At night, things have two or sometimes three shadows, and they stay deathly still for hours on end. Day shadows are reassuringly straightforward, stretching and curling back to bed. You can’t tell what night shadows are thinking, though, and that makes them truly dangerous.
Obviously, in my line of work, I’m forced to deal with night shadows. I try not to let my suspicions shine through, by reminding myself of the real culprit here: the lights. Ordinary citizens look to the streetlights for protection from the shadows… (chuckle) they see it completely backwards. Where do they think the shadows come from?
I like to visit different places on different nights. I don’t just stumble around town like a headless chicken, I have a plan. Sticking to the same areas makes me predictable, and I can guarantee you, there’s nothing crime likes more than predictable. At first, I went through streets by alphabetical order, but that was too inefficient: I had to walk down Briars Road three times just going from F to I. Now, I switch between three routes. It used to be four, but there’s no point watching over The Junction and Club 30: too many people, even in the early hours. I won’t find crime if I need to push through a crowd to catch glimpses of it. Besides, people who go out are careful and know what’s out there.
I come out at night to be a hero. I don’t say that lightly, and I’m sure people would laugh if they heard me say it. I’d be “that freak”, the nerd who’s read one too many comic books and lost touch with reality.
I can imagine Charles’ face if he found out I do this: a bland smile, eyes slightly widened, the rest of the face frozen in place. The polite face of a stranger. The thing is, I don’t care about that, because this isn’t about me. It’s about protecting people. Actually contributing to society, instead of making bad jokes and selling overpriced “novelty toilet seats” to bored housewives. I was pretty depressed to return to Four Oaks after college, especially with no job prospects, sitting at home. Leaving and getting a job didn’t help. Even with Jack here, I felt a kind of loneliness when I was just going to and from the shop every day, with nothing else to look forward to. I know I’m doing the right thing because I finally feel like I belong here.
I’m almost sleeping on the job, as I normally do in the empty hour between workers’ lunch and school’s out snack time. My head is resting on my arms above the checkout lane, turned towards the mic, when Charles taps my shoulder. The moment I see the hint of a snigger in the curl of his lips, I gather my breath to laugh. His eyes narrow in restrained laughter as he half-whispers from the corner of his mouth: “Hey, Chris, Chris. Look.” He points at the half-visible signs above the aisles. The sign opposite the minuscule Rock CD albums section has “A Hard Place” scribbled on. I breathe a chuckle, which is all it takes for him to release his enormous laugh. I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but I feel the counter beneath my crossed arms tremble. He then curtly tells me to get back to work, eyeing the recorder before leaving to sort out deliveries in the back, or design his next masterpiece uniform, or both.
I guess I should mention this if I’m to make any sense. Not that I need to, but Mrs. Tavenobi said consistency would help me. What does she know.
So. There was another Jack.
The Rock & A Hard Place sign in front of the bar that the Climb Club went to after revision sessions looked dirty and ancient. I knew for a fact that they had replaced it, in brand old condition, at least once since I’d arrived six months earlier. I’d held off joining any serious festivities until then, wary after so many relatives and neighbors talked about the “dangers of the city”. Jack was also a first year, the third string pitcher in our baseball team. We’d become friends when he walked to my table, sat down and started complaining about our Sociology of Gender professor. He recognized me from a lecture, and just decided to sit with me. He… he knew no fear, and that fascinated me.
That night, we’d just finished the first wave of exams. I found them hard; Jack, as with most things in his life, must have breezed through without a care. I had much more stress than him during this period before results were given back; I doubt he could even understand that kind of pressure. I joined some other baseball team members as they came to fetch him and go to the Rock.
Mrs. Miller came in, so I had to cut that story short. People would look at me even funnier if they saw me recording, and I bet explaining it would only make it worse. I can imagine how Mrs. Miller’s usual pinched look would turn, from creeped-out and curious to understanding and disdainful, as I mumbled out “my therapist said” something something. When I started here, I challenged myself to talk to customers, and that didn’t last long. I tried to renew the practice, because I thought I could find crime by following rumors, but I guess most customers are too used to me being silent now. I stopped trying after Mrs. Miller frowned at me in such a hostile way it cut my sentence short. I gave her the change and her ticket, and she walked out, without giving me another glance.
Where was I? Mrs. Miller came in. She always looks displeased, so I try not to stare at her. I wonder how she would look if she smiled. (laughing) That’s so corny. After I’d bagged her goods, the way her bruised arm snapped to grab the bag from my hands as she left made me wonder if she’d caught me staring again. It’s curious that a clumsy woman like Mrs. Miller, often with purple and blue blotches at varying stages of fade along her arms, is always so physically… decisive. Do I gross her out or something?
Uh, so… Jack, with the baseball team, and me tagging along. I remember thinking, when he came out to meet us, that it was the first time he seemed tense to me. Just thinking about his hunched shoulders and far-away look makes my stomach coil up. He seemed okay while we were walking to the bar, laughing with the others. I usually don’t join group discussions, so I just walked behind them. I couldn’t wait to get Jack to myself, once we reached the bar and everyone split to buy drinks. Looking back, that’s where I should have left it.
I tried to get his attention while he was hailing the barman, and it took a few tugs of his shirt. I don’t know why he was ignoring me, and I guess it made me angry. It’s all unclear now, and it’s been three years, but he lost his temper, and I followed suit. It wasn’t really a fight, and it’s so embarrassing just to think about it. I must have been so angry, because I don’t remember what I screamed, but the whole bar full of students was staring at me. After a chilling, silent second, the laughter started.
Let’s start at the beginning, though. Something must have been going on that Jack hadn’t told me, because he was really testy. He snapped at me, and I was on edge from probably failing my exams, and all I said was “Jesus, calm down!”. That set him off, and he said, loud enough to be overheard by people I go to lectures with, “Fuck off, you creepy fag!”. I’m pretty sure he’d have lost some friends over that if I hadn’t one-upped him by shouting — I’m still not quite sure what, in the middle of the crowded bar.
I think I dream about it regularly. I don’t remember my dreams, but some mornings I wake up sweating, my stomach stress-aching.
I didn’t speak with Jack ever again. After those finals, we never had another lecture together, and I avoided going out for a long time. To this day I wonder what had him so high strung that evening. I don’t even understand what he said to me, he knew that I’m as hetero as can be.
I think part of what made me so angry was that he knew, but everyone hearing him didn’t. Just because I’m not particularly prolific doesn’t make me gay.