by Craig Wallwork
Just by talking to him on the phone, you could tell Douglas was fat. His words were muffled, trapped under the weight of a heavy tongue and suffocated between plump cheeks the size of crab apples. When I told him about how my baby daughter had banged her head, I could hear him wheezing through a few vowels. Sometimes the wheezing would just stop, and I’d call out to the static silence if he were okay. He always was, but you never know with fat people. He asked me to elucidate on why I was calling, but it came out sounding like ejaculate. I swear to God, the guy looked he’d swallowed a church bell and said words you only find in Jane Austen novels. So I did – elucidate, that is. I told Douglas that after she banged her head, I tried making my daughter laugh. I thought it would be funny to make shadow puppets; you know, a duck, a crocodile, a bird. It was a distraction, a poor attempt at magic to end my daughter’s tears. I closed all the curtains and had my wife shine a torch behind my hands. That’s when I realised something was wrong.
I went outside and stood with the sun behind me. Expecting to see a long black silhouette across the pavement, a wiry and menacing clone of myself, I found instead an old cigarette box and a dog turd, curled and sleeping like a brown snake. I called my wife to bring out my daughter, and I held her up against the sun. Nothing. And all the while she kept on crying. I watched people walk by, the joggers, the young professionals and teenagers talking into tiny plastic phones. Not one of them cast a shadow.
Douglas said he would go outside and check on his. I figured if anyone could dim the world, it would be Douglas. Five minutes later he rang back. It was a bright day, a clear sky. The pavements should have been congested with shadows. But Douglas said there were none to be found. It was a real “conundrum”, he said. I rang a few more friends, and after going through the same conversation, they too were the same as Douglas and I. Except for my friend Blake.
A couple of nights ago he had waked in the night needing a piss. Blake was a jittery type of guy at the best of times. He had a nervous habit of biting his nails. He would talk to you and then spit out a piece of fingernail every third or fourth sentence. Sometimes a piece would hit you in the face, or land on your lip. It got so bad his fingers would bleed and he had to wear gloves in the house. Blake went on to say he heard someone breathing behind him while in the bathroom. But when he turned around, there was no one there. He went back to bed and kept his bedside lamp on, and few minutes later, he heard the breathing again, real close to his face. He said their breath smelt like pickles. At the side of his bed was a baseball bat with the word, “ass-kicker” written on in pen. When he went and grabbed it the floorboards creaked around him. Next to his ear he heard someone whisper, “You don’t deserve it.” After that his legs were shaking like a shitting dog. Blake swung the bat, knocking his lamp off the table. He heard someone yell out in pain, and there on the floor lay a tall, thin figure clutching the end of his shadow. Blake said the person looked like Sigourney Weaver going through chemotherapy. To scare her off, he began jumping on the bed, shaking his bat and making all kind of crazy noises, and it must have worked too because Sigourney let go of his shadow and vanished into a darkened corner of the room. Since then, Blake had been sleeping with the light off. I told this to Douglas, and he said something strange, like “Extraordinary,” but really it was straight up weird.
Douglas and I agreed to stay over at Blake’s place that night so that we might catch Sigourney and get our shadows back. I brought a lump hammer, and Douglas brought a ham sandwich. We sat all night in a room lit by candles, drinking German beer, whispering about stuff that we used to get up to as kids. When all that got a little boring we began talking about girls we had kissed and girls we would have liked to kiss and then without any warning Douglas let out a cry. He said something had brushed past him, something cold. Blake spat out a huge piece of fingernail and announced he could smell pickles. We all turned mute, trying to listen for her breathing, but we couldn’t hear shit because Douglas began eating his sandwich. When Blake got up to look around, I watched how his shadow followed him. It was a good shadow, dark and a good likeness to Blake. I couldn’t help but feel envious when I looked at the wall behind me and saw nothing there but a poster of Reservoir Dogs. I was about to tell Blake how great his shadow was when all hell broke loose, although Douglas, when recounting to a few of our friends later that week, called it “pandemonium.” Blake had seen Sigourney lurking under his bed and grabbed her by the hands. Douglas and I jumped up, knocking over tables and beer bottles. In the panic I forgot to grab the lump hammer. It was too dark to begin hunting around for it, so I helped Blake pull Sigourney out from under the bed and jammed the remains of Douglas’s sandwich in her mouth. Douglas wasn’t happy about that so he pinched Sigourney’s nipple, or so he said. But that was made up because she had no nipples. In fact, when we finally allowed her to sit up, we saw that Sigourney wasn’t really a woman, or even a man. I don’t know what she was. Douglas said she was androgynous, but Blake and I didn’t know what that meant so we just agreed and said she probably was a robot.
Blake wanted to know why she was stealing his shadow, and in a really quiet voice, Sigourney replied, “Because you don’t deserve it”. Blake reminded Sigourney he had had the shadow all his life, but she said the shadow was rightly hers, and all she was doing was reclaiming it back. Sigourney told us that when we’re born we have no shadow, and it’s her responsibility to sew them into a baby’s skin while they sleep. I asked if that was why babies cry in the night, because when my baby daughter was born she cried a lot in the night and we didn’t know what the hell was wrong with her. Sigourney said babies cry, and that it had nothing to do with her because she was very careful not to hurt the baby. It all sounded like bollocks to me, but Blake wanted to know why she was reclaiming back all the shadows she’d created. Sigourney said she planned on sewing every person’s shadow together to make a veil that would block out the sun. She planned on covering the world in the veil so day would always be night. Without any light, no crop would grow and people would grow hungry and die. Douglas said he wasn’t far off from doing just that having lost his sandwich. But Sigourney was talking about the end of mankind, or something pretty damn close.
