He was a young man in an old black car, parked out by the railroad tracks near an oil well that still pumped, pulling up that East Texas crude. I got word of the car from Mrs. Roark who lived on the far side of the tracks. She called my office and told me car and man had been sitting there since late afternoon, and from her kitchen window she had seen the driver get out of the car once, while it was still light, walk to the other side, probably to relieve himself. She said he was dressed in black and wore a black hat and just the outfit spooked her.
Now, at midnight, the car was still there, though she hadn’t seen him in a quite a while, and she was worried about going to sleep, him being just across the tracks, and she wondered if I’d take a look and make sure he wasn’t a robber or killer or worse.
Being Chief of Police of a small town in East Texas can be more interesting than you might think. But not my town. It had a population of about three hundred and was a lazy sort of place where the big news was someone putting a dead armadillo in the high school principal’s mailbox.
I had one deputy, and his was the night shift, but he had called in sick for a couple of days, and I knew good and well he was just spending a little extra time at home with his new bride. I didn’t tell him I knew, because I didn’t care. I had been married once, and happily, until my wife died suddenly in childbirth, loosing the baby in the process.
Frankly, I’ve never gotten over it. The house seemed too large and the rooms too empty. Sometimes, late at night I looked at her photograph and cried. Fact was I preferred the night shift. I didn’t sleep much.
So, when Mrs. Roark called and told me about the car, I drove out there, and sure enough, the car was still there, and when I hit my lights on high, I saw that it looked like it had seen a lot of road. It was caked in dust and the tires looked thin. I bumped the siren once, and saw someone sit up in the seat and position his hands on the steering wheel.
I left the light on to keep him a little blinded, got out and went over tapped on the glass. The driver rolled it down.
“Hello, sir,” I said. “May I see your license?”
He turned his face into my flashlight and blinked, and took out his wallet and pushed his license out to me. It said his name was Judah Wilson. The license was invalid by a couple of months, and the photo on it looked somewhat like him but it was faded and not reliable. I told him so.
“Oh,” he said. “I should have noticed it was out of date.”
“This is your picture, here?” I asked.
I thought about giving him a ticket for the problem with the license, sending him on his way, but there was something about him that made me suspicious; the photo not being quite right. I said, “I tell you what, Mr. Wilson. You follow me to the station and we can talk there.”
“Is that necessary?” he said.
“I’m afraid so,” I said.
At the station I found myself a little nervous, because the man was over six feet tall and well built and looked as if he could be trouble. His hat and suit were a bit worn, and out of style, but had at one time been of good quality. His shoes needed a shine. But so did mine. I had him seat himself in front of my desk and I went around to my chair and without thinking about it, unfastened my holster flap where he couldn’t see me do it. I studied the photo. I said, “This looks like you, but … not quite.”
“It’s me,” he said. “I’m older by a few years. A few years can make a difference.”
“I just need to make a call,” I said. I wasn’t able to go somewhere private and call, since I was the only one there, and yet I was not in a position where I felt comfortable locking him up. I made the call and he listened, and when I finished, I said, “I guess you heard that?”
“The owner of the license is dead?”
“That’s right. That means you have another man’s out of date license.”
He sighed. “Well, it wasn’t out of date when I first got it and it’s not another man. Exactly. It’s just that I can’t duplicate another person completely, and some less than others, and this man was one of the hard ones. I don’t know what the difference is with one and then another, but there’s sometimes a difference. Like you buy a knock off product that has the same general appearance, but on closer inspection, you can tell it’s not the real deal.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” I said, “but, I’m going to ask you to stand up and walk over to the wall there, and put your hands on it, spread your legs for a pat down. I got reason to hold you.”
He did what I asked, sighing as he did. I gave him his Miranda rights. He listened and said he understood. I marched him back to one of the two cages we had in the back. I put him in one and locked the door.
“You really ought not do this,” he said.
“Is that a threat?”
“No, it’s a warning.”
“You’re behind bars, sir, not me.”
“I know,” he said, and went and sat on the bunk and looked at a space between his shoes.
I was about to walk away, when he said, “Watch this.”
I turned, and his body shifted, as if there were something inside of him trying to get out, and then his face popped and crawled, and I let out a gasp. He lifted his chin and looked up. Inside his black suit, under his black hat, he looked almost exactly like me.
I felt weak in the knees and grabbed the bars for support. He said, “Don’t worry, I can shift the way I look because I do not have a core, but I can’t turn to smoke and flow through the bars. You’ve got me. And that ought to worry you.”
