Derek M. Fox is an author/creative writing tutor from Derbyshire in the UK. He has steered 72 students into publication, and his own credits include countless short stories (his tale 'Porcelain' from F20 received an honorable mention from Ellen Datlow in the US), two novels - the popular Recluse and Demon - two collections, Treading on the Past and Through Dark Eyes (the latter out now in trade paperback from Cosmos), plus Heart of Shadows - which examines Lord Byron's association with Newstead Abbey. Current projects on the boil are a fiction follow-up to Heart... called Sinister Quartet, stories in the collections Cold Touch and Beneath the Ground, and a stage play called Boiler Suits, Bofors and Bullets based on workers in a munitions factory during the war. Derek also contributes a writing column to the Alien Online website (at alienonline.com).
'MARIAN'S REALLY SCREWED UP since Peter, died.' Alan Oakley glanced at Matt, inviting his reaction.
'Died?' Matt Sheridan frowned. 'Not what I heard.'
'She took some understanding.' Alan snorted derisively, 'Some impression I made on her at Christmas!'
'So Peter was her lover?' A headache niggled as something cruel and substantial invaded Matt's mind.
'She was emotional,' Alan stated. 'Kept repeating: "He won't be dead".'
Christ! What brought this on? Matt should back off, deal with the paperwork but the revelation wouldn't let him.
Barely an hour ago, Alan had asked: 'Do they move?' before closing the vertical blind, eyes narrowed against Spring's brilliant sunshine dancing in the chrome, modern office furniture.
'You've lost me.' Matt, sipping Perrier, lolled in his chair behind a black ash desk. 'Help yourself, Al.'
Oakley, dressed remarkably outre for a metaphysicist, declined and settled himself on the soft leather couch. 'So what do you think, do shadows move?'
Matt appraised the younger man. Red socks, purple trousers. Ouch! 'You're preoccupied, Al, what's bugging you?' Sweating despite the air-conditioning, Matt patted his face with a handkerchief. 'A slightly fatuous question. If an object's shadow enjoys mobility - vehicle, animal, person - then it's bloody obvious.'
Draping his cord jacket over an armchair, Matt loosened his tie. 'I'm amazed that with your knowledge you state early college studies at me; your work in light refraction is exemplary.'
'Yeah, but things aren't always obvious,' Alan said sharply. 'Look, I value your status and input especially when problems arise. We go back some way, so talk to me.' He threw a smirk. 'OK, maybe agonized over my approach. I mean, the problem's-' He broke off not wishing to tread on glass. He couldn't tell Matt that the problem wore at him like sun on skin. "Tampering with natural law" they called it. And he'd guessed how Matt felt about trim, twenty-five year old, elfin-faced Marian Lloyd, she in turn gravitating towards the older man's fatherly image rather than Oakley's heart-on-sleeve attitude.
That's Marian and Alan had to agree that in business terms at least she did belong to Matt.
Why then did he allow an unfulfilled argument to exist between them, ongoing since the Christmas party?
They'd been well pissed, quietly determining their very meaningful, intimate thoughts concerning her, with nothing resolved. Months on, pressure of work had forced pleasure to take a back seat; it also indicated that something didn't sit right, Alan believing Matt sounded too blasé.
'What are you suggesting, Al?' Matt queried. 'Shadows, light changes? Pulling the blind altered the light source. Shadows are dictated by seasons, by hours as the sun transcends its orbit.' Matt suddenly turned to peer through raised blind slats at the Lotus Elan, and to appraise Marian's long legs as she climbed out. Gone was her brisk, self-assured walk, countered by a drawn, preoccupied look.
'Her shadow can smother mine anytime,' Matt quipped hoping to lighten the mood. 'Pity she's got this guy Peter in tow.' He tried desperately not to imagine Marian jumping his bones, and settled on the redhead from reception. To Alan he said: 'Marian's troubled, it worries me.'
'I've tried to get her to open up...' Alan reacted to Matt's smirk. 'No intended innuendo. Marian's secretive. Conscientious, but -'
They watched her enter the building: sweet, clever Marian, the irreproachable workaholic who never consciously used her attributes to further ambition. Both men would attest she didn't need to though neither would admit it to the other.
'C'est la vie.' Matt drained his water and stood. 'Too hot.' He sponged his brow again. 'Might have caught a bug.'
'Doubt it, you haven't time to be ill.'
