by Leigh Saunders
Tracy lays the small, square piece of white paper on the freshly-washed table, her hand brushing across the worn wooden surface, glancing past the nicks and scratches of countless meals prepared and served there, memories etched into the wood. The paper is wood, too, of a sort, the remains of an unremembered tree, ground and washed and bleached and washed again, stripped bare of any memories of its own before being pressed and dried into this single square, a blank slate lying there, staring up at her, waiting for her to tell it what life it is to hold, what memory it is to remember.
Tracy reaches out for the paper, pausing only an instant as a shadow drifts past at the edge of her vision. She doesn’t bother to look — Anthony has gone to work, Trevor and Caitlin are safely at school. Tracy is alone with the shadows.
She reaches for the paper, and makes the first fold.
Tracy was nine years old the first time she went to the eye doctor. She climbed up onto the big green chair and looked through the funny machine the doctor pushed in front of her face and read the letters stacked up on the wall and pointed at the pictures the doctor showed her, pretending the whole time not to notice her mother sitting on the narrow plastic chair by the door, biting her lower lip and twisting the handles of her purse together like she did whenever she was worried. She’d bitten her lip when she read the note Tracy’s teacher had sent home, too, then gave her a cookie, and told her she could watch television for a little while. She didn’t think Tracy could hear her talking on the telephone if she was watching television, or that she’d notice her walking back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room, running her fingers through her short brown hair while she asked the person on the other end of the call what she was supposed to do now because she didn’t know any eye doctors.
And then, a few days later, they were at the eye doctor’s, and he was looking at the notes he’d made on his chart and telling her mother that Tracy’s left eye was lazy, but they’d caught it in time and with a little effort, Tracy would be able to see perfectly normally.
Tracy didn’t know what the fuss was all about, then. She thought everyone saw the shadows flitting around the edges of their vision, disappearing whenever you looked straight at them only to pop up again when they thought you weren’t paying attention. It had been a game, then. But she was just a child.
It wasn’t a game any more.
She folds the square of white paper, bringing one corner down and across the page to the opposite side to make a triangle, then reaches into the battered wicker picnic basket where she keeps her craft supplies and pulls a small, carved bone folder from its pocket and slides the dull edge of the crafting tool across the fold to crease it. Again and again she folds the paper, creasing the edge after each fold, the same way she learned in grade school when the class made a blizzard of paper snowflakes to decorate the classroom one frosty winter.
At last the folding is finished, the smooth, white square of paper now a narrow wedge that she holds carefully in her fingers while rummaging in the box for her scissors. She wants the small ones her grandmother gave her, the embroidery scissors shaped like a bird with a long, narrow beak. They’re never in their pocket, and Tracy finds them the same way she often does, pricking a finger on that sharp, pointed beak, half-expecting the bird to look up at her from the hinge screw that forms its tiny little eye as she slips her thumb and bloodied finger into the loops and begins to cut the folded paper.
Snip-snip, the bird darts forward and back, biting at the paper, clipping here, trimming there, traces of blood streaking and staining the white paper. Snip-snip, the bird curves the outer edge of the wedge, then slices through the folded layers, beak opening and closing as though under its own power, the tiny eye winking as the beak clicks open-shut-open-shut-snip-snip.
And then the bird is still.
The eye doctor told Tracy that if she did the vision exercises, her eyes would learn to work together and be stronger, that she would learn to see properly. He told her mother that Tracy would be able to catch a ball instead of the ball always hitting her in the face because she didn’t know how close it was. He told her father that Tracy would be able to ride her bike without always running into the cars parked along the side of the road. He told Tracy that the shadows at the edge of her vision would go away.
Tracy did the exercises and learned to catch a ball, but the shadows didn’t go away. She learned to ride her bike and roller skate and as she grew up she even learned to drive a car and parallel park, but the shadows still didn’t go away.
They didn’t stay at the edge of her vision, either.
The more Tracy did the exercises, the better she saw the shadows, hovering around or just behind people. They didn’t disappear when she looked away any more, either, but stared right back at her, flat gray shapes with flat gray faces and flat black eyes that turned into holes if she looked at them long enough.
Tracy asked the eye doctor about them once, and even described the shadows that were lurking in the room with them, like a pair of flat, gray sheets hanging there, one behind him and another behind her mother, but even though he turned and looked right at them, the eye doctor didn’t see. He was frowning and shaking his head when he turned back to Tracy, and her mother was biting her lip again, so hard Tracy thought she was going to make it bleed, and the shadows were staring hard at Tracy. So Tracy pulled off her glasses and wiped them off and said, oh, it must have been a smudge on the lens, and everyone relaxed.
That was when Tracy realized that no one else saw the shadows.