There was a bench on the outside of the bars for visitors to sit and talk to their friends or loved ones on the other side, and I sat down there and tried to get my breath. I kept staring at him, seeing my face under that black hat. It wasn’t quite right. There was something missing in the face, same as the one he had before, but it was close enough.
A long moment passed before he spoke. “Now watch.”
He closed his eyes and tightened his mouth, shifted back and looked the way he had before, like Wilson. Or almost like Wilson.
“It’s best you let me out,” he said.
I shook my head.
He sighed. “I’m not like anyone you’ve dealt with before.”
“I don’t doubt that,” I said, and took my pistol out of its holster and laid it on my knee. He was behind bars, but the whole thing with his face, the way his body shifted under his suit, I couldn’t help but think I might have to shoot him. I thought I ought to call my deputy and have him come in, but I wasn’t sure what he could do. I wanted to call someone, but I couldn’t think of anyone to call. I felt as if ever thought I had ever possessed was jumbled up inside my head, knotted up and as confused as Alexander’s Gordian knot.
I made myself breathe slowly and deeply.
He took off his hat and placed it on the bunk beside him and stared at me.
I said, “Tell me who you really are. What you are? Why you’re here?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“It wouldn’t make any difference,” he said, and smiled at me. The smile had about as much warmth as a hotel ice machine.
“Are you … Are you from somewhere else?”
“You mean am I from Mars? From somewhere out there?” He pointed up to give his words emphasis.
“No. I’m not. I’m from right here on earth, and I am a human being. Or, at least I once was.”
I bent forward, overwhelmed, feeling light-headed and strange.
“What I can tell you is there is something coming, and when it gets here, you won’t like it. Let me out.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Because I’m not who I say I am?”
I nodded. “And because the man you look like is dead.”
“Don’t worry. I didn’t kill him. He died and I took his identity. It was simple really. I was in the hospital, for a badly sprained wrist; had to have a kind of support cast. Accident. Silly, really. I fell off a ladder working in a bookstore. But I was there and Wilson died because of a car accident. It was time for me to move on anyway. I can’t stay anywhere very long, because it’ll find me.”
“Just listen. His family was in his room, and when they left out to do what needed to be done about having the body dismissed, I went in and found his pants and looked through his pockets and took his wallet. I pulled back the sheet and studied his face. I became him. It was okay until tonight, long as I kept on the move and didn’t have trouble with the law. But tonight, me being tired and you checking me out … It’s come to an end.”
“You could be me if you wanted to?”
“I could. If I killed you and hid the body, I could go right on being you. But not here. I wouldn’t know your ways, your mannerisms, your experiences, but I could use the face and body and move on, become you somewhere else. Or use the face and not the name. There’s all kinds of ways to play it. But I’m behind bars and you’re out there, so you’ve got no worries. Besides, I don’t kill. I’m not a murderer. Thing is, none of it matters now, I’ve lost time and I’ve lost ground. It’s coming and I need to put enough miles between me and it to give myself time to truly rest.”
“You saw me change.”
“I saw something.”
“You know what you saw.”
I nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.” I got up and slipped the gun in its holster and took hold of the bars and said, “Tell me about your self. Tell me now.”
“If I do, will you let me out?”
For a moment I didn’t know what to say to that. Finally I said, “Maybe.”
“Ha. You’re pulling my leg. You’re the law. You’re dedicated.”
“I don’t know if the law covers this,” I said. “I don’t know what I might do. I know this, what you got is a story, and I got a gun and you behind bars, and you say something’s coming, so it seems the problem is yours.”
“Something is coming all right, and if you’re in the way, it could bother you. It could do more than just bother. Look here. Listen up.” He stood up and spread his arms and stood under the light on the ceiling.
“What do you see?”
“Yes. But what is missing? What do you not see?”
I shook my head.
“Look at the floor where you stand. What do you see?”
I looked. I saw nothing, and said as much.
“No. You see something all right. Think about it … Here. Listen. Move to your right.”
I stepped to my right.
“What moved with you?” he asked.
“Nothing moved with me.”
“Look at me.”
I looked. He stepped right. “Look on the ground. What do you see?”
“Correct, now follow me when I step left.”
He stepped left. “What do you see now?”
He nodded. “Look at your feet again. Step left.”
I did … and then I got it. I had a shadow and it moved with me. I jerked my head toward him and saw that where he stood there was nothing. No shadow.
He stepped right, then left. He spun about like a top.
“My husk is empty,” he said. “I am without shadow.”
I took hold of the bars again, stood there trembling. I said, “Tell me.”
“Will it matter? Will you help me out?”
“Perhaps. Tell me.”