Outside, a wide lawn's scorched patches wrought by the unusual high temperatures looked as ragged as Matt felt. The breeze stirred the trees, mottled patterns overlaid the grass.
'See,' Matt gestured, 'they move.'
'Don't patronise.' Alan dropped into the vacated chair and leaned back, hands behind his head. He looked relaxed, but felt like a coiled spring. 'Light refraction. Glass block test we did in our student days, discovering how a beam of light enters at one angle to be thrown off at another to promote an illusion of being in two places at once.'
Matt laughed. 'Student days! You're nearer to 'em than me, matey. Look at these.' He flicked the silver wings at his temples. 'Years building this lot up, new innovations, laser light and electronics; special effects and projected images that appear to have substance. We both worked on it.'
'Technicalities aside-' Alan leaned forward. 'Can shadows move-' a pause emphasised, '-of their own accord?'
Matt tried to appear unfazed. His glass rattled on a stainless steel tray. 'The total of your nights in the laboratory, eh? Own time, I grant, but a neglecting of duty where contracts are concerned.'
'All work and no play...' Alan's eyebrows tweaked, inviting Matt to question his motives.
'Alan! You haven't been playing.' Matt perched on a desk corner. 'Has to be something you're messing with. You talk to me!'
'I never mess, my friend.' The chair rocked slightly as Alan left it, his demeanour tight. 'Let me at least try to get you to understand what line I'm taking. It's vital, Matt. Thanks.
'Our shadows move when we move; disappear when the light source is absent. We only see our own shadow when light is strong enough, outside or in. So-' he said, '-when shadows disappear, where do they go?'
Matt looked pained. 'You need a break.' He didn't want to argue. An awkward silence furthered by Matt saying, 'It's Marian. I am right?'
Alan kept glancing around, as though expecting an intrusion.
'You're too jittery. Dammit, pure basics indicate solid objects cast a shadow when lit. Light source gone, Abracadabra! shadow gone. Now, I've loads to do-'
The sun had moved, furniture shapes defined against light grey carpet; trailing ivy shadows swayed as they climbed the far wall; people walked outside, shadows trailing.
No-one loses a shadow, Matt decided, except Peter Pan, and he's a fairytale. He glanced at Alan expecting something profound: he got it.
'What if shadows do move of their own volition, Matt? Become detached.' He stabbed the air with a finger. 'Suppose they refuse to come back?'
Matt reclaimed his chair: discomfort pricked like dart spikes. 'Crap! I mean like... like what?' He met Alan's demanding stare with: 'I thought of Peter Pan just now; the kid who lost his shadow but Wendy Whatsername sewed it back on!'
'Wendy Darling.' Alan smirked. 'The one who sewed it on.'
'Oh. Ah. Not chatting me up then?'
'You're too old for me.'
'Thanks for that!' More seriously, Matt said, 'Al, let's cut to the bottom line. I'm guessing that you may be hinting at separating the two halves of man.' Out in the open, Matt instantly regretted it.
'The body from the soul you mean? Fictional bull.' Alan's eyes were overtly mobile. 'Good from evil?'
Fiction again! Matt blinked against his burgeoning headache, pivotal to age, overwork and tension, and meeting deadlines. Hell, at fifty eight, he didn't need this superstitious nonsense. He caught himself wondering what, exactly, constituted the fine line separating brilliance from insanity.
The discussion at Christmas about Marian, every word soaked in booze and innuendo. Not hard to guess Alan's intentions had been serious, his statements defeating Matt's well-established criteria of "No playing around at work".
Pot calling the kettle! Time and booze mess up the memory, like a headache. Alan's tall, slender frame appeared hazy. Matt found his spectacles, put them on. 'Youth,' he said. 'What are you, Al, mid-thirties and already attempting to explore reasons for the eternal plan. You'll be saying next that our shadows are our souls, aired like washing. But only on fine days,' he added cryptically.
'Is it so absurd?'
Matt glared. 'Be fucking sensible. Life force; shadows going walkabout; souls; good and evil. Get real. Surely your analytical mind must deny the nonsense of it.' Matt squirmed a little, convinced his own guilt over Marian prompted his denial of Alan's question.
'I've spent years applying logic to scientific questions, and here you are talking cobblers.'
Trying to balance his letter opener on its point proved to be as stupid as Alan's conjecture. He sifted unopened mail, agreeing Alan may have something.
'You're a shit, Alan.' Matt's grin felt cold as he fought to shake off the alarming prospects stacking before him. Again he tried to joke. 'I guess it's why I pay you so well to come up with inconclusive notions. Tell me-' His eye danced the rumba in terms of focussing, '-what prompted this follow up?'
