Van stared at the stars and wondered how he came to wake up in the middle of the forest. He rolled onto his side to admire the bloody hand prints on the tree by the river. He was sure it was his work of art. After all, he had a knack for finding himself in strange situations. His heartbeat pounded for a moment and then he found himself at peace with what he had done earlier in the night, even though he couldn’t remember anything. He listened to the sound of the rapids from the river and knew there was nothing to worry about because no one was better at the job.
“What are you doing out here by the river, so deep in the forest?” a voice rumbled.
Van focused on the direction where the voice came from. It seemed to come from behind the marked tree. A gentle breeze blew his hair out of his face, and then he saw it. A shadowy figure stepping into the clearing, into the intense moonlight. At first, he thought it was someone playing a joke. A tall man in a black cloak with no face. He was wielding a scythe but leaned it against a tree. His hands were boney with creamy white skin.
Van jumped to his feet and stared.
“What are you? Some type of park ranger?” Van asked.
“No,” the figure whispered.
“Well, what do you want?”
“I want what you have,” the figure said.
“You want what I have?” Van laughed.
The figure moved a few steps closer to Van.
The moonlight has caused the lunatics to come out, Van thought to himself.
He squinted, trying to make the figure more visible. As he focused, he saw that the man cast no shadow on the ground from the moonlight. So, he squinted harder.
“No eyes, no mouth, no nose. Hell, man, you don’t even have a face. How can you see me? What are you?” Van asked, not scared, simply curious.
“I represent everything you have ever done in your life. And I have arrived at this moment to collect on all your wrongs.”
The man waved his boney hand at the bloody tree and erased the handprints. “Look at your hands, young man,” the man said.
Van felt a warm wetness oozing between his fingers. Glancing downward, he watched as blood soaked his hands. Droplets hit the ground and glistened on the dirt beneath him.
“You did that to yourself!” the man roared.
“I know what I have done. What do you think I have done?”
“How do you not remember the wrongs you have committed?” the figure asked more gently.
“Who are you to ask me that?”
“Call me what you’d like. It does not matter. I am here to collect. And then you will never experience my presence ever again. I will leave you alone for all eternity.”
“Shadow—I will call you–Shadow. It suits you.”
“Whatever you wish, young man. Now, if you would follow me, please.”
“What was that blood on my hands trick? Was it supposed to scare me?”
“Well, it usually works on most of the murderers I deal with.”
“I am not a murderer. Do you know many people like me? I mean my type?”
“You say you are not a murderer?”
“I—am—not a murderer! I was enjoying a peaceful view of the night’s sky. Relaxing to the sounds of the river and nature. Then you come along and ruin it!”
“I am obviously not doing a good job of explaining to you why I am here.”
“You’ve hinted at it. The bloody handprints on the tree. But I’m not really sure anymore. I know what you think I have done. I don’t see a body anywhere though. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t kill anyone either. Maybe I got rid of the body or had an accomplice. Maybe blood was already on the tree. Maybe they escaped or maybe I saved them.”
“But–I would not be here if that were the case. You see. I have a quota to meet and usually you, the person, walk back with me. You should embrace all the atrocities that you have committed. Why do you not?”
“You have the wrong man, Shadow,” Van said as he got back on the ground and continued to stare up at the stars.
“I assure you—I do not have the wrong man, Mr. Van.” Shadow said as he leaned over and blocked the moonlight from Van’s eyes.
“I thought you didn’t cast a shadow, Shadow.”
“I’ve been here too long already, Mr. Van.”
“You could be right. I could be a murderer. If you are right, what options do I have at this point?”
“At this point you have no more options, Mr. Van.”
Van picked up a fist sized rock from the ground and tried to bash Shadow in the head. He struck him hard in the chest, since he had no face to attack. The rock bounced off, and Shadow didn’t budge.
“You thought you would use a rock on me?” Shadow asked.
“It was worth a try,” Van said. He immediately bolted and ran up the riverbank. He knew he was outrunning Shadow. Shadow was so slow.
Further up the river, he recognized where he was. He was close to Lover’s Hill, the place where all the teenagers parked to make out. He must have used the parking lot there, because everyone there kept to themselves. Whatever he did had to be bad if he found his car there.
Sure enough, when he arrived, out of breath, he saw his car. The headlights were still on and the driver’s door was open. But nobody dared to steal such a terrible-looking car. It was black and paint was chipping off it.
He slowed down and walked in front of the headlights of his car. Bugs slapped against his face. The light and his pasty white complexion drew their attention.
He took a few deep breaths to collect himself and glanced down the hill he had just run up. Shadow was quickly pacing toward him. He got into the car and locked all the doors.
“I’m the best,” he shouted as Shadow stood outside his passenger door.
If Shadow’s faceless face had eyes, he would burn a hole right through me, he thought.
“Are we going on one last joy ride?” Shadow asked.
Van laughed as Shadow stood there at the passenger window for a moment. He started the car, watched Shadow with a smile on his face. Shadow stepped right through the passenger door and sat down in the seat. Van’s smile quickly went away.
“I can’t seem to shake you. We are going on a joy ride, aren’t we?” Van said.
“It’s been a long while since I have been in a car, Mr. Van. Enjoy this drive. It will be your last.”
Van revved the engine and sped down the hill and away from the park. He was hoping to speed away from all his problems, but it looked doubtful now.
“It’s not every day when death is on your doorstep—or in your car. I am going to introduce you to my partner in crime tonight. If this is my last night, I want you to meet her. Are you alive or dead, Shadow?”
“It depends on what your definition of dead or alive is, Mr. Van. I’m here to take you. That should be your only concern.”
“Let me treat you to a beer first. You can drink, right? I mean, I don’t see a mouth on you.”
“Mr. Van, you have proven to be most difficult. Since I cannot get you to admit anything, let us get a beer. Maybe if you are drunk enough, you will come with me,” he mumbled.
Van and Shadow arrived at the Misty Springs Apartment complex, room 127. Van unlocked the door, and they both walked in.
Copyright © 2021 by Ryan Barnard-Stoker