Write something depressing. Something twisted and disheartening. Something melancholy. Something meaningful and heartbreaking in its meaning. Write a depressing story.
The Boy Without a Shadow
A nurse stormed the bedroom, bringing morning in her wake, with the curt bustle only accumulated after years of professionalism. Same clipped manner in speech and tone. The curtains were drawn, bed sheets shaken, pillows fluffed. Nothing from the resident. She stared ahead; the short bursts of conversation bounced off her. Armored with silence she stared resolutely ahead. The nurse left. The shell broke and the resident called her back.
“I want to see my son.”
“Night shift tomorrow.”
“Sucks for you. Ms. Bell wants to see her son.”
“When was the last time she asked?”
“Probably the last time she was fully functioning. I’d say May.” A sunny July day lurked just outside the home. “She won’t stop until she gets those albums.”
“I’ll get them.”
The sun was creeping across her floor. Her feet dangled from the bed, low as it was, and the sun slunk forward to claim them. The trees outside left their green patterns on the linoleum, bizarre and liquid. Ms Emma Bell stared straight ahead.
“Here we are Ms. Bell. I brought you your albums. I’m just going to put them here, beside your bed and you can take a look at them after breakfast. Okay?”
Nothing. The nurse put the padded red albums on the bedside table. She led Ms. Bell to her chair and wheeled her out.
After breakfast she was back again, still in her chair, a miniature doll in a medical gown, her hair peach white. She was too small for the chair.
She reached for the first album and laid it on her lap reverently, her hands running across the cover, she caressed the spine. The nurse, who had been watching from the doorway, turned away to more important things. And so Ms Bell was alone with her books.
The first page was the happiest and the hardest for her to look at. She was always smiling on the first page. Smiling with Henry, smiling at Henry, or smiling at the camera, which Henry held. He loved that camera, but he loved her more and when they had cleared out the attic years later they found more pictures of her than of his art. Many of those pictures were here now, under her white raisin fingers.
Her hair was almost red then. Amber gold. Soft and shiny at the same time. Henry had loved it and had run his long fingers through it and called her such beautiful names. Honey, my sweet, my love. He had made her whole. He had made her happy. He had made her sane again. These pictures on the first page held her in rapture for the entire morning and it was only when they wheeled her back from lunch she was able to turn the page. What was it that made these pages so heavy? The pictures were light, the memories happy. Only her heart remained heavy and her fingers ached with arthritis as the pages turned.
There was one of the first ones where she had been sick. She was in a different starched white gown and Henry’s shadow was on the lawn of the old infirmary, camera in hand. Doctors didn’t make her better, Henry did.
The years of dating passed as the pages turned and the sun no longer shone in her window. If she went to the lounge and sat there she could be warm in its light, but she preferred to be alone. When the nurses came in she’d close the book on her finger, so she wouldn’t lose her spot, and greet them with her silence. When they’d leave she’d open the book and her finger would be all white. Bloodless.
Night came and with it, sleep. She dreamed of the next pages in her album. The big books themselves had been removed for the night, replaced by the promise of their return tomorrow. She slept better than she had in months, a smile pushing out the edges of her lips. Long wrinkles creased her face and when she smiled she looked beautiful.
The nurse was back in the morning. Together the two of them made the humiliating but necessary trek to the bathroom. When she was sat back in her chair Ms. Bell asked for the albums and the nurse went and got them. She put three on the table and the other in Ms. Bell’s lap. Ms. Bell reached out and grabbed it and their fingers touched, and the nurse looked down at Ms Bell, at her dusty blue eyes.
“You’re welcome Ms. Bell.” But in all likelihood she didn’t hear, already she was already lost to her book.
She was married in these pictures. There was the ring; there was Henry and the ever-present smile. They had a small ceremony but she couldn’t remember the faces in the pictures. So many of them, all strange to her. Here they were hugging, popping champagne, and eating cake. So they knew her and they loved her and she can’t remember them. She flipped the pages faster.
Here the book went blank, so she put it aside and reached for the next, but it was time for brunch and so she had to wait. She was cheery at brunch and played with her food, turning the waffles around and around in circles of syrup and cream.
When she got back to her room the books were gone. The nurse came when she called.
“The books are gone.”
“Today is Thursday. We had brunch, now it’s social time.” A blank stare. “Use this time to dress up. We’ll be in the dining room when you’re ready. Some very nice boys have volunteered to play some music for us today. You can ring and we’ll wheel you over.”
“You took them.”
“They were cleaned up.”
“Give them back.” Now the stare was sharp, piercing. The dusty blue grated against the nurse’s will.
“Alright, I’ll bring them in. Then we’ll get you dressed and we’ll go together. Alright?”
“Yes. Bring them back.”
“Then we’ll go and socialize, right Ms Bell?”
A pause, a flicker in the stare. “Yes.”
Dressed in red with a small sapphire broach she went and was social.
