It was Christmas Eve, and a dark one at that for Nat Wyldwink. As he trudged home in the half-light he kept glancing to his right and left, his shadow catching him out, ambushing his peripheral vision as it ducked in and out of doorways and flickered over dustbins and parked cars. It was as if it possessed a life of its own, teasing him, reminding him that he was not alone. He was never alone. That he carried with him his past, and the people who inhabited it. At times the dark apparition appeared to split into a creature with many heads. But that was just a trick of the dying light. Nat was sure of it. He pulled his leather jacket round him, jammed the collar under his chin and shoved his hands into the meagre pockets. He’d bought the thing for style rather than warmth.
And suddenly, like a traffic cop willing him to stop, his shadow broke ranks, snuck past him and stepped into his path, flat hand outstretched and a leer like a jagged slash on its face. The shadow narrowed its hollow eyes and the dark smile crept like a spreading wound further up its face. It said nothing but a chill breeze blew past at that moment and it seemed to whisper a single word. Insidymox. And Nat knew in an instant. Somehow he knew. A second breeze carried it past him again as if to confirm it. Insidymox. A strange name, but perhaps not so for a shadow. It summed up the wayward creature perfectly and confirmed Nat’s fears. He was in for a strange ride. The dark spectre retracted its transparent arm and extended it again, unleashing a sharp, accusatory finger, that appeared exaggerated and ghoulish in the half light. And pointing right into the depths of Nat’s being. As the shadow tweaked it a fraction it tugged at threads of regret buried deep within Nat. Past mistakes and misjudgements, errors he could never correct. Scenes he frequently replayed in his bad dreams. Nat flinched, as sure as if someone had tossed a rock and it had dented his skull.
The shadow sneered further and tweaked its finger again. Nat looked around for somewhere to hide, but the present had become a blur, nothing was clear to him anymore. There were no hiding places, no barricades he could pull up against himself. The shadow pressed its extended thumb and forefinger together and it was as if it were squeezing the breath from Nat’s spirit. Strangling his soul. It pressed harder as its dirty grey lips peeled back from its lifeless teeth and gums. Nat got a chilling hunch that the ordeal would not be over in a hurry. But he was a wrong. The shadow suddenly froze, and its jaw dropped a little. It twisted its head to right and left, then spun round, letting go of Nat in the process. Nat coughed and clutched at his chest. The shadow spun 360 degrees and when it came back to face him it was staring past him, horror daubed across its features. Nat turned to look and as it did so he heard a chuckle. An odd sound with everything else that was going on at the moment, but there was no mistake. A chuckle. Small but full significant. Insidymox snarled and spat grey flecks of spectral saliva as it did so. Nat narrowed his eyes, and dared to look behind himself. He blinked. Twice. There was another shadow. This one less thin, not so spidery, and the smile it wore was nothing like an open wound. He heard another chuckle and realised the portly figure was laughing. It stepped past him and stood between Nat and Insidymox. It thrust its head forward like a provocative chicken, right into the features of the other shadow. It clearly was not frightened. Not for a moment. Nat felt the world becoming lighter, the fog around him seeming to clear. The second shadow sighed contentedly and a misty name came sailing in front of Nat’s eyes. Snigmirth. As if it was written in vape, right there in the air.
Now if either one of those shadows had squared up to punch Nat’s lights out the grey spectral fist would have gone nowhere. Or rather straight through Nat’s skull and brains and out the other side, without so much as a tickle of his little grey cells. But when one shadow takes a swipe at another that’s a whole other matter. Splat. Insidymox coiled his grizzled, snarling fist and drove it like a runaway truck across Snigmirth’s jaw. It wiped the smile from the other shadow’s face and sent him twisting away and backwards until he collided with a pile of dustbins and fell head over heels. And rebounded. Yes, like a transparent charcoal beach ball. The plump figure tumbled, dropped and righted itself, that irrepressible smile instantly refilling his face. Insidymox threw another punch, but this time the plump shadow dodged it, right, then left, then right again. The thin spidery shadow hissed and spat and glowered, but that wasn’t going to do much harm. Snigmirth turned, ran towards the nearest wall, bounced off it and came hurtling back at his ugly adversary. He bowled him over like a whispery skittle then came back at him and steamrollered him into the pavement. For a moment or two all went quiet. Nat and the plump shadow stood staring at the pancaked Insidymox. Waiting for him to peel up and off the gum scarred sidewalk. Nat sneaked a look at his new friend. The shadow grinned an even wider grin and stuck out a pudgy hand. Snigmirth, it seemed to say. I’m Snigmirth. Pleased to make your acquaintance at long last. I’ve been following you around for a while. Feels like a lifetime really. Nat reached for the hand and found himself shaking nothing, but the shadow smiled anyway. Then retracted his smoky fingers, stuck his thumb on the end of his nose and waggled his fingers at Nat. Nat frowned.
There was a sickly peeling sound and Insidymox rose up in front of both of them, blew a cloud of dirty smog in Nat’s face and head-butted Snigmirth so that he spun like a top into the road. Nat felt sick. In that smog he’d seen and heard and tasted a million bad memories. A truck load of regret had suddenly tipped all over him. He reeled and staggered a little, reaching for a lamppost to steady himself. Just then he heard a voice. A familiar voice.
‘You all right there Nat, been on the sauce?’
It was Jeff. Looking strangely at him, but hardly pausing as he was clearly heading somewhere else with a ton of gusto. He walked straight through the tussling figures of Snigmirth and Insidymox, hardly pausing for breath, noticing nothing.
‘Yes, fine, Jeff,’ Nat muttered. ‘Happy Christmas, mate.’
Even as Jeff sauntered off a couple more grey figures sailed past Nat, and two more shadowy phantoms pitched into the fight taking place in the road. One was short and squat, the other big and muscly. The four figures now bundled together like a pile of cables getting ever more entwined and difficult to separate. They made no noise and yet in his mind Nat heard all kinds of pants and grunts and curses and squabbling sounds. Fists flew and legs kicked and bodies recoiled. Yet no one else paid any attention. One or two stressed home-hurriers passed by without looking, a couple of cars drove right through the fracas. Nat was clearly alone in this, the only witness to this other-worldly tussle.
As the dust flew, and charcoal limbs exploded in and out of the ragged splodge of a brawl, Nat grew tired of watching, every punch seemed to take it out of him, so he did the unthinkable. He piled in and joined the fray. It was a terrible, strength-sapping struggle, but eventually, after a good fifteen minutes, he collapsed back on the floor, exhausted but surrounded by languid scraps of dead shadows. Every last figure ripped to shreds in the slaughter. Eventually he gasped and stood up, turned and started to limp home. Then he heard a hiss, and a chuckle. And he looked back, his jaw dropping as he did so. Every last one of the shadows was standing there, reformed, intact. Not a scratch on them. All eyeballing him and willing him to throw in the towel. He had little strength left but he fixed his gaze on the dead eyed Insidymox and locked vision with him. And so they stood, Nat feeling the battle ebb away from him. Until, he heard a footstep, whether it was another shadow or a person he could not tell, but something, someone, stepped up beside him, and little by little he found strength returning to his bones. His breathing steadied and his vision strengthened. And before his eyes Insidymox began to wilt. As did the other shadows. They wrestled and tussled with each other as they struggled but, little by little, the charcoal apparitions drew together and melted into a single smudge of shadow, the one cast by the stranger beside Nat. Even Snigmirth, who was perhaps a little more cunning than he was letting on. It took a while but eventually the street was empty and there was silence. Only two shadows remained. Nat’s own and, beside it, a single cross, stretching a long way into the future.