America, a graduate of Clarion West and a recipient of the Ohio Arts Council’s Individual Excellence Award in Fiction Writing. Lora is also a dance instructor and choreographer and occasionally moonlights as an artist.
About the Narrator
Summer Fletcher (they/them) has written for major and indie games, and narrated over 30 short stories for various fiction podcasts. More at summerfletcher.com