But it was the red of the albums that she thought about as she wore her dress and even as the nurse helped take it off she turned and faced the red albums in their soft and padded covers on the bedside table and waited until the nurse was gone.
As she picked up the next book her smile faltered and she remembered why the final pages of the last book were empty. Why such starched blankness bleached and filled her books of memory. Her hand hesitated over the next book. Henry had been sick. As she sacrificed the next hours to memory she reminded herself. Yes he was sick but he had made her better. He was only sick after their boy had been born. After, and only then, did he let himself be sick. Only after her son had been born.
There were pictures of her in the hospital bed. None of the baby in his red birth. Only one of him as he lay among the other infants in the delivery room, his pudgy hands groping the air above him. Beside him an infant swaddled in pink was wailing, toothless and horrible in its agony. But he was content, eyes closed and groping for something, searching; a shadow maybe. In the hustle and bustle of a hospital so many things can get lost.
The couple in the corner of the picture was ruining it. She smiled at them as her nail traced their faces: first one, then the other. How ignorant she was back then. She didn’t even know how to crop them out.
The next pages were filled with letters, addressed to friends, family, co-workers, even one to Santa (at North Pole HOH OHO). A blissful Mrs. Emma Bell happily informed him that there would be one more stocking under the mantle, one more family member in need of presents and Christmas cheer. The reply was boisterous and in her mind she could she herself laughing with Henry about it. He would laugh his old laugh that soon turned to coughing.
Some replies were tentative: asking after Henry’s health, her own mental state (worried about her after the strains of labor of course), and about the baby. Some others never replied at all.
The little boy beamed up at her from the pages and she beamed back, if only for an instant. She turned the page in slow motion. The bright colours of the letters, the smile of the baby, and all the shapes and sounds of her memory turned with that page as the colours left her and turned to the black of funerals. Henry was dead.
She wore polka dots to the funeral. In the rows of black on black there sat one women with polka dots. She couldn’t remember why she wore polka dots to Henry’s funeral but she was angry with the little woman in the pictures for doing it.
Now she flipped faster, the anger powering her movements. Who was Henry to abandon her? Who was she to wear polka dots at his funeral?
Her boy appeared in the photos, and her angry flipping stopped. Kindergarten with the teacher smiling at the class, her boy in the back corner. His chair left a shadow but he didn’t. The next pictures were of the playground, and he was running and screaming with the other children. All the happier without a shadow. The teacher never noticed the little boy didn’t have a shadow, surely she would of said something.
The pictures were glossier now, the print a better quality. She must have bought a better digital camera to replace Henry’s. No more redeye, better Photoshop, thank you technology.
Together the mother and child lived, same house same sorrow. Emma’s sadness eclipsed the boy’s happiness and together they were sad.
“Ms Bell,” The nurse called, “Dinner.” Soon the day was over and Ms Bell slept a troubled sleep.
The next pages were blank. She had become sick again. Sick like she had been before Henry and without him she was sick again. The boy went to a new home. She tried to explain to him in her way why she had to go, why she was sick. She tried her best to explain and she hinted at the evil of the world and now the blankness of the pages hurt her so she looked away.
But as the pages turned she was free again. The same, only older. She found her boy and with a new camera they posed together, talked together, ate together, and caught up on lost time. All this he did without a shadow. She asked him if people teased him and he said no, they didn’t really notice. She was glad, for “at times it is so hard to see what is not there but when people find out they can be oh so cruel”. Ms Bell read these words, little words scribbled in the cramped margin and accepted them as truth.
Ms Bell’s days were getting shorter. They all revolved around the books. She would socialize by sitting in her silence until they wheeled her back to her room. She would accept the books from the nurse, but she would not thank her. Eating, sleeping, and bathing: it was all in the way of her boy. Watching him grow and seeing herself age in an album of memories, that was all that mattered.
The sun crept forward to her bed, and the nurse couldn’t help but notice the book as she handed it over. It was the last one. The nurse left her in peace. Outside a man was waiting. The nurse nearly had a heart attack.
“You’re her boy! In Ms. Bell’s books.”
“Yes, yes I am.” He shot a look at the desk nurse.
She pursed her lips and looked grim, “He isn’t family and we don’t have him on record. All he has is his crackpot story. I was just going to contact you and get your opinion.”
“Crack pot story?” She turned to him. Her voice was iron. She knew how to deal with crackpots. “Lets hear it.”
He sighed, and ran a hand through his hair. The nurse’s resolve flickered; he was a young man and looked really cute when he did that. He met her gaze, “Alright I’ll tell it again, but not standing up. Is there someplace we can sit?”
“Lets go the lounge, the residents just finished breakfast, we can talk there.”
“Fantastic.” He turned to the desk nurse, “Do I need a pass or anything?”
“Come back after story time, we can issue one then.”
