Behold! I have a new short story for you today.
Gotta say, I’m really proud of this one. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! There’s also a little post talking about the process of writing this one here!
The Gentleman Without A Shadow
By Indigo Haunt
Everything had stemmed from a simple mistake; a misunderstanding. A great many things tend to start that way.
He had been out for a walk in the woods. He had no intention of returning from that walk. Most walking in those woods didn’t; when you went out there, it was to become entangled in the roots of the trees, to dangle as a wayward leaf from one of their branches, to lay down by a stream and sink away into the mud of its bank. Aokigahara was not a place one merely went for a walk.
He was out for a walk.
The stream he walked along trickled pleasantly over rocks, and he was mulling over whether this was the spot, or if he ought to continue on for a while; he was not short on time. No one would be looking for him before tomorrow morning, at least. There were the usual forest sounds, which he had enjoyed until this point as a pleasant soundtrack to an objectively unpleasant affair, but there was one thing that shattered his tranquil white noise with its sharp, unnatural pitch.
It was a voice. The first voice he had heard all day, small, tinny, and, from what he could tell, crying for help. He hesitated.
He was suicidal, certainly, but that made him no less of a gentleman. So he went in the direction of the sound to investigate, and not far from the stream he came across a patch of bushes thick with barbs. Hanging from one of its leaves, half torn open, was a cocoon. And dangling from that cocoon, one iridescent wing caught on a thorn, hanging upside down in a rather precarious looking way, was what the gentleman could only discern — could only begin to fathom — was a pixie.
To that point, he had not been under the assumption that fey folk were real. And yet, here was one, yelling at him in her shrill voice to get her down.
He didn’t see the harm in it. So, with the care one takes with tiny things, he obliged, unhooked her wing and set her gently down on the leaf below. It hardly stirred at all under her weight, and she straightened and dusted herself off, unconcerned with whether it could support her.
“Much better,” she said happily, her voice barely a register his ears could understand. “I thank you, good sir! Tell me, would you mind doing me one last favor?”
He felt himself nod, or maybe shake his head, uncomprehending either way.
“Being freshly born in such a state has made me awfully hungry! Would you mind, helping a lady out?” She motioned with her tiny hands, and with his eyes he followed in the direction she had indicated; on the bush next to this one, a caterpillar was nibbling at a leaf, unconcerned. He looked to the pixie and back again, but she only gazed up at him hopefully, offering no further explanation.
The gentleman extended his hand, and the fairy climbed on. He set her on the leaf next to the caterpillar.
“Much appreciated,” she said to him sweetly. And then she turned to the caterpillar, and her mouth opened wide, and a series of terrible squeaks followed; after a moment of thrashing, the caterpillar was limp, and the fairy wiped green blood from her mouth with the back of her hand.
“How can I ever repay you?” she asked, though for all he’d just seen he hardly noticed the question. She didn’t wait for him to answer, anyway. “I know! Since you have been such a great help to me, I will bestow upon you my most precious gift! Some might say that’s jumping the gun, but eh,” she shrugged her tiny shoulders. The gentleman only watched uncomprehendingly.
“Gift?” he asked finally, voice cracking from underuse.
The pixie broke into a wide, toothy grin.
“The gift of eternal life!”
Countless times, he had tried to undo it, to find a way around it, prove it wrong. When medical science advanced enough, he tried therapy and medication; he went back to the woods again and lay on his back beside the stream, willing his heart to stop beating, for some ravenous creature to emerge from the trees and rend him to pieces, something. He strung himself up from the rafters by his necktie, and hung there for an hour or two, waiting, as if in just another forty five minutes asphyxiation would definitely set in. It was only a matter of time. Maybe this time, he thought, things will be different.
A few hundred years later, though, things were not so different.
The gentleman had tried on many names, trying to keep up with the trends, or switching when one was no longer relevant, or too outlandish, or no longer suited his tastes. His situation did nothing for his depression, but having the ability to spend a year, two years, a decade laying motionlessly in bed in a dark room — the dream back when he had been mortal — suddenly made it lose a good bit of its appeal. It seemed he might just as well do something with his time, instead. At least occasionally. For a time he amused himself collecting 1800’s weaponry, but eventually it too grew as old and antiquated at he was.
He put Markus on his Starbucks cups; Jeremy on his subscriptions for Vogue and for Time; Barry for more things than he cared to admit. He knew, or rather he had known, people who could procure new documents for him when his became too outdated, people who knew better than to question such things, and when those people died off he taught himself to do it instead. He outlived those skills too, however, as new security measures were implemented and he couldn’t be bothered to learn new ways around it, so he did what any sensible person would do; he took most of his funds in cash, bought a boat, and sailed, predominantly through international waters where no one could bother him had they been so inclined to in the first place.