Alan sat on the sofa, smoothed a crease in the purple slacks. 'The Christmas shindig, Marian feeling low, me unable to fathom why kind of rankles.'
'She always seemed level-headed.' Matt couldn't resist a dig. 'Not the type to be over-emotional.' He caught Alan's injured look. 'You know different, right?'
On a sigh, Alan nodded. 'I do. Aw, it was only talk.' Eyes met. 'Why am I saying this? You weren't there, zonked out probably, or impressing some bimbo somewhere.'
Exactly, thought Matt, and here we are. The echo of earlier conversation clonked like a kid beating a toy drum.
'She was emotional all right,' you said, Matt reminded. 'Kept repeating: "He won't be dead". Go on from there.'
'I blamed booze, kind of a diversion. Most of us rabbit when we've had a few.'
Matt's pain escalated: Alan didn't notice. 'That night,' he said, 'Marian seemed scared to death. I was her shoulder to cry on. Balls to it! She left soon after anyway.'
'Sad as it sounds, what point are you making?'
Trying to appear nonchalant, Alan cleared his throat. 'The real point? Slightly off-centre but here goes. Marian swore she kept seeing a human shadow, not her own. Bedroom, bathroom, outside... every-fucking-where, but only on sunny days or later with the lights on. Absence of light drove her crazy wondering where it'd gone.'Alan clicked his fingers. 'Like that. Snapped off as quick as... as a shadow being detached from a human being. Even more spooky, although the shadow was present, it had nothing solid to substantiate it!'
The hairs on Matt's arms resembled a field of wavering corn. Can't accept that two of my staff have flipped. But then, he assumed anything's possible in a game where people attempt to link science with reality. He combed fingers through his hair. 'Has Marian said anything since?'
Alan shook his head. 'She looks... ill.'
'So do you. Furthermore, I suggest your interest in her borders on the paranoid. Ah, feigned surprise! Hell, man, you're scared of what you're telling me. You can't sit still.'
Alan shrugged. 'Observations. One scientist to another. Age before inexperience.'
'Mm.' Matt sounded unconvinced. Moreover, he felt his years emphasised by his inability to grasp certain implications. Younger, he might have accepted the challenge; perhaps unwittingly he had. Scepticism undoubtedly played a role in scientific research, hence he'd warmed to Alan's suppositions. Life and death hinged on breakthroughs, but when science and the supernatural dovetailed, then Matt Sheridan felt he should back off. But then gut instinct surfaced and prompted him to use his master key a few weeks ago, visit Alan's basement domain.
Taking advantage of Alan's early lunch break allowed Matt to study certain notes scattered across Oakley's work station. Impulsive? Yes, and justified, especially where fundamental need outweighed ethics.
The duo's eagerness and exploration had without doubt forged a formidable partnership, opening up exciting avenues of research. Did it now verge on professional jealousy? Might the younger man be seeking promotion, or something more?
'Alan,' Matt pushed, 'how did Peter die?'
'Car crash in the Yorkshire Dales in March.'
I should have guessed. Matt berated himself. He looked at Alan. Is this why you're teetering on the edge, old son? The documents downstairs, possibilities noted. He said, 'I'd guess it's in her mind.'
'The modern, simplistic approach.' Alan walked to the door and back. 'Forgive me, but surely the rational vies with the irrational here.' Alan leaned towards Matt. 'Admit to truth being inexplicable.' He talked on the hoof, emotions bubbled. 'Everything that cannot be pigeon-holed is re-classified as a condition of the mind. You should know that the mind represents a tract largely untapped.
'We all possess a spirit, a soul; given that my assumptions can be corroborated, we could be close to proving the existence of an after-life.'
The telephone beeped. Matt winced and snatched it. 'Yes?' he snapped. 'Oh, sorry, Marian.' He listened. 'That bad? Best go home. You don't- Well, I... Come to the office, we'll talk, Alan's here but if you'd rather be private... OK. Fine... See you directly.' He replaced the receiver. 'Marian isn't-' He waived it. 'You heard.'
'Should I leave?'
'Rather you didn't. Look, Al, our discussion-?'
Alan poured a strong black coffee from the percolator by the plant holder. 'You?'
'No thanks. Let me get this straight. What you're saying hints that ghosts are our own shadows, and are sort of autonomous meaning they can return to... haunt familiar places. And people. Alan, don't shrug, answer me. Is it that the truth?'