He sat down on the bunk again. “All right,” he said. “I will.”
“My troubles began during the War Between The States. For me that was a year or two after the war started. 1862.”
“The Civil War?”
“That’s what I said.”
“You’re a time traveler?”
“In a way we all are time travelers. We travel from our date of birth until our date of death. We travel through time as it happens. Not around it, but through it. I am like that, same as you. But I have traveled farther and longer. I was born in 1840. I fought in the Civil war. I was killed in 1864.”
“Killed?” I said.
“I was struck with a musket ball, during … Never mind. The where and how of it is unimportant. But I was struck dead and laid down in a shallow grave, and I was uncovered by wild dogs who meant to tear at my flesh. I know this because she told me.”
I took my seat on the stool again. I didn’t know what to think. What to feel.
“An old woman chased the dogs away and finished digging me up and took me home and I came alive again on her kitchen table, stretched out there naked as the day I was born, my chest and legs covered in designs made in chicken blood. Standing by the table with a big fruit jar full of something dark was the old woman. And she told me then I was hers. She was a witch. A real witch. She had rescued me from death and brought me to life with a spell, but she had kept my shadow, had torn it away from me with her enchantments. If I had it back, she said, after being brought back from the dead, I would die as others die, and I would not have the powers that I have now.”
“The shape changing?” I said.
Wilson, for I knew no other name to call him, nodded. “That, and my ability to live on and on and on.”
“And the jar of shadow?”
“She kept it on a shelf. My shadow was small at first, miniscule, like a piece of folded cloth. As time went on, it swelled and filled the jar. The jar could only hold my shadow for so long, and when it swelled enough, the jar would break, unless moved to some larger container, but once it was free, it could never be contained again. Even then, as long as I stayed away from it, I would remain ageless, be able to change my shape. But, if it found me it would take me and I would age the way I should have aged; all the years that had passed would collect inside me, turn me inside out.”
“Why didn’t the witch use the spell on herself, to keep from aging?”
“Because you had to be young for it to work, or so she told me. But perhaps it was because she knew that eventually, no matter what it was contained within, it would get out. You had to worry about it forever pursuing you, forever fleeing.
“As time went on, my shadow grew, and the old woman placed the jar in a crock, and one day we heard the jar crack inside the crock, and we knew the shadow was growing. During the day I did her bidding. I chopped and gathered wood. I worked her garden. I cooked her meals and washed her clothes. At night I lay on the floor in the thin clothes she had given me, shivering or sweating, according to the weather, unable to move because of the magic marks the old witch had made on my body. And my shadow, I could hear it moving around inside the crock, like insects in a hive.
“Then, one morning I awoke and nothing held me. The spell was broken. In the night the old woman had died. I buried the crock deep in the ground inside the floorless cabin, and I set the place on fire and burned it and the old woman’s body up. I went away then, walking as fast and as far as I could go.
“All I could think about was my shadow. When I laid down at night I felt as if I could hear it swell inside that crock, under the ground, and that it was breaking free, and coming up through the earth, taking to the wind, moving deliberately after me. I knew this as surely as if I could see it. I knew this because it was part of me and it was missing. I knew it traveled only at night, and found dark places during the day, for it had lost its host, and without me, it couldn’t stand the light of day. I knew all of this instinctively, the way a chicken knows to set a nest, the way a fish knows to swim or a dog knows to bark.
“I moved across the land, year after year, ahead of my shadow, moving when it moved, at night, sleeping during the days, sometimes, but often driving day and night until exhaustion took me. The decades ticked by. I grew weary. That’s why I was in the car during the night when I should have been moving. I slept the day and planned to move on when night came. Kept telling myself, you’re too tired to drive. Just a few more minutes. A half hour. And then you can go. It’s only just dark. Thoughts like that; the kind of thoughts an exhausted man thinks. I had been that way before, all tuckered out, and it had almost caught me. I was down with some disease or another. Down for three days, and I awoke, some kind of internal clock ticking louder and louder, and I knew it was near. This was over a hundred years ago, that near catch, and I still remember it sharp as a moment ago. The air turned cold in the dead of summer, and the world felt strange and out of whack, as if something had titled. I took to a horse and rode out. As I rode, I looked back, and there it was, a dark swirl of gloom tumbling toward me, dead as a distant star.
“I whipped that horse and rode it until it keeled over. I whipped it to its feet, rode it until it fell over dead. I ran on foot and found a barn and stole another horse, rode it for miles. I caught a train and just kept going. But it had been close. I had felt it coming, and that had saved me. I feel that way now. In this damn cell I’ll meet my Waterloo, and there you’ll stand, watching it happen.”
