Shadow People by Emily Glossner Johnson

The three Herlihy cousins lived in a mansion called Violet Ridge that sat high on the edge of deep and timeless Seneca Lake. There was David Herlihy, the oldest cousin; Trey Herlihy, the middle cousin; and Katie Herlihy, the youngest cousin. Ten years before Katie’s birth, Trey was born, and ten years prior to that, David was born.

'Christ died at the age of thirty-three,' Katie was quick to tell David on his birthday that year. On Trey’s birthday, she told him, 'Twenty-three is a bad number.'

'I thought thirteen is an unlucky number,' Trey said.

'That’s a superstition,' Katie said. 'I don’t believe in superstitions.'

Katie had the body of a ten-year-old and the wizened face of an old woman. Her hair was sparse and her teeth crooked. She needed braces, Trey told her, but she said she liked her teeth the way they were. She lived for her dollhouse, her vast collection of china teacups, and the Lord. Trey lived for David and Katie. And David lived each day a moment at a time, struggling to stay well on his medications and with his careful rituals and routines.

The cousins’ fathers were brothers. Two of them had died within weeks of each other of a particularly virulent influenza, while Trey’s father had run off to Prague when Trey was two years old. David had no knowledge of ever having had a mother; Katie’s mother had a new family in Boston; and Trey’s mother put her head inside a gas oven when Trey was twelve.

Nicotine and peaches helped the schizophrenia. David believed he had read studies about this, so he smoked a number of Marlboros a day and ate at least two peaches a night. He was beautiful in the way that schizophrenics were beautiful. He believed he’d read studies about this, too.

'Most schizophrenics are blonde,' he told Katie.

'That’s not true,' she said. 'That’s something you’ve made up.'

Maybe it was. He looked at Katie’s small form and earnest face and was afraid he resented her. He remembered holding her on a carousel at a fair in the Outer Banks when she was five. He hated the Outer Banks, the feeling of being separated thinly from land on one side and facing nothing but vast, wild ocean on the other. The carousel animal he held Katie on was a pig-dead, roasted pig with an apple in its mouth.

'It’s eating an apple!' Katie said.

'Yes,' David said, disliking the lie.

Trey came to get them, a lanky kid watching over them, fifteen years old and already in the role of an adult.

'We’ve got to go home,' he said. 'The reports . . . the hurricane.'

And so they left the Outer Banks early.

David wasn’t sorry. The beach had been nothing to him. He preferred looking at the young men to the girls with their barely hidden bodies, but he knew the young men ignored him. He found a compass in the sand-cheap, plastic, pointing south. Nothing was right, but he knew he was beautiful in the way that schizophrenics were.

In the spring, Trey began seeing the shadow people between the black trunks of trees--darker figures in the dark spaces. He saw them at dusk against the wall of the carriage house and along the garden hedge: dark figures, shadow people standing still, but he knew they were looking at him, watching.

Then they began appearing in the house. Before turning on a light in a room, there were shadow people in the corners, or standing around tables and desks, in front of bookshelves or curtained windows or a fireplace--there they were. Trey would blink and they would be gone, or he would look away, thinking that when he looked back and turned on the light, there would be an explanation, what, he didn’t know, but something that would make him think, that's it! I had forgotten the layout of the room and all the furniture and items crammed into it! But whenever he turned on the light, there was nothing. No one. No reason for darker shapes in the dark room.

He told Katie about them.

'There aren't such things as shadow people,' she said as Trey suspected she would. She sat cross-legged on her green canopy bed reading the Bible.

'You haven’t seen them?'

'How can I see something that doesn't exist?'

Trey fidgeted with the cap on a doll that sat on Katie’s dresser. 'Then you’ve never seen them?' he said, not wanting to let it go.

'No, Trey. I told you! No.'

Trey knew he probably shouldn’t, yet he couldn’t help but tell David about them.

David was reading Scientific American at the kitchen table, a cup of tea, a pack of Marlboros, and a glass ashtray beside him. 'I believe that you believe you're experiencing them,' David said. This was something Trey and Katie would say to David about the visions and the voices, and it nauseated Trey. He knew he should stop questioning David, that it would only agitate him, but he couldn’t stop.

