Zoe slipped into the alley, preferring to navigate potential lurkers and definite trash to the drunken crowds that shouted and stumbled along well-lit streets this late in the night. Rats scurried away from the echoing pat-flaps of her sandals as she stepped around the various discarded remnants of other people’s lives, tossed away as carelessly as time.
Some deep instinct compelled her to stop partway down the alley. She listened, eyes straining in the shadows for whatever hint of danger had grabbed her hindbrain and taken control of her motion. Then, from the corner of her eye, there was movement in the darkest part of the alley. She turned to face it, ready to fight and just as ready not to anymore.
It was not human, she realized with a mixture of relief and disappointment. It was too big to be a rat, and she’d seen some real monstrous ones out here. She crouched, thinking perhaps it was a stray dog in need of some help.
It opened eyes that glowed a pale blue. She started backwards. This was no dog. They sat in the dark, watching each other quietly. Its body language, she noted, was more fearful than aggressive. Cautiously, she extended a hand. It shrank back.
“Lady, ain’t you ever met a creature before?” a strange voice cut through the tense silence of the alley. Zoe jumped, her pulse racing noisily in her ears. The animal shrank further into the shadows.
“Hush!” she whispered irritably, turning to look at the intruder. It was a woman, silhouetted at the end of the alley, wearing a short dress and long boots with hair wild by design. “It’s frightened.”
“Well, yeah it’s frightened. When in your life have you had someone strange loom any part of themselves over your head and not been frightened? Put your hand down lower and let it come to you.”
“What do you know, coming in here all loud like that?”
“More’n you, I’m willing to bet.” As she said that, a shadow detached from her and stood beside her. It was a strange-looking creature, but similar to whatever it was lurking in the alley. Zoe did as the woman said.
After a few moments, the creature moved toward her and the shadows moved with it. It carefully sniffed her hand, bits of it wavering in the light, seeming to absorb it without reflecting any back. It placed its head in her hand. She couldn’t tell if it was very cold or very hot, but it did not hurt.
“There you go,” said the woman. The shadow beside her sat down, watching them. “You ever seen one a’them before?”
“No,” Zoe admitted with wonder in her voice. “What is it?”
The woman paused for a moment. “I’m not sure there’s a great word to describe it. I’ve always called them Shadows, for obvious reasons. Creative names ain’t my thing.”
“Shadows of what, though?” Zoe asked thoughtfully, running her hands down the creature’s spiny back, her fingers trying to understand the texture beneath them. It didn’t feel quite like a physical being, but it was very solid.
Zoe turned to look at her. “Get out. That’s crazy talk.”
“Sure is. But you got to be a bit crazy to see these things, feel them, and know what they are. These guys,” she bent to stroke the head of the shadow beside her, “they got lost. Potential futures get derailed all the time, and sometimes shadows of them get lost along the way. People like me, we find them and try to give them a home. A good home, too, so’s they don’t get lost again.”
“People like you? There are more?”
“There ain’t many more,” she laughed. “People these days, they ain’t so good at seeing what’s smack in front of them. Them that do, they tend to be afraid of these guys, even some that recognize them for what they are. You, though, you’re one of the few I’ve ever seen who ain’t scared of them.”
The shadow of the future settled itself comfortably at her feet. She stroked it quietly, then lifted a hand to remove the wig from her hairless head.
“I’ve had some time to get used to the thought of a frightening future. Not much scares me anymore.”
The woman whistled low. “How bad?”
“Pretty damn. Thought I’d beat it, too, which is the real kicker. Just got back on track and there it is again.” She replaced the wig carefully. The shadow at her feet looked up at her with an almost loving expression.
“Look,” said the woman, some of the spitfire gone from her voice. “I been hunting that particular shadow for a while now, but it found you. I don’t know what kind of future it is, but it seems to like you and you ain’t scared of it either way. If you want, I can leave it with you. You take care of it, and I’ll stop by to check in on you two whenever I can. If you don’t want the responsibility, though, I can take it off your hands now or at any time.”
Zoe met the shadow’s gaze and felt an odd affection for it. She reached out and touched its head, and it leaned into her hand. “What do these things eat?”
“Dreams. Worries. Worries are easier to feed it, but they’re not good for it. They’re addictive and tend to make it lethargic and unhealthy. Some will slip through, inevitably, but you want to feed it dreams for the most part. That’ll keep it lithe and active, like my buddy here.”
“You’ll figure it out. Don’t overthink it too much. It’ll take some habit-building and you’re bound to screw up every now and then, but if you keep at it you’ll find yourself with the best friend you could have ever asked for. And, if you like it well enough and get good at it, maybe one day you can join us in re-homing the others that get lost.”
“What if I fail at it?”
“The only failure is givin’ up entirely. These things are remarkably resilient. You’ll see. You wanna do it?”
The shadow placed a front claw gently on her forearm and looked up at her. She tickled its chin. “Yeah. Yeah, I want to give this a shot.”
She could almost feel the woman smile. “Good. I’ve got more to get to, but I’ll be in touch. What’s your name, girl?”
“Zoe. What’s yours?”
“Friends call me Umbra. Be seeing you, and good luck.” With that, she and her companion were gone. Zoe sat with the shadow in the alley.
“Guess I’m going to have to scrounge up some dreams to feed you, then.” She stood and stretched, and the shadow did the same. It led the way out of the alley and into the well-lit streets full of people and possibilities.
Storytime Sunday is a weekly installment of short fiction or personal anecdotes. Some will be complete stories, others will be snippets of projects that have gone to the Graveyard of Tales Not Going Anywhere, and a few will be previews of upcoming publications. Basically it’s a sketchbook for writing. Feel free to send me prompts in the comments or on Facebook!