Everyone has a shadow. I was rather fond of mine and she accompanied me everywhere I went. We were the very best of friends, for she knew me inside and out and had a delightful habit of echoing my thoughts back to me. We looked exactly alike, too – the same sandy hair and striking green eyes. The only noticeable difference between us was the slightly mischievous glint in her eye that intrigued and terrified me at the same time. She radiated a sort of power and authority that I could not, and a confident voice that rang with outward opinions and expressive ideas. I respected her. Whenever an opportunity came to deal out justice, I stepped aside willingly and allowed her to stand in front of me, rising up to the occasion. She was my defender, my fighting soldier, my other half. But that was a long time ago.
We first met back in the second grade, when a teacher glancing over my paper had scolded me for writing a story past the page limit. I had always hated restrictions -especially when it came to my writing- but I kept my mouth shut and nodded politely, my eraser poised over the scribbled words tumbling out of the margins. “Brevity,” she had told me. “Brevity, Miss Cathlene.” She walked away and my fingers twitched, unwillingly but dutifully preparing to erase the words that I knew made my story complete. I almost didn’t notice her peering over my shoulder until her hand came and rested on mine, stopping me in the act. “I think it’s a lovely story,” she whispered. We were inseparable ever since.
We journeyed through life together, never loosening our grip on each other. Some people’s shadows just slowly fade away over time, but mine didn’t. I held tight to her, daring anyone to try and take her from me. She was there every moment. She was there during the fights with the other nasty girls in our class, softly reassuring me that I was not the terrible person they made me out to be. She was there by my side as I gave a speech to the fifth grade class, holding my hand and granting me the confidence she so often enjoyed. We laughed together and cried together and told each other our secrets. She promised she’d never leave me. I smiled and said I promised too.
Time went on, slowly at first, but then frighteningly quickly. Days and months and years blurred together until one day, we looked in the mirror and found that we were five feet tall, without any of our first teeth. We were growing up- well on our way to becoming adults. I remember her saying to me with genuine fear in her eyes, “I don’t want to grow up. I’m not ready, Cathlene.” I laughed and waved away her uncertainty with my own ignorance. “Oh, just imagine how wonderful it is to be a grown up! To make our own rules and not have to listen to Mom and Dad.” She grimaced. “Adults lose their voices. Children, they play and imagine and create and talk, but adults fall silent. They give up on life, on themselves.” It was the truest thing she ever said to me.
Life inevitably moved along. Birthdays came and went, seasons rotated. The older and older we got, the quieter her voice seemed to grow. The mischievous glint disappeared, replaced with an uncertain haze. Her confidence and defiance faded away until she simply did not have the strength to fight anymore. People came and walked all over us. I looked to her, as I always have. She didn’t say a word.
I think that in the end, it was the voices of other people that killed her. The quiet encouraging ones were lost in all the noise of the taunting and the jeering. We walked together through school hallways, pressed tightly amongst the hundreds of other kids shoving their way through to get to class. There’s no place like a high school hallway to make you feel invisible. She lost herself. She forgot who she was. She got so shut out that eventually she stopped trying to rise above the pandemonium. I found her trying to blend in with the crowd more often than I found her breaking from it. This was new to me, and with my other half so troubled and confused I began to question who I was as well. Her struggle got to me, and rooted itself in my heart. I didn’t know what to do for her. I just held her hand and silently prayed she would keep her promise, and never leave me. Her grasp had slackened considerably, not nearly as strong as it had been all those years ago.
One day, we were together on the college campus. I had my Statistics books in my arms. Hers were empty. We had been chattering about something I can’t even remember, when I turned and looked into her face. I was startled by how troubled and defeated it looked.
“That’s a lie.”
Silence. “I know.”
We walked more as I bit my lip, wondering what to say to the girl who had always been the one to comfort me- never the other way around. In my mind, she was still the strong little rebel I had met all those years ago. I refused to believe that this form of her, standing before me, was real. There was no way her eyes could look so tired and sunken in. Her lips, usually with a laugh hanging on the edge of them, were perfectly still and in an unbreakable military line. She never smiled anymore. I was in denial. These were all the signs, but I refused to see them.
She spoke first. “Ever feel alone in the world?” she asked. I thought before I answered. “Sometimes.” But the truth was, never. Not when she was around. She turned and looked down at her empty hands, holding nothing. “I do. All the time,” she said quietly. “Oh,” was all I replied.
We were quiet again, and I assessed the situation in my mind. There was me, so comforting and responsible and mature, and then there was her- so rocky and unstable, hanging on to youth by its coat-tails, refusing to let go. Tears were building up in her eyes. She was remembering far better days. “I feel so alone,” she repeated. “I don’t feel myself anymore.” I didn’t know what to say to this, and now I wish I had. That moment still haunts me.
She went on. “There are days when I question why I keep going. Why do we try so hard? We’re just blending into the brown canvas of this world, falling into dull lives planned out beforehand by some greater power.” I have to admit, I was angry with her and I am ashamed of it. I secretly blamed her for making herself so miserable. Why couldn’t she see that life was worth it, that it always was? That it still is? At least to me.
I could feel it. She was getting ready to break her promise.
It started raining.
I smiled at her sadly. “I’ll never forget you,” I said in between the falling of the raindrops.
“Please don’t,” she said back.
And then she raised the gun and shot herself in the head.
There are other versions of the story too, which involve a student passing by doing it, but I think the truth of it is that it was really her. It was her all along.
I stood there in shock, covered in her blood, and listening to ear-piercing screams that I think were mine. No one else looked. No one else heard. I remained on the spot as a piece of me lay there dead and the world turned and looked the other way. I looked down and she was gone.
I gathered myself and my senses, still clutching my book in my arms. And then I fled, quickly and unashamedly. I walked. And I walked. And the people around me saw me as I always appeared- alone. Only I noticed the absence of sound on my left side. The hand that usually clenched mine was gone with nothing but the wind to take its place.
I never told anyone else about her. She was a secret I took to the grave. I never gave her a name, and yet she was the most important figure in my life. I have never forgotten her, as I said I wouldn’t. I kept my promise.
If you look closely enough, you’ll see shadows all the time. Mostly, they’re hovering by the shoulders of young children but if you’re lucky you’ll come across a few rare ones following people around like you and me. One time -and I’m not sure if this is the only occasion it has ever happened- I was at the park with my children (who had their own shadows as well) when I saw an old woman sitting, seemingly alone, on a bench. Upon closer inspection I smiled, for I saw the dark outline of a person sitting next to her, exactly the same shape. They were chuckling together, and I saw on the face of that shadow the same bold expression that had once been on that of my young hero. It amazes me how that woman never lost her shadow. Until then, I thought we always did.
No, sometimes they stay.
Sometimes we choose to remain with them.