'You've never looked at the trees in back and noticed that there are too many trunks?' he said. 'And then you noticed that some of the shapes aren't trunks at all but people? The shapes of people, a dozen or more at a time, standing there among the trees?'

'Dozens of them?' David said. Trey noticed a shiver run through him.

'Sometimes, sometimes fewer, but always several. They line up, usually side by side, but sometimes in a line as though waiting to get to the front, such as when I see them along the hedge.'

'What are they doing?'


'Watching what?'

'Me. The house. You and Katie. I don't know. I can just tell that they're looking this way. They're facing this direction, even though I can't see their faces.'

David shook his head. 'I haven't seen them.'

'And remember they’re in the house. Don't forget, I've seen them inside, too.'

'Dozens at a time?'

'No, not inside. But at least two or three, maybe as many as six. Maybe there are more but my eyes only catch a few.'

'What do they want?' David said.
'I don’t know,' Trey said.

'Do they scare you?'


Katie didn’t want to discuss them. They were contrary to her beliefs. An angel, she might believe. She wished she would see an angel in fact, or the bright light of Christ. But as it were, she feared Trey’s experience. Rational, reliable Trey. He was also honest and wouldn't make up something such as this. But shadow people--the experience of seeing them couldn’t come from anything good within Trey. She didn’t believe there was evil in him, but since he hadn't accepted Christ as his personal savior, his mind was susceptible to dark forces.

'Pray to Him,' she told Trey. 'Ask Him to enter your heart and enlighten you, to show you His glory. Accept Him.'

'But what do you think the shadow people are?' Trey asked her. 'What do they want?'
'They’re nothing, Trey. Or maybe they’re your guilt. Your distance from God and Christ.'

'That’s bullshit,' Trey said.

Katie was used to such responses. She prayed for Trey, and she prayed that the darkness he believed he saw would fade as he came to realize what he should do.

Trey, tall and handsome, dark while Katie and David were fair, picked young women as he would dandelions and let them come and go with the moon. He made love to a different woman under every waxing gibbous, and by the time the moon was on the wane, he said goodbye to that lover.

One day, he found a praying mantis on the cemetery bench in the Violet Ridge memorial garden. He looked into its insect eyes and believed that it would live forever. It rubbed its insect arms together, conspiratorial, and Trey decided he would pick the dandelion who worked at the library, the girl so tall that it was her job to gather dead flies from the highest shelves in the stacks.

Her name was Jane, and while they were making love in Trey’s bed, a shadow happened to fall across her face. Trey froze.

'What is it?' Jane said. She was breathing hard, close to orgasm, and a note of resentment resonated in her question.

'Your face' Trey said.

'My what?'

And then the shadow passed and Trey once again saw her long, angular features and brown eyes. He came then, and she came, too. Trey was glad, he wanted her to leave. Instead, she lay next to him and talked about the library, the pesky librarians (she was only a clerk), a new haircut she was thinking of getting, a friend who was about to have her third child, her plants, her cats. She shared the cigarettes Trey had pilfered from David, all the while likely thinking Trey must be enchanted by her, for he didn’t take his eyes off her face. But he was waiting for the shadow to return. It didn’t, and eventually Jane left. After, Trey stood naked in his bedroom window, waiting for dusk.

David was frightened by the notion of the shadow people because he looked to Trey’s rationality, his steadfastness, his love, as an anchor and a hope. David wanted Trey to be certain of everything he saw and have explanations for all of it.

David knew that shadow people had been photographed by paranormal investigators, by even the greatest skeptics among those ranks, but there remained no explanation, and yet these investigators couldn’t help but seek validation. They weren’t lying; they weren’t trying to deceive; they honestly hoped for the truth of what they observed.

But then there was Occam’s Razor: the principle that suggests that the simplest of competing theories is preferable to more complex theories of lesser known data. The shadow people were either mere shadows misinterpreted by Trey, or Trey was hallucinating. Why? Because of David, because of Trey’s father wandering somewhere in eastern Europe, because of Trey’s mother with her body hanging limp half out of the gas oven. The illness was in Trey’s blood. David paced. The simplest, the simplest . . .