I suggested we put her in a box, seal the lid and then dump her bony arse in the river, but Douglas wanted to know why she was hell-bent on annihilation (Douglas’s word, not mine). In the past, shadow making was easy. Sigourney said she would dig a hole, scoop out the darkness from within it, and then fashion it using scissors. She’d been doing it forever, but recently her back had begun to ache and her hands were all calloused because of the digging. Her boss, a grumpy old geezer who lived someplace between this world and the next, had hired a new guy to assist Sigourney, some young spunk that could dig bigger holes a lot faster than Sigourney. It was only a matter of time before the new guy took over and she was made redundant. Seems there’s not that many jobs going for a shadow maker these days, least not an old one. She was a victim of change, and now, because she was a bit slow, a bit old, they were getting rid of her. We couldn’t blame her for being pissed. Blake and I agreed that to avoid the end of the world, we’d help Sigourney dig her holes, that way her boss would see how good she was, and allow her to stay on. We had to talk Douglas around to the idea, saying that it might be a good way to drop a few pounds.
Every night we went out and dug up big chunks of the land. We started in our back gardens, and when they got full of holes we moved onto the local park. Sigourney would come along after each dig and scoop out enough blackness to make a new shadow. It was pretty tiring work, so we asked our families and friends to help. And when they found out why we were doing it, and how we were digging to save the world, they asked their friends to help, and before long there were hundreds of us, all around the country digging holes. To show her thanks, Sigourney gave us all back our shadows. My wife and baby daughter got theirs too, and I was finally able to make shadow puppets and make my daughter laugh.
Every night we dug and dug, because part of us wanted to help save the world and Sigourney’s job, but really we were getting to know new people and making friends. We were happy, and a community once again. Soon a hundred people became a thousand, and a thousand became several thousand. People posted pictures on Facebook of us all digging, and soon word spread around the world and everyone who was ever lonely or scared came out of their houses and dug holes. The sale of spades and trowels went through the roof and lots of people got rich, and factories had to hire more workers to keep up with the demand. We were heroes, and every night we dug and dug and Sigourney kept making those shadows.
Then it changed.
One day a news channel reported a death. A small girl was on a field trip, picking honeysuckle and dandelions from nearby woods when she fell into a hole. That same day the police reported a rise in missing people. The media blamed all the holes, saying people were falling into them. The government put a ban on digging, and told the police to issue fines to anyone found with a shovel in their possession. A few people stopped digging and returned to their normal lives, but some rebelled and began protesting against the ban. They campaigned against what Douglas called an “oppressive establishment.” They stopped digging for Sigourney and began digging for basic human rights. They dug wherever there was soft ground, in the fields and meadows, the coppices and the moorlands. Every hamlet, cul-de-sac, byway and highway had holes, and before we knew it, no one could walk on soft ground because they feared they’d fall in. It got so bad in some places that people had to stay at home, and jobs were lost. A big construction company near where I lived couldn’t build new houses because the foundations were riddled, and one Sunday morning during Mass, a whole congregation had to be evacuated because the church they were in began to fall apart around them. Soon all the churches began to crumble and people were told to pray at home and God would come save us all. But he didn’t. He sent a lot of rain that lasted a week, but this meant the holes filled up with water, which meant people were now drowning too.
You would wake up one morning and a building would be there. The next morning it would be gone, sunk into the ground. The news and radio channels began to report that no crop could be yielded because nothing could grow in the holes. And despite this, the activists kept on digging because they didn’t want the government to win. One day I turned on the television and radio and there was nothing but a black screen and empty silence. I rang Douglas and Blake, but all the lines were dead. The earth became unstable and soon schools and hospitals began to lean because of subsidence. Animals began to disappear which lead to the meat famine, and because there were no cows, there was no milk for the babies to drink. We all got sick with hunger and really tired because we spent most of the time trying to keep our houses from falling into the ground. It wasn’t safe to go to the hospital, and no doctor could get to us because the roads were not safe to drive on. The government tried to fill in the holes, but they had to remove earth from some other place and that made even bigger holes.
Those of us still alive decided it was safer to live in the holes. We made timber struts from banister rails and bedplates, and propped them against the sides to stop the earth from collapsing around us. We removed carpet, laid it on the soft damp ground, and threw mattresses down to sleep on. We lowered our starving families into the ground and promised them someone would come and save us.
Now we’re living in those holes, where everything smells of death, and I hear my daughter crying and all I want to do is make a shadow puppet to make her laugh again, but it’s so damn dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face. As her sobbing succumbs to exhaustion, I hear my wife ask me why I brought on the end of the world, and no matter how many times I keep telling her I was only trying to save it, she just doesn’t care anymore. No one does.
CRAIG WALLWORK lives in West Yorkshire, England. He is a retired cynic and frustrated musician. He plans to learn the ukulele before the end of the year, but believes he will never get around to it. His short stories can be found in many a sordid corner of the world, or from his website: craigwallwork.blogspot.com.