I stood there for a long moment, and then I got the cell key and opened the door. I said, “Not if you run.”
Wilson stood up and adjusted his hat and came out of the cell, showed me a thin smile. “Bless you … By the way. The real name, it’s Elton Bloodline. Thank you, thank you.”
I followed as Bloodline moved swiftly toward the door, opened it and stepped out. The wind was chill and Bloodline stopped as if something wet had crawled up his spine; he went white under the overhanging light. He turned his head and looked, and I looked too.
Way down the street the darkness pulsed and moved toward us on the breeze; it twisted and balled and sometimes resembled a giant dark and faceless man, running.
“It’s found me.” Bloodline seemed frozen to the spot. “Torn away, and now it’s coming back.”
I grabbed his arm. “Come. Come with me. Now!”
He came alert then. We darted toward the police car. He got in and I got behind the wheel and started up the engine and drove away in a roar and a squeal of tires.
I glanced in the rearview. And there it was, a shadow man, maybe ten feet high, passing under streetlights, pulling their glow into its ebony self. It ran swiftly on what looked like long, wide, black, paper-wobble legs, and then its legs fluttered out from under it and it was a writhing wraith, a tumbleweed of darkness.
I put my foot to the floor and the car jumped and we put space between us and it, and then I hit something in the road, a pothole maybe, but whatever it was it was a big bad bump and the right front tire blew. The car swerved and the back end spun to where the front should be. As it did, through the windshield I saw that the shadow looked like an inkblot, then I saw lights from the streetlamps and then the car flipped and bounced and I didn’t see much of anything for a while.
I couldn’t have been out longer than a few seconds. When I awoke, I discovered I was hanging upside down. Through habit, I had fastened my seat belt. Bloodline, in his haste and fear, had not; he was wadded up on the ceiling of the car and he was starting to move. I unfastened my belt and managed not drop too hard or too fast by bracing my hands on the ceiling of the car and twisting my feet around to catch myself. I glanced about. The front and back glass were still in tact. The glass on the driver’s side was knocked out and the passenger’s side was cracked in such a way you couldn’t see out of it.
Bloodline sat up, shook his head, and looked at me. I saw the hope drain out of him and he began to shake. “You tried,” he said, and then the car was flung upright and we crashed together, and then I heard glass break, and a big, dark hand jutted through the shattered windshield. It grabbed at Bloodline. He tried to slide backwards, but it stretched and followed and got him around the waist. I grabbed his legs and tugged, but the thing was strong. It pulled him through the glass, cutting him with jagged shards stuck together by the windshield’s safety goo, and then it pulled so hard he was snatched from my grasp.
I wiggled through the busted out driver’s window, and on my hands and knees I crawled along the street, glass sticking in my hands, the reek of spilled fuel in the air. I got to one knee and looked; saw that Bloodline’s shadow was completely in the shape of a large man. It had grown from only moments ago, standing now twenty-feet high and four feet wide. It lifted Bloodline high into the air, tilted its head back and carefully swallowed him.
The shadow swelled and vibrated. There was a pause, and then it throbbed even more. With a sound like metal being torn it grew smaller, rapidly. Smaller and smaller, and then, there it stood, a shadow the shape and size of a man. It looked at me, or would have had it had eyes. The darkness it was made of began to whirl in upon itself. The shape grew pale, and finally it was Bloodline standing there, the way I seen him before, but nude, his suit and hat and shoes all gone, his nude body shivering in the wind. He looked at me and a strange expression ran across his face, the kind you might have when someone points a loaded gun at you and you know they are going to pull the trigger. He turned his head and looked to his left, and there, poking out from him, framed by the streetlights behind him, was his shadow.
Then he withered. He bent and he bowed and his skin creaked and his bones cracked, and his flesh began to fall in strips off of his broken skeleton. The strips fell into the street and the bones came down like dominoes dropped, rattled on the concrete; the skull rolled between my feet. When I looked down at it, it was grinning, and shadows moved behind the sockets, and then even they were gone and the darkness that replaced them was thin. The skull collapsed. I stepped back, let out an involuntary cry.
Then all of it, the skull, the bones and the strips of flesh, they were caught up on the chill wind, and then they were dust, and then they were gone, and then the air warmed up and the night brightened, and the lights all along the street seemed clearer and I was left standing there, all alone.
© 2009 by Joe R. Lansdale.
Originally published in Twilight Zone: 19 Stories on the 50th Anniversary,
edited by Carol Serling.
Reprinted by permission of the author.