Alan sipped coffee, stating offhandedly, 'I suppose. Haven't really thought about it.'
'Give over, stop pussyfooting around it. I-'
A knock interrupted: Marian Lloyd eased round the door to stand like a shop window dummy, emerald eyes lacking their sparkle, her soft blonde perm short of a brush, a pale cream cotton dress hardly complementing her drawn face.
Alan tried to steer her to the sofa. 'Coffee?'
'No... No thanks.' She sat on the edge of the settee, hands clasped tightly on her lap.
Alan sat some little distance away. 'Marian, I've told Matt certain things.'
Her eyes sparked; she said nothing.
'I am sorry, Marian,' Matt offered. 'You should... I could have helped.' Trite but well meant, his glance at Alan said: Touché.
Marian stared at the carpet. 'No-one...' She faltered, started again. 'No-one can help. You see Peter, is, was my... my partner.' A brief smile disappeared. 'The shape, whatever... I think it's Peter.' Her gaze flitted between them. 'He won't leave, keeps telling me what I should do!'
Matt felt his insides squirm. Telling her! Telling her what? The thought popped back: Peter Pan without his shadow. Inappropriate maybe, yet it knitted earlier conversation.
The sun disappeared, killing displaced shapes.
'Sorry, Marian...' Matt hated being pushy. He wrung his hands. 'Tell me, when does he appear? Does it scare you? Sorry, obvious.'
She perched like a stuffed bird. 'Me and Peter were mates, good buddies, sharing hopes, dreams, all the cliché bit. No sex, not then. He'd help me at home with my lab work.' She glanced at Alan. 'You met him when he called for me one evening in early January.' She addressed Matt: 'They had quite a chat.'
'I didn't know.' Matt sounded surprised. 'Alan?'
Marian chipped in. 'We joked about experimental problems. God, problems! I should have told you, Matt. Alan knows, it's only fair that you-' A glance at Alan indicated a widening gulf.
Rationale went out the window, Matt's conception vying with the unthinkable. Joining Marian on the settee, he gripped her hand. 'You're cold.' Collecting his jacket from the chair he draped it around her. She flinched, the brief contact underlining her vulnerability. I'm to blame, Matt told himself, easy to bury one's head.
'I... I drove that day.' Soulful eyes held his. 'We'd stopped to check the map. I got out to stretch my legs. Not sure what happened next. I saw a dark shape... The car reversed at speed... Oh God...' She hid her face, trying to shut it out. 'Peter couldn't prevent the car rolling into a steep gully... I scrambled down to find him thrown clear. He was dead. Everything went crazy... ambulance, paramedics, ghoulish onlookers.'
She hung on to Matt's arm. He felt like a confessor and ached to offer comfort.
'When they placed Peter on the stretcher,' she said, regaining some composure, 'I grew aware of the strangest thing. The sun was very bright but Peter... He had no shadow. I noticed a shape in the car, a blackness; I heard screaming before the car exploded.'
Matt felt her tension, gave her his handkerchief and fought an urge to punch Alan for messing with forces obviously gone haywire. Damned right he blamed jealousy, borne out of a need to protect Marian. Speechless, he slumped on the sofa arm. Discussion about shadows had re-defined fiction and fact, Matt aware he dare not avoid the truth.
'Peter and I were close,' she said haltingly. 'Still are. Sounds stupid. My brief liaison with...' Marian stared at her silver haired boss, eyes wide, sincere. 'I did eventually come to love Peter.' It sounded like an apology.
This kick-started Matt's subconscious. Avoiding it, he said pointedly: 'What did you make of Peter, Alan?'
Having eschewed comment for too long, Alan balked at the search for the truth, mounting presentiment defined by attitude. Their party chat had contained the hallmarks of the "spurned suitor"- old fashioned, yet apt. The past's claws raked his mind, prompting more discomfort.
Silence stretched like cling film, revelations both defying and contradicting known laws of physics. Matt guessed the believers could be right.
Peter died in early March, Matt calculated, a little over two months ago. So did Marian seek me out at the party to try and prove something? He hoped not. Sure, he and Alan had joked about desiring Marian, Alan unaware Matt had tasted her sweetness. She'd left Alan for an assignation with Matt so it kicked fraternisation and its rules into touch.
Matt repeated his question regarding Peter.
