"What is it now Sal? It is way past time for you to be asleep"
"It's the shadows mum ..."
"You've got your nightlight on and you really shouldn't be scared of the dark at your age!"
"It's not the dark mum, it's the shadows. There are creatures in them, creeping about, whispering things ..."
Sally could still remember how her mum sighed and sat down on the bed, holding her hand. "I'm going to tell you something, ok, something serious. I was going to wait 'til you're a bit older but I think now's the time." She paused and looked hard at Sally.
"So." she began. "The thing is. You're a shadoweater. From a long line of shadoweaters. Me, your nan, her mum, stretching all the way back as far as anyone can go ..."
Sally remembered laughing, wondering if her mum was serious or just messing around.
"No, I said I was serious', her mum went on, 'And what that means is, we can eat the shadows that those Whispering Things hide in. In fact, we can eat any shadows we like. "
"Eat?" Sally asked, "you mean, like eating food?"
"Just like that. We can just take a bite out of them. Or gobble 'em all up!" She smiled. "Only maybe you shouldn't do that unless you really have to. I mean even Whispering Things need somewhere to live, I suppose. But next time they start up, just go over there and take a bite and see how they jump back! And they won't bother you again, trust me." She paused. "Only never eat a person's shadow. Never do that. That would be really bad. So, promise me." Sally promised, still not sure if her mum was joking or meant what she said.
But after her mum had smoothed down that lock of hair that kept sticking up and kissed her on the forehead, Sally looked across at the shadows cast by the nightlight. She could hear them starting up again, whispering and gibbering, darker than dark shapes writhing about. After a long while she just couldn't stand it anymore and threw back the duvet, strode across the room, bent down, closed her eyes, and ... took a bite. She thought it would taste of dust and cobwebs but it was more like, wood shavings and varnish, not unpleasant but not something she particularly wanted more of. Still, when she straightened up, the writhing shapes had shrunk back and the whispering had stopped. In fact, the things had pulled into the darkness as far as they could go, cowering as far from the edge as was possible. Sally put her hands on her hips and looked straight into that darkest part of the shadows: "Don't mess with me anymore or I'll eat you out of house and home!" And that, as they say, was that.
She wondered if what she had done somehow affected every shadow in the house or if the Whispering Things talked to one another. Whatever, after that it seemed like whenever she walked into any room in the house, the shadows shrank back a little. Although their powers of communication were obviously limited because when she had a sleepover at Jenny's, with Beth and Rachel and Julie who she worried didn't really like her that much, the Whispering Things, or their local representatives, started up again. This was after the girls themselves had finished their own whispering and giggling and Jenny's mum had had to come in and tell them it was late and if they didn't calm down there'd be no more sleepovers and Beth or maybe Rachel had started snoring. Jenny's mum had left the door open a crack and left the bathroom light on so the bed and the nightstand and the lumpy shapes of the sleeping girls cast faint shadows. Sally tried giving them what she liked to think of as a stern look but that had absolutely zero effect. Then she tried warning them in a loud whisper but had to stop when Jenny rolled over, mumbling. There was nothing for it but to drag herself out of her sleeping bag and go over and show them what she was capable of. Which was how Julie came to see her, crouching over the shadow thrown by the nightstand.
"What are you doing?" she hissed. Sally had her mouth full so could only mumble something about needing the bathroom before lurching to her feet and stumbling down the hall. She had hoped that excuse would work or that maybe Julie would just tell everyone she was a sleepwalker and maybe she did because telling the other girls what she'd actually seen would have left them laughing in disbelief but whatever, after that she wasn't invited to any more sleepovers.
In fact, after that, she seemed to get a reputation for being just a little bit odd. But not in any way that seemed to fit in with any of the other teen eco-systems. Initially, she had resisted some sort of goth stereotype, swinging maybe too far the other way. Then she had given in but perhaps had embraced the look too enthusiastically. Nothing seemed to work so she spent most of her high school years out on her own limb. Not that she was bullied or anything. Or at least not that much. And then only by Julie, of course.
