I first wrote this story to go on my AuthorNation page (which I’m finding is also very much a blog type site) and it seemed like the perfect first post for this category.
Loss of a Shadow
No one goes into the woods on the east side of town, much less spends the night. Some say they’ve felt themselves being watched when treading down the dirt path leading in. That I can attest to;I remember when I was boy, just on the outskirts of twelve, I started down that path on a dare. I barely made it past the clearing before an eerie feeling overtook me, making me turn my heels and streak back towards my friends.
But tonight is different. There’s a full moon out to help light the shadows, I’ve got nineteen years under my belt since that first try and I don’t care if the mimics catch me.
Mimics. That’s what we call them, though I doubt they use that name themselves. Rumor has it they can change their form to match anything from a person to one of the trees you pass by.
About the time night really set in, my campfire began to smolder out. I tried adding more kindle but most of the sticks I could scrounge up were still wet from a storm the day before. At least the summer air gave little reason for needed heat and I thought enough to bring a flashlight. At any rate, I planned on heading into the tent behind me and being out soon myself.
A twig snapped somewhere off to the left. I nearly spun into the fire in my hurry to grab the flashlight but its light revealed nothing. After a minute of searching out into the dark aimlessly, I turned the flashlight off. Here I was letting some squirrel or other harmless critter drive my blood pressure up. So much for feeling manly on this little adventure. I turned and reached into my bag for a last round of canned peaches, shaking my head for my own foolishness. Another twig snapped closer by just as I pulled the can’s aluminum top off. This time my spin resulted in a hand and lap full of peach juice.
She stood just a few feet away from me, a little girl with curly locks that looked like a thousand black snakes trailing down her shoulders. Appearing to be in the neighborhood of eight or ten years old and dressed like she was ready to head off to a fancy dance recital, this was hardly the face of danger. But her eyes gave the tell-tell electric blue glow before fading to dark chestnuts. This mimic must have just finished morphing.
“I was wondering if one of you things were planning to show up sometime,” I said, waving my hands to flick off the peach juice. “Don’t suppose you brought any dry branches for the fire with you?”
The girl sat down on a rock adjacent to the tent. She kept her eyes on me, watching intently and not saying a word.
I shook my head and chuckled. “Guess not.” She remained silent while I tried to finish off the peaches. It made me feel like a bad host to be chowing down and not offering anything to this unexpected guest so I tossed my bag toward her feet. “I don’t even know if you eat, but there’s a box of crackers and some beef jerky in there.”
She stared down at the bag for a moment before fumbling around and pulling out all its contents. Not only did the food hit the ground, but so did my shirt for the next day and wallet. The mimic picked the wallet up and started examining everything from my credit cards to the pictures that folded out.
“I’d probably be worried about you being so snoopy but I doubt there’s much out here you’d spend any money on.” As I stared tending the remnants of the fire, I heard a squishing sound behind me. The mimic must have gotten bored with its shape. “What did you change into now?” I chuckled again, turning back. The laugh choked up in my throat. I shook my head slowly, taking a breath. “Change back.”
“But you know this person,” a blond boy with a bowl-shaped haircut held the picture of himself at me.
“I knew that person,” I corrected. “Change back.”
“Who is it?” the mimic looked down at the picture with all the childish curiosity I would have expected from individual it chose to copy. Thank God the voice wasn’t exactly right.
“My son,” I sighed, throwing a pine cone in the fire. “He died almost a year ago.”
“House fire. Same thing that took my wife. Happened while I was out of town.”
“You live alone,” said a little girl’s voice sadly.
I looked over to find the mimic finally got the point enough to change back to its original form. “Yeah,” I said with a nod. “Guess that’s why I didn’t think much about coming out here and taking a chance on running into one of you. It’s not like death has much for me to fear.”
She placed my belongings back into the bag and held it out to me. I tossed it off to the side and nodded at the tent. “I don’t know about you but it’s time for me to get some shut eye. Reckon I’ll see more of you things around here in the morning?”
My guest apparently decided to become silent again, staring back like I was the one rumored to be a murderous beast.
“Guess we’ll see if even make it that far, eh?” I stood to stretch. The girl made no movement. I wondered how many more of her kind were waiting in the night’s shadows. There was fairly little I understood about mimics but every bit of that vague knowledge included an understanding that they didn’t take kindly to trespassers and they considered the woods their territory. I had no expectation of seeing tomorrow come.
And yet it did. I glanced around confused by the sunlight making its way into my hot tent. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed; why was I still alive?
I stepped out and surveyed the scene. A pile of charred branches surrounded by rocks and dirt marked the remains of my campfire. My bag lay limply at the foot of the tent, all of my belongings scattered around it. And standing nearby, almost in the same area I saw her originally, was the little girl in her recital dress.
“I take it you decided to go rummaging through my stuff again.” I bent over the bag to begin the process of replacing its contents. “Looking for anything in particular?”
Footsteps approached and I turned to see the mimic standing beside me. “I will escort you to the clearing,” she said with a tone that sounded haughty for the child form it still kept.
“I’ve overextended my welcome that quick, eh?” I offered a smile but got nothing in return except a continuation of the humorless stare.
I stood and managed to pack up the tent and roll my sleeping bag into a sushi roll of polyester and cotton. Both were smashed down into an old army duffel bag until it became manageable. I decided not to try trading last night’s shirt for the one that had already been tossed on the ground twice now and threw the other bag over my shoulder by its strap. When I turned again to see if the mimic was still watching by like a silent overlord, I realized the little girl was gone but a raven stood perched on an overturned log, rustling its beak through silky feathers. I was surprised to find mimics really could condense their size to fit their desired image so perfectly and would have almost accepted the bird at face value if it weren’t for the remaining glow of blue from its eyes.