'Peter was fine.' Alan went on the defensive again. 'Chit-chat about isolating the shadow in order to prove what I've already suggested to you. "Weirdly absorbing" were his words.'
A little-boy-lost look distressed Matt, more worrying when Alan said, 'Peter didn't think I was crazy.'
'Alan, what did come out of those experiments? What?'
A frosty stare. 'Enough.'
Two plus two didn't equate. Matt tasted acid, perpetrated by an unforgiving trace of unnatural assumptions. He had dark side, light side... and shadow side jostling for position. He also had Alan stating how certain things "might be possible". Jesus Christ, it can't... Amend that, it shouldn't happen.
Science can be illogical. 'ALAN,' he shouted, 'STOP IT NOW! I should have warned you earlier.'
'Warned me? I don't understand.' A nervous tic pulsed in Alan's clenched jaw.
'I saw the notes. It's reprehensible to leave such volatile stuff lying around, specifically concerning how effectively you had, dare I say, disjointed shadow from form?'
'I should have anticipated your snooping.' Alan sounded cynical, adding, 'The truth is obvious.' He beckoned Marian. 'I'll drive you home.'
'I have no home.'
'You have.' Alan reached for her, she avoided him.
His tic intensified, Matt astute enough to know that all this talk had led to Alan's own entrapment. But where does that put me if... ? Oh Christ!
'Peter's at home, Marian.' Alan pulled her to her feet. 'Damn it, he has to be.'
Marian was livid. 'He doesn't. And neither do you!'
Uncertain, Matt backed off. Something irrevocably bad had sutured his friend's last statement. A deep-rooted fear for himself, and Marian, infused him.
Desperate to look upon grass, trees, and bloody shadows, Matt unwittingly wrenched up the blind, agreeing that man should leave any tampering to God.
Blinding sunlight speared the room, logic and scientific law contesting the fact that only two human shadows were visible on the wall - his own and Marian's!
He could not understand why he'd ignored the fact of Alan having no shadow. Taking things for granted isn't good... definitely not for a scientist.
For agonising seconds, perhaps due to the angle of light - like a beam through a glass block - it appeared as though Matt Sheridan had two shadows, one fainter than the other. His headache pounded, tangled skeins of explosive truth binding him.
'Marian, please,' Alan begged, 'we must go back, I have to find-' His face distorted, his very essence tearing apart.
She scathed. 'You won't, Alan, souls remain where they choose. You couldn't control yours; sent it to destroy Peter. I saw it in the car. It was destroyed. Your fault for discussing the basics of the experiment with Peter in the lab.' She followed up scathingly with, 'He'll succeed where you failed because his soul escaped.'
Matt now understood that the time Alan Oakley had spent in the laboratory had been a desperate fight to regain mastery of his own shadow, his separated soul somehow propelled to cause a terrible accident. His jealousy personified, but at what cost? Harnessed to a blazing car, it died and there was no Wendy to sew it back on.
Where then was Peter's own soul?
The party... the empty office. Had it followed her? Possessed Matt? Did the two of them momentarily unite to enjoy her? Had it forced him to do it?
Desire - a strange, intangible substance. Matt Sheridan had ached to be a part of Marian's life, albeit briefly. She, they, had offered him an opportunity. Drunk as he was, he'd gone for it. Maybe it proved that love, in whatever form, could transcend death.
Alan begged, consummate fear stippling his face as he stumbled out. Matt had to follow, Alan still his friend and partner. A blink, yet the corridor was empty. Alan had disappeared.
Matt and Marian held each other, unable to stop staring into a space previously occupied by... a man(?)
Matt struck the wall, praying pain would lessen the horrible truth of what he had witnessed. Why, oh why had he amended Alan's typewritten notes?
Indirectly through Marian and Peter, he had learned that the soul is a separate entity with substance and strength. Alan Oakley's foolish pride had caused him to overlook the fact that without it, the body cannot live indefinitely! Matt had erased that part of the report, and with it, Oakley. Small wonder Alan had lasted this long!
The bottom line, amidst all the scientific jargon was: Don't mess around with dead things. At his age, Matt Sheridan deemed himself lucky that he had. He smiled at Marian and looked with some pride at his twin shadows, obliged to accept the inevitable.
'Well Peter,' he whispered, 'I guess we'll learn to live with each other. A sort of menage à trois.'
Marian gripped his hand, Matt indifferent to whoever squeezed her fingers: Himself, or Peter. Shame about Alan.
(C) Derek M. Fox 2002
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.