It was little things at first. Backhanded comments about her hair or the way she looked. "I think it's really cool that you're still wearing those old trainers to PE. Everyone else is so fashion conscious these days ..." Followed by a smirk and a knowing look to the other girls. Then she started calling Sally 'Samara' after her brother had told her about some creepy Japanese movie. And for some reason that stuck as a nickname for a while. Then she flat out started sneering at Sally and muttering "Eww" every time they passed in the school corridors. Until one day Sally exploded and pushed Julie up against the lockers with her arm across her throat. "Oh yeah? What you going to do now, Samara?" Julie asked, her face full of contempt. Sally hesitated, while the other girls clustered around started jeering and some boys at the back chanted "Fight, fight". But then she bent her head just a little, and leaning close to Julie's face, took just a little nip out of the shadow cast by the fluorescent lights overhead.
Julie's face went white and she tried to writhe out of Sally's grip before slumping to the ground. Someone screamed and then a teacher pushed through the crowd and Sally stepped back. "She bit her miss, I saw her, we all did ..." The teacher, crouching down by Julie, looked up at Sally "Did you bite her, Sally?" "No miss, honest miss, I didn't touch her miss ..." Sally mumbled. She could see the other girls pulling away from her and then another teacher was there shouting at them to get to class that very instant while Julie was being helped to her feet.
There were no marks on her of course and she couldn't really say what had happened. But her parents were called to take her home and told that there had been an altercation and she had fainted but that the school would deal with it. Which meant detention for Sally and a letter to her mum although she wasn't that bothered by the first. The second was a different matter as she had to explain to her mum what had happened. And no amount of her saying how mean Julie had been or how she hadn't meant to hurt her could balance out the look of disappointment on her mum's face. "I told you, you should never ever do that," she said, holding Sally by the shoulders, "Now you must promise me you will never do that again. Can you do that Sal? Can you promise me?" And Sally had promised, of course, sobbing, and then her mum had held her and told her it would all be ok and they'd had eggs and beans on toast for dinner which was Sally's favourite.
And she had kept her promise. Until now at least. Julie had left her alone after that and most of the other girls needed no prompting to swerve past in the corridors or sit well away from Sally during lunch. Most, but not all. Some of their other girls who had been bullied by Julie or her friends gave Sally discrete thumbs up or came and sat with her, even offering to share their sandwiches. So, she wasn't friendless and she did quite well in her exams, gaining a place at her first choice uni to study English. She'd discovered she had a talent for 'getting to the hidden parts of the text' as one of her teachers put it and she'd sailed through her first year. She'd also proved adept at establishing good relations with the local whisperers, striding into her room in halls and taking a good bite out of the shadows thrown by the desk light. She even made sure the Whispering Things down the pub where she and her friends hung out knew what she was capable of, with a discrete nibble when she deliberately dropped her phone and scrabbled about for it between the cast iron legs of the table. And she had kept her promise to her mum.
But now, here she was.
They'd gone clubbing. A disparate but friendly group that she'd been drawn into by her friend Laura who had a room on the same corridor and who had gone to the same school as her but had a different name back then. And who had another friend Lesley who laughed at Sally's jokes, even the feeble ones, and asked how her course was going and who danced close out on the floor.
Even there the Whispering Things had to be put in their place. Sally could hear them under the thump, thump of the beats, could see them writhing and leering in the multiple shadows cast by the swirling lights. Amidst all that sound and colour it had taken more than one discrete bite to subdue them and tipsy as she was Sally had taken bigger chunks than usual. At first, the taste was vibrant, sweet, and salty all together but then she started to feel a bit queasy, and with the music and the drink, she decided to step outside, just for a bit, just to catch her breath.