And out there, with next to no human interaction whatsoever, he finally learned how to stop being lonely. And gradually, he gave up on having any name at all. When he went ashore for supplies, he stayed moored in the dock, gently bobbing with the waves until nightfall; then he would go to the shops under cover of darkness, buy what he needed, and get out with as few exchanged words as possible. When he did speak, he hardly recognized his own voice.
He tried to be good about it, but as time went on all the port towns looked more and more the same, and there were a few he began to frequent. The locals in these places came up with all sorts of rumors and folk tales about him, this mystery man saying few words, coming and going from his boat on the docks. The most common was that of the Vampire Captain. They thought it must be true, as, the few times someone had spotted him beneath the milky yellow light of the street lamps, he had never cast a shadow.
(He was still very bitter about this unforeseen side effect of his curse, almost more so than the curse itself; he had always been fond of shadow puppets as a child.)
So, the people made up their stories, and embellished them, and in the minds of the people in the quiet town on the coast of Scotland, he was known to all as the Vampire Captain. Cap’n Vamp, more casually.
It was only natural, then, that when bodies began to turn up, paler than death and drained dry of blood, the locals surmised that their — if not friendly, at least benevolent — Captain had gone off the deep. Maybe he had just been casing the place out, some suggested; others thought he was simply running low on supplies, and had grown desperate with hunger. Thirst? No one could agree on any of it.
Having avoided hearing of any of this, the gentleman was quite puzzled when he stepped out his front door to the dock to find a plastic sack of reddish brown fluid resting at his feet.
He daintily lifted it to the nearest streetlight to inspect it, but there was no mistaking it for anything but blood. For lack of knowing what else to do with it, he took it back inside with him and sat it on his folding dining table, and sat across from it to mull it over.
He could not imagine what this was meant to be — some kind of a threat? From whom? — But, despite his complete lack of context, the placement of the thing alone still brought to mind some sort of offering.
The next night another body was found, and so the night after that, he discovered an animal heart outside his door. Even as he handled it cautiously through rubber gloves, he could tell it was still warm.
The gentleman was puzzled all the more. He tucked the heart into a plastic bag, then that bag into another, then slipped the double bagged heart into the pocket of his overcoat. He went out and slid himself into the corner booth of a bar, hoping to overhear something that might enlighten him as to what all these gifts could be. He was quite sure he hadn’t befriended any oversized cats, at least not lately.
There had been a time — he couldn’t be sure how long ago now — when he had been an avid people watcher; every decade or so he would sit himself on a park bench and watch the younger generations go by, observing fashion evolving from year to year, or the technology that people carried on their belts, or in their hands, or, more recently, wore on their ears. Even that had managed to grow stale over time, however, and interesting conversations grew harder to eavesdrop on when most were one-sided phone rants. It had all begun to sound the same, regardless.
He listened, and for a long time he heard very little of interest. Apparently a pair of women really did not like their friend Karen, who they gossiped about viciously in her absence; a man tried to drown his sorrows about his dissolved marriage while the bartender chided him, asking loudly what he had expected, starting an affair with the neighbor’s daughter; a particularly rowdy table exuberantly celebrated their buddy’s promotion on work.
Little had changed for the gentleman, it was true; he was still bored to death of the mundane things most people seemed to bother themselves with. He wondered if any of them were half as enthusiastic as they claimed, or if they were all just faking it.
Disheartened, he was just gathering himself up to leave, go back to his boat and find some way to dispose of his offerings, when he heard a commotion. The bartender was shouting angrily, shooing out a gaggle of teenagers who ‘should have known better than to come in here’. They slunk out the doors the way they had come, and, interest finally piqued, the gentleman without a shadow followed.
The group had huddled themselves conveniently under a streetlight; a short girl with glasses and a voice that never left the range of a high whine, a taller one with fiery red hair and a disgruntled expression, and a boy with dark hair and acne that caught the light from the lamp overhead like bike reflectors. They were debating amongst themselves in what were clearly intended to be — but weren’t — hushed tones.
The gentleman drifted towards a man too close to the door, smoking, and bummed a cigarette off of him. Once it was lit, he moved a respectful distance away, positioning himself to better hear their conversation, and let his cigarette burn, untouched.
“What’re we gonna do now?” the first whined, eyes wild.
The one with red hair folded her arms across her chest. “This stupid plan isn’t working,” she said indignantly, glaring at the boy and his acne. “We need to try something else.”
“Come on, you guys,” said the boy hastily, eyes shifting desperately from one to the other. “I’m sure if we just keep trying… I mean, maybe he’s just really hungry!”
The second girl piped up again; “No way! I’m not disemboweling any more deer — “ the others shushed her, and lowering her voice she continued — “Maybe he’s just malicious!”
“Maybe it’s someone else,” the whiny one suggested timidly. The others scoffed. “What? It could be!”
“Come on!” The boy groaned, rolling his eyes. “How many other vampires do you know in the area?”