“Thanks.” He shot off a winning smile and took hallway to the lounge. Later the desk nurse could only say nice things about him.
In the lounge they sat near the windows looking at the yard. An old man did laps off the rhododendrons with his walker. The young man’s eyes kept drifting around the garden as he spoke, always landing on the hunched frame as it tottered from one step to the next.
“Ms. Bell is not my mom.” A pause the length of the Nile. Painfully slow it passed. The old man takes another step. Then another. “She stalked me. From birth. She was a mental patient when she met her husband. Spending time with him changed her, made her sane again, but when he died she lost it.” He shifted in his seat. “She had wanted a family. So she stalked me, even sent out cards saying she’d delivered. That really freaked out her husband’s family and they tried to get her institutionalized again, but no one could prove she was crazy. She even kept a normal job. Psychologists just put the cards down as a form of denial after Henry’s death. That’s her husband’s name Henry.” The nurse nods and he continues.
“She kept her obsession with me a secret. She went about taking photos of us separately and then used Photoshop at home to knit us together. It was brilliant.” The nurse blinked. “The pictures I mean. They’re beautiful. Sunsets, playgrounds, picnics. All sorts of things that never happened were perfectly catalogued. And the contrast, I was a kid always happy and getting into trouble but she…” He shakes his head. In the late morning light he looked philosophical to the nurse, his face turned to the garden, chin up and cupped with a hand. “My parents found out. Don’t ask me how, but they did. She was institutionalized this time. She missed all my teenage years, probably a good thing. Then in University I started getting letters with “college cash” inside, it took me a while to realize she was stalking me again. I made a moral decision and decided I didn’t care. I wasn’t getting hurt, I literally meant the world to her, and I guess I needed the beer money.” He laughs. The nurse stares at him.
“Then my father died. When going through his stuff I found something incredible. Six red albums filled with a life I never lived. Sides of me I’d never seen. I was a fine arts major, in photography. I knew brilliance when I saw it. These …” He stopped, he seemed out of breath. “She kept sending money after university; I saved up and bought a gallery. In a month I put these on display. I had a friend of mine do a write up for the newspaper giving the gallery’s bizarre back-story and all of a sudden I’m famous. Three-dozen full sized prints sold on the first day. The name of the gallery was, “The Boy Without a Shadow” and to have me there telling my story it made the prints sell like no other.” The old man had disappeared around the bush, the nurse didn’t notice, she was too disgusted.
“How can you do that, they weren’t yours! Those were Ms. Bell’s photos!”
“Technically any photo taken of me without my express permission becomes my own, but you have to understand. I never meant it to go so far, get so out of hand. I only meant it to be a starting point for my own art. But. But the next show was a flop, no one wanted to see my art, only hers. They were here for me, but not the artist me, the shadowless boy me… So the next month I opened up again. This time it was one full album of hers. Same the next month. And the next. But it was only temporary, I only had six albums! So I checked up on her, she was living on her own and not doing great in her old age. So I made some calls, had some things sorted and moved her in here where she was only allowed to take the barest of possessions. And low and behold what does what leave behind! Fourteen entire albums! I was set! She was living in comfort in here, on my money, and I was living comfortably out there! But now, now things aren’t so good. The pictures are all old news, so I do a little research and I find something else.”
“The albums only came in sets of twelve. I had twenty and that means the old crone actually hid four of her own! Four of her favorite, four full albums greater than any of the others, four albums that will make the great finale of the Boy Without a Shadow Series. Four albums I have to have.”
“I won’t let you, you can’t just take advantage like this.”
He frowned at her, “You don’t understand, let me have them or I’ll just move her to a different home, one where the staff will be more accommodating. After all, even the law is on my side.”
The nurse froze. She was halfway out of her seat and the fruitlessness of the fight struck her before it began. She looked down at the man. His handsome face had turned back to the garden; the cruel grin in his voice was still hanging in the air. Outside the old man stopped his pacing, and, quite sure he was alone, brought out a hip flask from an inner pocket.
They came to her room and she was in bed, the final album abandoned. A red lump on the sheets. She beamed when he came in.
“You’ve come to visit me!” She was sitting up, her frail little arms supporting her feebly.
“Ms Bell this is…”
“She knows who I am.”
“Oh, look at you! So old!” She was pushing herself further up now, as if to stand.
“Ms. Bell, please relax. You haven’t been eating much-“
“Oh! And look – ”
“Please lie back down, reserve your energy – ” The nurse was trying to lie her back down with no success.
“You have a shadow!”
“Ms. Bell!” She was struggling to sit up now, fighting the nurse and reaching for the boy who was a man who had a shadow. He recoiled from her and shifted towards the bed, towards that deep red stain on the sheets. But she lunged again and the nurse called for help and he paused, and then stepped forward to help the nurse.
“I’m so proud.” She reached for him and slipped, her small white figure soap-like between their hands, to hit the floor.