It had turned foggy, with the street lights turning the air itself lurid. Despite the chill and the damp, there were a lot of people milling about by the doors, chatting, laughing, smoking, so she walked down the street aways, stopping at a corner, taking gulps of cool night air, and letting things calm down. When she felt the hand on her arm she immediately thought it was Laura or Lesley, but then it felt too big, too strong. And she barely had a chance to register that she didn't recognise the voice asking 'You all right love?' before she was pulled into the alley, away from the people and the streetlights, shrouded in the fog.
"What the fu-", the hand over her mouth muffled her cry but at least it meant all hands were occupied, leaving one arm and a sharp elbow free to jab back into the ribs behind her. There was a grunt and the hand across her face loosened enough for her to bite down on a finger. She bent forward as far as she could then smashed her head backwards, feeling rather than hearing the crunch of cartilage and the crack of skull on brick. The man slumped against the wall but still kept a tight grip on her as he slipped to the ground. Wriggling furiously, Sally's head fell to one side and she opened her mouth to scream. At that moment a car turned in the street at the end of the alley and its headlights cast a monstrous shadow against the mist. Without thinking, Sally opened her mouth so wide it was painful and bit down, hard, harder than she ever had before. There was a high-pitched keening as the man contorted and flailed. The car had stalled or stopped to pick someone up and the shadow loomed above her in the fog. Sally fell upon it, biting off chunks and gorging until there was just a thin residue left, smeared across the bricks and tarmac, as the car finally turned and the lights flicked away. She felt a hand on her shoulder.
"Perhaps that's enough?" Sally looked up at the figure in a black hoody leaning over the two of them. "No. I'm taking it all" she replied, turning back to the slumped body underneath her. "But if you do that, he can't die." Only then did Sally notice the blood, dripping down the brickwork. "What?" she asked, and repeated "What??" The figure crouched down next to her. "Before I can take someone, I have to ask permission of their shadow." Sally hungrily looked from the figure to the man's shadow, now faint in the streetlights. "And if I eat it all?" "Then he becomes one of those people who don't have a shadow. Others won't see that of course, since your brains like to fill in any disturbing gaps. But they'll steer clear, keep their distance, maybe shun him." "So?" "So, what do you think might happen then? Maybe he just becomes a recluse, some sad figure who'll go unnoticed and unloved. Or maybe the isolation will boost his ... 'tendencies', pushing him further along that path. And then you'll be letting loose, well, someone who shouldn't be." "So that's my choice?" Sally asked, "Let him die or create a monster? What kind of choice is that?!"
"Not one of the good ones, I'll grant you but still, it's yours."
"How come it's mine", Sally asked, "why don't you just get permission from what's left, now?" "Courtesy I suppose", the figure replied, "I don't often meet a shadoweater and I didn't want to presume." Sally sat back on the damp and greasy tarmac. "Do it, ask for its permission. Take him." The figure nodded and then suggested, "Perhaps you might look away, just for a second". Sally turned her head as she heard a low moan and then "All done!" As the figure in the hoody stood up and stepped away from the body, Sally noticed that it had no shadow itself. Following her gaze, it looked down and said "Yeah, I'm shadowless myself. Have to be, really." And then it stepped away and disappeared into the fog and drizzle.
Sally jumped when she felt another hand on her arm. "Sal, Sal, it's ok, it's me, Lesley. Are you ok? What happened? Oh Jesus Christ! Laura, call an ambulance. And the police ..."
Recalled, the next few hours seemed to arrange themselves into a staccato sequence: the blanket around the shoulders, the paramedic checking her over, the policewoman nodding sympathetically ... Finally Lesley and Laura were allowed to take her back to her flat in a taxi but as they climbed out in front of the house, Sally suddenly felt a heave of nausea. "It's ok, it's ok", Lesley held her as she bent over the gutter. Along with the drink and bile and scraps of food, there was something else. Something dark and flat, that lay in the greasy puddle of water and sick, before pulling itself into shape and looking over at her. Sally watched it lurch down the road while Lesley tried to comfort her. "It's alright now Sal, it's over." The Whispering Things giggled and smirked, as Sally shook her head.