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Shadow Helper

In the cool, morning darkness, I rotate the living room window crank. It folds outward, letting in a gentle lilac breeze from the back yard. In the sunny glory of spring, two spotted fawns dance along the cedar privacy fence. They shuffle left then right, scared eyes wide and wild, pleading between slats with a doe who casually leapt the six-foot fence and does not seem to grasp the limitations of her children.
Concerned, I walk through the house to the front. With all the stealth I can manage, I sneak out the door and slip along the edge of the house, doing my best to neither spook the mother nor terrify her fawns.
I pause at the corner where the fence butts up against the lapboard wall of the house. The doe has gone on alert, but I'm downwind and shadowed by a Japanese Maple, brilliant red as if it were a silver maple in Midwestern fall.
If I move forward, the doe will bolt. If I hold still, the fawns might hurt themselves trying to get over the fence. My intentions are meaningless in the face of circumstances.
In failure, intent has no manifestation. Nobody cares how hard we tried or even how many people benefitted from the actions we took.
Legs too new to jump the fence?
Losers.
Hooves can't open the gate?
Losers.
Love your trapped children and regret a moment of joy in leaping over the fence yourself.
Loser.
Shadows mock me. Cast by a small Russian Blue Spruce I affectionately call Blue Zephyr, the shadow melds with the maples into the impression of a man in a long coat and a fedora.
Blaming the shadow for my frustration, I whisper, "Help or get out of the way."
Leaves and needles hiss.
The fawns pace. The doe paws at the ground.
Stuck, I ask the shadow, "Any ideas?"
"A distraction?" it asks.
How many heartbeats define the moment the impossible speaks on a spring day? Overhead, a dragon-shaped cloud breaks up and becomes herons gliding East-by-Southeast. A squirrel on the low branch of an oak is suddenly in the canopy chittering at me--or at the shadow.
"Calm down," I whisper.
"You calm down," Shadow says. "You want my help or not?"
"I was talking to myself."
"You know who talks to themselves?"
"Crazy people?"
"Bat shit and gone."
The doe zeroes in on my form in the shadows. Body tensed, ears high and pointing at me, her glistening black nose twitches. Her tail flicks nervously, unsure whether to rise and warn her children.
The fawns pace out their desperation and fear on the other side of the fence.
Shadow says, "I can stretch out enough to shade that old girl and get her to trot across the lane."
I've talked to myself my whole life. Most people do. It can't hurt to pretend the shadow is real. "Don't scare her. She might leave the fawns behind."
"No guarantees. I'm a shadow."
I nod. "Do your best."
The impossible man in the fedora begins to thin and lengthen.
The doe catches the movement.
Just before the shadow touches a front hoof, she twists and trots away across the lane and into the grass and ferns beneath the oaks beyond.
Shadow man snaps back to his original form.
I tell myself he was always that way, always part of the Japanese Maple mixing shade with Blue Zephyr.
Shadow asks, "You going to open the gate?"
Annoyed he thought I might forget, and a little scared that I'm annoyed by a shadow, I slip quickly along the fence, unlatch the gate, and let it swing wide.
Shadow says, "You still haven't fixed the balance on that gate."
"I'll get to it," I say.
He says, "Five years isn't just procrastination."
The fawns skitter along the fence to the gate.
Their mother dances back from the lane to the undergrowth of the oak greenspace then back to the lane.
Her children see her and bolt. All three bound away across fern and grass beneath the shading arms of old oaks.
"Now would be good," Shadow says. "You're out. The gate's open. The weather is fine."
"Have you always been here?"
"Maybe you're just lazy."
"Avoiding the question?"
The shadow shifts a little, and I tell myself the breeze has picked up and rustled the maple leaves and spruce needles.
Shadow says, "I used to live under your bed."
"Shit."
"That's a hell of a thank you."
He did help. I judged him, and he didn't get angry or show any resentment. Surely, even a two-dimensional hallucination could feel hurt by contempt and condescension. I owed him. He stepped up in spite of me. I give him a quiet "Thanks. I appreciate the assist."
"No worries."
I feel like I should stay and talk, but I want to go back in the house, back to normal. I want to return to the living room and a TV that talks but never speaks to me.
A long, awkward moment translates itself into a hesitant invitation. "You want to come in and watch some TV?" I ask.
"It won't get the fence fixed."
"No," I say. "It won't."
"And there's laundry to do, dishes, a garage that needs cleaning."
"Jesus," I say. "I'll get to those--"
"You haven't paid your mortgage or your electric bill."
"What are you, the ghost of unfinished lists?"
He says, "Monster noises under the bed don't scare you anymore."
He's right, and I know him. I'm older now, but he's always been with me. I've worked my whole life to build the courage to face him, to learn the skills that will gain his praise. He has aged along with me, and he still terrifies me.
With some pride, he says, "You know me now."
I do, and there's no place I can hide from him.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, February 1st, 2022
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