It has started to rain, a cold drizzle that seems to seep into Tracy’s bones even through her heavy sweater. She unfolds the white paper and spreads it out on the table, smoothing out the creases with her fingers, a perfectly round doily cut from the square page. Then she picks up a photograph — it’s a family photo, of her and Trevor and Anthony and Caitlin on a picnic in the park one bright, sunny day last summer. She’s printed several copies of the photo for days like this, rainy days when the shadows are crowding around her and her family and she needs to drive them away. Needs to protect her family.
She picks up the scissors, and again the bird swoops in, its sharp beak snipping the family out of the park, fussy-cutting away the grass and the trees and the sky and the picnic table until only the four of them remain, arms wrapped around each other, bright smiles on their faces, waving at the polite jogger who stopped and agreed to take the photo.
Cutting away the tiny shadow of the jogger from the lower edge of the photo. It’s a normal shadow, Tracy is sure, but she’d rather be safe than sorry.
Tracy stopped doing the vision exercises, hoping the shadows would go away, but they never did. She saw them everywhere, hovering just behind people as though the person was an image on one pane of glass and the shadow was an image on another. Sometimes a person would have more than one shadow, layered behind them, each moving on its own flat plane.
Those were the sad people, the angry people, the people who said or did hurtful things, the violent people. Then there were the quiet people with their deep, dark secrets. The shadows flocked to them, layers stacking up behind them in a thick, gray, cloud that swirled in shades of flat gray, their black eyes growing larger and larger and deeper and deeper as they swallowed everything good about the person, gradually leaching the life and the soul and the color out of them until they became as gray as the shadows that followed them.
The bird attacks a piece of black paper, snip-snip, cutting shapes only it sees with its tiny eye, shapes only Tracy recognizes as they drop from the page and onto the table, fluttering like dry, blackened leaves.
Trapping the shadows was an accident, really.
Her roommates had dragged her to a craft workshop, stopping along the way at a photo-booth, capturing a half-dozen shots of the three friends all making goofy faces for the camera, silly photos they could use for the craft project. Tracy brought the only scissors she had — the tiny bird scissors — even though her grandmother had told her many times that she was never to use them for anything but cutting thread.
Her friends had laughed at her tiny scissors, but the little bird learned to fly in Tracy’s hands that day, darting in and out, snip-snip, cutting fast and sure, and they soon quit laughing. That’s interesting, they said when they saw Tracy’s finished project, but only Tracy saw that the shadows that had followed them to the workshop didn’t follow them home.
Tracy reaches into the basket once more, now pulling out the roll of dimensional tape, cutting small pieces of the thick, sticky foam and applying them to the white paper doily before placing black shadows on the tape. Layer upon layer she builds the picture, her hands growing icy cold as she places black paper cutouts of the shadows she saw follow her family out the door that morning onto the doily, each in their proper place, three behind Trevor, one behind Anthony and a pair behind Caitlin, all separated with pieces of dimensional tape. Three behind her own photo as well, yes, she’d known they were there, even though the shadows that follow her try to stay behind her and out of sight most of the time.
They should know by know that they can’t hide from her.
Then Tracy places the photo of her family, happy and smiling, on top, trapping the shadows lurking behind, layers of black held between the photo and the doily. As she presses the photo onto the dimensional tape, she feels a sudden rush of air as the shadows that have surrounded her all day are sucked into the image.
Outside, the wind begins to blow, then howl, branches of the large oak in the front yard reaching dangerously close to the living room window. Tracy pays no attention, just sits there at the table holding the photo in place even though the ice in her hands is spreading up through her arms and into her shoulders as one by one the shadows are dragged away from her husband, her children, and forced into their crafted paper prison, layers of black paper fluttering wildly as though the wind is blowing right through the house, though nothing else is disturbed.
Finally, the wind dies down. Tracy stands, a little shaky, and picks up the picture, leaning against the wall as she makes her way down the hall then pulls a small stepladder from the closet at the end of the hall. She takes a deep breath, then climbs the ladder, reaching up with her empty hand to open the panel in the ceiling and pull down the stairs to the attic.
She crosses the attic cautiously, using the light from the small flashlight Trevor keeps at the top of the stairs to guide her as she steps from beam to beam, careful not to trip on any wiring or step down into poufs of pink insulation or crack her head on the rafters sloping overhead. When Tracy reaches a spot near the center of the house, she takes a thumbtack from her pocket, reaches up, and tacks the picture to an empty spot on a rafter above her head.
As Tracy turns to go, the light flickers around the attic behind her and on the hundreds of images of family, friends, casual acquaintances, random passers-by — all neatly tacked to the rafters, shadows writhing, trapped behind the happy, smiling photos.
©2016 Leigh Saunders — Published electronically at DigitalFictionPub.com: February 24, 2016. You may link to or share this post with full and proper attribution; however, the author retains the complete and unrestricted copyright to this work. Commercial use or distribution of any kind is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.
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