Katie was playing with her dollhouse in the corner of the parlor. The tiny family of four, the grotesque, misshapen dolls with heads too large for their bodies and faces painted wrong, eyes different sizes, mouths too red, were up early for breakfast before church.

'How great thou art,' Katie sang, 'how great thou art . . . '

But David heard her sing, 'The simplest of competing theories . . . '

It was too much for him. He clapped his hands over his ears and hurried out of the room.

'Trey won’t get out of bed,' Katie told David on Sunday. She had barged into David’s bedroom without knocking.

'Let him be,' David said from his bed. 'It’s early.'

'But he’s supposed to take me to church.'

'Can’t you miss church this one time?'

'No! And besides, he says he’s afraid of people.'

'The shadow people?'

'No, all people. He just wants to stay in bed. For days now, he’s been in bed. Haven’t you noticed?'

'Go and play,' David said. 'Let Trey be.'

Katie stormed to the door then turned around. 'You know, if those shadow people are anything, they’re demons! And Trey is a sinner. And so are you!'

'The shadow people aren’t demons,' David said softly, 'and do you really think I’m a sinner? Do you think I’m possessed by demons?'

'Of course not,' Katie said, softening, yielding. 'You’re schizophrenic.'

'I'll confront them,' Trey said at dinner. They were eating a chicken Trey had roasted and slices of bread and butter. Trey had forgotten to make any side dishes or salad. 'How can I not?' Trey said. 'I want them to go away.'

David and Katie stared at him.

'Tonight, I’ll confront them,' Trey said.

'You don’t have to,' David said.

'Why not? Why shouldn’t I?'

'Because you don’t need to.'

'Of course I need to!' Trey said. 'This chicken is terrible,' he added, pushing his plate away.

David reached out and took Trey’s hand. 'You need to go to a doctor,' he said.

'What for?' Trey said, shaking David’s hand away.

'You need to go to church,' Katie said.

Trey glared at her. 'Don’t start.'

'But it will help you.'

'Katie,' David said, and shook his head when she looked at him.

Trey picked up the misshapen dollhouse family and thought of his mother. She had hit him only once, hard on the side of his head, but then she had cried, called him baby love, and held his stiff, unyielding body.

For days, Trey had ignored Jane’s calls to his cell phone. He wanted sex, and the moon was not yet on the wane. His sexual routine kept him happy, and he wanted a good fuck, but not with Jane.

'Do you remember our trip to the Outer Banks?' David said.

Trey turned quickly, surprised to see David in the doorway.

'Why?' Trey said.

'You were right to get us home,' David said. He was eating a peach; Trey could smell it from across the room. Trey threw the spooky little dolls onto the floor.

'I don’t know what to do,' David said. 'I can’t think well tonight. But I want you to remember how right you were to get us home that time.'

Trey wanted a cigarette. 'Do you have any smokes on you?' he said.

'No,' David said. 'They’re upstairs.'

A ladybug crawled across the roof of Katie’s dollhouse. Trey knew that it had been there forever. He looked over at David and watched him take another bite of the peach. 'I’d like to have a smoke and then I’m going out there,' Trey said.

'Please don’t do this,' David said. 'Don’t leave me.'

'I can’t help it,' Trey said. Tears welled up in his eyes. 'You know I love you, David. I don’t want to go, but I have to confront them.'

David began hearing the voices and having the visions when he was Trey’s age. He experienced a complete psychotic break six months later and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. That night, David, rigid in the window seat, watched Trey walk into the dusk of the yard to confront the shadow people.

Katie, on the floor of the sunroom, poured imaginary tea into her array of tea cups. She hummed a tune that David didn’t recognize.

David looked down and lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply, exhaled. Trey had started smoking, asking David for cigarettes, stealing them from him, not yet buying his own, but smoking more and more. David thought of the studies--nicotine and peaches. He thought of the beauty of Trey’s face, the comfort of his head on Trey’s lap during particularly dark times, the feeling of Trey’s fingers in his hair, his lips on his forehead. And then there were the worst times when he thought he couldn’t go on with the fear and the anguish, the times when Trey would climb together.

David looked down at Katie. Would she be able to take care of herself and the two of them?

David took another puff of his cigarette. When the smoke around him cleared, he looked back out the window, but Trey was lost in the darkness.

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