“Seriously?” I asked, trying not to laugh. “You creatures aren’t scary, you’re lame. What are you going to do, fly me to the clearing?”
The bird turned at my voice and gave out a loud caw before flying just over my head in the direction of our exit. Still disappointed by this anti-climatic farewell, I followed slowly behind with the mimic leading the way and pausing every so often at a low lying branch. Near the end of our journey, however, things got more interesting.
“Maurice?” I called out the name of a man from town after pausing for a moment to consider if it was really him hunched over a puddle just off the path. It wasn’t until I was almost standing right next to him that he even seemed to become aware of my presence.
“Fancy seeing you here,” he jumped up slightly from his post as I approached but immediately returned his attention to the small pool of muddy water in front of him. “I didn’t think anyone else would think to venture out here.”
“I decided to do a little camping under the stars.”
“Camping?” Maurice laughed and reached into the puddle, his hand going further down than seemed possible. “Didn’t plan on making it a business venture, eh?”
“Business venture? What are you talking about?” I shot my head up at the sounds emanating from a rather disturbed raven perched just above us. Maurice didn’t seem to take notice of the sound or my action.
“I’ve heard rumors about these things,” he said, pulling a sphere the size of his hand from the puddle’s depths. It glowed with a bluish light and some sort of dark liquid seemed to be swirling in the center as he turned the sphere around to examine it. “But I didn’t think they actually existed. Now that I do, it’s no mystery where my retirement will come from.” He held the glowing orb up like a trophy. “This one alone will probably bring me a fortune.”
A black blur dive-bombed him from the branch our eavesdropping mimic friend rested and attempted to snatch the sphere out of Maurice’s hand. He clutched his prize tight and crouched on the ground to escape the attack.
“Maybe you should put that thing back,” I said, eying a trickle of blood dripping from Maurice’s clenched hand. “That thing swooping over you is a mimic and it doesn’t look like you’re making it too happy.”
“Mimic, eh?” Maurice chuckled. “Probably doesn’t like the fact I’m messing with its stuff. That’s where these orbs come from, you know. Not sure what this beauty is but I bet it’ll bring me a pretty penny back at-” he shifted the orb to his other hand and stared at the one crusted in blood; the index finger had been replaced by a numb ending at the middle joint.
“Put it back!” I pushed him toward the puddle.
“No!” Maurice jabbed his disfigured hand into a pants pocket to pull out a wrinkled paper grocery bag. He squatted down again, keeping an eye on the trees as he hastily tossed the orb inside. “We just have to get out of the woods before that thing attacks again.”
“We? I’m not in on whatever you’re doing and I’d hate to think that was just a warning shot. Put it back!”
A chorus of inhuman sounds, like a combination of low growls and the hissing of cicadas surrounded us. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something black and liquid drop down from a nearby tree. The recital girl walked up to us a moment later.
“That does not belong to you,” she spoke menacingly to Maurice. The noises around us continued and I could only guess it was other mimics voicing their disapproval over his actions.
Maurice held his hand up with a sneer. “Looks like you missed just a bit during your little grab attempt. What are you going to do, take away my thumb on the next try?”
“Maurice!” I spoke through clenched teeth. “Just put the ball or whatever it is back in the puddle!”
“Forget that, I’m about to become rich as soon as I make it past those trees!” Maurice nodded toward the clearing just up ahead. He winked at the mimic. “Come on, little girl, let’s see if you can beat me in a race.”
He began trotting down the path with his grocery bag swinging side to side, though he didn’t make it far. The mimic screamed like a banshee and became a liquid shadow again, somehow both flying and flowing toward him. In almost an instant, the shadow enveloped Maurice and the bag vomited out of a swirling whirlwind of the black matter, bouncing off of a nearby rock with a loud cracking sound.
Faint yells from Maurice escaped the winds of the attack occasionally as I grabbed the bag and tore it open, trying to find the sphere. The thing was dimmer now and the black liquid inside almost motionless. There was also a large crack in the center, likely the result of being ricocheted off the rock. The sound of Maurice’s struggle ended and I bent over the puddle to place the broken sphere in its hiding place. I jumped as the little girl’s hand reached into mine to intercede the homecoming.
“I was putting it back!” I heard my voice crack, scooting away from the creature. I searched the area for Maurice while she accessed the damage. I couldn’t see him anywhere.
The little girl nodded in response at my insistence of innocence. “But it would do no good. It’s broken.” There was such sorrow in her voice, that for a moment, it was easy to forget I should be terrified for my own life.
“What is it?” I asked. “Or was it?”
“My young.” She cradled the sphere in her hands.
Understanding quickly quelled any remaining fear in me. This creature wasn’t much unlike me. “Was it your only child?” I asked.
“My last chance,” she said, slowly nodding again. “We do not procreate as you. We take a part of our own energy and seal it in glass cocoons until the young is ready. But I am too old now to try again.”
Her face furrowed at the comment. “Sorry? But you did not do this.”
“It’s what my people say when circumstances such as this happen.” I nodded at the darkened orb. “I ended up helping in the burial of my wife and son. I don’t know what you do with your dead, but I’d hate the thought of you having to do something like that deed alone. I can stay with you for that if you like.”
“You are more considerate than most of your kind.” The girl spoke bitterly but looked up from the sphere again with eyes full of gratitude. “Even before we searched through your belongings last night, I knew you had not taken anything.” She stood, still cupping the cocoon in her hands. “But neither of us are alone. My young is gone but my family is all around us. They are your family now as well.”
We walked together in silence back into the woods. I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to be part of a family that included murderous shadow creatures that could change form on a whim but for now, we were just two parents consoling each other in loss. And the girl had a point – at least I wasn’t alone, for whatever that was worth.