“We don’t even know he is a vampire,” the red-haired one said with an exasperated sigh.
“Seriously? The guy only comes out at night, nobody has any clue who he is, he disappears for a month and when he comes back all these bodies start turning up with no blood, like none, in their bodies?” He listed each point on his fingers, for emphasis. “I mean like really, enlighten me, Amelia, what do you think it is, then?”
Amelia said nothing, flicking a lock of red hair out of her face and glowering at him.
The gentleman without a shadow stepped into the lamplight they were huddled under, dropping his cigarette and snuffing it on the bottom of his shoe.
“Hey, mister, that’s littering!” the whiny girl whined. The gentleman said nothing.
“Shut up, Gracie,” the boy hissed, pulling her by the arm to stand behind him. He eyed the man nervously. “Wait, isn’t he —“
“Was he listening the whole time?” Amelia nervously whispered to Gracie, still far too loudly. The man cleared his throat.
“I was,” he said, and the timbre of his own voice surprised him. He cleared his throat again.
“You left me this?” He pulled the ziplock back out of his pocket, just enough for the children to make out in the lamplight. The whiny one gasped and recoiled; the one with the dreadful acne put his palm to his face.
“I appreciate your consideration,” said the gentleman calmly, “but I do not need this.”
“Oh,” Amelia stammered, wiping visible sweat from her forehead, “sorry.”
“But wait,” the boy started, “then aren’t you — “
“No,” the man said, cutting him off, “I am not.” He looked over each of them, their looks of surprise and confusion oddly satisfying.
“But,” he added, with a slight tip of his hat, “I suspect I know who is.”
She did not make herself difficult to find. All it took was a bit of bait.
“Are you sure about this?” Amelia asked uneasily, eyeing Gracie as she untied her sneakers, draping the laces with precise chaos over the sides.
“I gotta make it look authentic, right?” Gracie glanced at the gentleman to seek his approval. He wasn’t looking at her, but out over the town, into the darkness.
The three of them walked together for a while, chatting as exuberantly as they could, though every so often they glanced anxiously over their shoulders, seeking their companion; but wherever he was, they never seemed to spot him. It was almost as though in losing his shadow, he had become one himself.
Eventually Gracie made a show of falling and skinning a knee. She apologized to her friends and hobbled off towards home to patch herself up, but took the long way, many turns down darkened alleyways, as she had been instructed.
The gentleman saw the creature stalking her long before she intended to reveal herself.
It was tall and lumbering, limbs long enough to drag, yet it slipped in and out of the shadows behind its unsuspecting prey with an unnerving speed. Every now and then, just a bit of iridescent light would glint off its long, tattered wings. It moved all but completely silently, but, by no accident, the gentleman did not.
Gracie turned, and when she tried to scream at the terrible creature looming over her, arms ending in long, sharp claws and wings dragging grotesquely over the cobblestone, it came out only a whimper.
A gunshot pierced the otherwise silent night.
The girl ran, and the creature crumpled to the ground with a howl of anguish; behind it, smoke curled off the barrel of an antique revolver; antique, but, thanks to hundreds of years of tender, loving maintenance, still functional.
The gentleman spun the chamber and stepped forward, standing over the beast.
He chuckled bitterly, the sound of a man who’s lived for far too long.
“My,” he said, looking her up and down with a cold indifference, “look how you’ve grown.”
The beast was nearly unrecognizable; covered in coarse, ragged fur, her wings had lost a good deal of their shine. It more closely resembled now some wretched cross between a harpy and a mangled moth man, but, as she lay wheezing and clutching at her bleeding wound, the gentleman had no trouble in identifying the pixie.
His revolver did not waver from its target.
“How did you find me?”
“Find?” She spat, with a wry laugh. “I followed you. Not just here, but everywhere. Everywhere you’ve gone, I’ve followed you like a shadow, and left a trail of death and destruction in your wake.” The pixie coughed, and the blood she spat into her clawed hand sparkled, somewhat as though it was inlaid with diamonds, but far more, he mused, like so many things had been in the 1990’s, completely covered in tacky sequins.
“No one will ever forget you now,” she continued, her voice hardly more than a low rasp. “The vampire who terrorized the coast. Hah!”
The gentleman smiled cheerlessly down at her.
“People will forget me,” he said softly, and anyone passing by the alley may have thought he was speaking to a lover; “Given enough time, people always forget. But you?” He nudged at her wounded side with the tip of his boot, and she yelped, twisting away from him. “There is nothing to forget about you. I don’t even know your name.”
He raised the gun to her face, a gaping maw full of rows upon rows of teeth, and the voice that came out of it grew desperate and shrill, close to what it had been when she was freshly hatched; but something was wrong with it.
“Wait, wait! You can’t kill me! Your eternal life lasts only so long as I do; if you kill me, you’ll die, too!”
The gentleman cocked his gun and smiled.
“Good,” he said.