Natasha Igl is a Junior at St. Norbert College set to graduate in the fall, majoring in English with a creative writing emphasis, and minoring in Media Studies. She loves knitting, reading, caffeine, and anything quirky or that ends with a twist. This story is inspired by the short story “The Shadow” by Hans Christian Andersen, and many of Igl’s stories involve shadows. This is a story of a man who finally comes face to face with his wayward shadow, but will this encounter solve all of his problems? - Micaela Rozmarenoski
It was like looking into the mirror, Haden thought to himself. His eyes pinned a man at the counter of the little diner/bar. Nothing remarkable would draw your attention to him—average build, boring brown hair, an entirely plain gray shirt with black jeans. Nothing spoke like neon signs of trouble.
Yet, here Haden was, ending a five-year long search for him. Each step he took closer to him felt like he was floating. He swallowed painfully as he momentarily worried that now would be when he would wake up and find he was right back in the dust of this man.
When he reached out to clasp his hand on the man’s shoulder, he was stopped by the gruff voice that came from him: “About damned time.”
His hand dropped, stunned. “What do you mean about damned time?”
The man turned on his stool so that they were staring at each other. It was eerie. The same face stared back at him. “You’re the slowest mother fucker in existence. If I was on the other end of the search, you’d be dead by now.”
Anger spiked as Haden drew in a deep breath, inhaling the stale alcohol that lingered off his shadow. “Bull shit. If you wanted this to be over, why didn’t you go and off yourself already?”
“Seems I lack balls. Must be from you,” he quipped back.
He choked on a disgusted laugh. “Are you kidding me? After all this time and evasion, this is what you have to say to me? You stole my life!”
“Did I now? If I remember correctly, I was perfectly happy as your shadow. I didn’t ask to be separated from you. I was happy to be your partner in crime. Then you went ahead and cut me off. What happened after was your own damn fault.” He took a long drag of his beer. A Red’s Apple Ale. His favorite, he noted in annoyance.
Haden grabbed the roots of his brown curls and tugged, his fingers shaking. “You racked up my credit card bill with dirty magazines, travel expenses, and luxury hotel stays. The hell you talking about?!”
His long-lost shadow stared at him in exasperation. “You’re kidding, right? That wasn’t me—that was you! I’ve been slumming it since you kicked me to the curb. You told me to go out and do those things.”
“Wrong!” Haden shouted. The bar patrons looked over at the two quarreling—brothers? To them, it looked like they were twins, one with flat, brown hair, the other with curly brown locks. “I would never be that stupid. You’re everything that’s wrong with me! Look at you! Rude, an obvious drunk and lowlife, and sleazy. You’re nothing! You’re just my shadow!”
Real pity widened his shadow’s eyes. “I’m not your shadow, remember? Call me Henry. Maybe once I was your shadow, but you changed that. You went down the rabbit hole after I left, not me. After we separated, maybe you became confused. Do you remember why you left me?”
“It’s been five years. You think I would forget?” Haden spat. “I wanted to see the world, but I couldn’t leave my job. I had to pay off my college debt. Then I heard a story about a man telling his shadow to see the world and report back to him about what he saw. Seemed brilliant. I didn’t think you’d go and be a prick about it.”
The stool his shadow sat on screeched as he stood up. To Haden’s amazement, he was two inches taller than him. How unfair.
“Did I ask to leave you though? Did I ever leave you before except for when the light shooed me away? We were together since birth. You were the one to go and ruin it. You told me to get lost. Congrats. I got lost when I was left to the suck that is this world. When I went back for you, you moved. How was I supposed to find you?”
Haden retreated two steps. “I went looking for you. I lost my job and didn’t have much else to do. I had to get out of that town. It was either that or return to my hometown a failure. Can you imagine what my old man would say?”
“I can,” his shadow said softly, “because I have been there for every lecture.”
Sweat dripped down the back of Haden’s neck. This was not going at all the way he thought. People eyed them warily or with interest. The bartender kept an eye on them from the far-right corner of the counter as she polished glasses and silverware. A manager in a crooked tie sat in the back booth, counting money, occasionally looking up to see what they were doing.
“What did you even come here for?” his shadow asked, returning to his stool. “To kill me? Beg me back?”
Without thinking too much about it, Haden pulled up the stool next to his shadow and planted his butt on the cushion. He placed his left elbow on the counter and waved his right arm. “I don’t even know. I honestly didn’t think I would ever find you.”
Mirroring Haden, his shadow looked at the gray stoned counter thoughtfully. “Were the magazines any good?”
With a wry smile, Haden shrugged. “Honestly, I never got around to them. My focus just plummeted after you left, and my job let me go. My priorities changed, you know?”
Nodding his head, Haden’s shadow rubbed the back of his neck. “Really, though, I go by Henry now. No point in me being ‘shadow.’ I don’t think I could ever return as that.”
A sick feeling bubbled in Haden’s gut. He hadn’t really held out hope for that, but to hear his shadow was lost forever set his stomach roiling. The urge to throw up burned the back of his throat. “Henry. Let me guess, your middle name is Haden?”
"Don’t give me crap for being uncreative. I was part of you once, remember?”
“But you switched around my first and middle name. That’s so lame.”
“You’re lame,” Henry retorted.
Snorting, Haden laid his head on the cool countertop. “I really thought it’d be better without you. Like I would send away all my worries and baggage with you about shit that drags me down. It seemed like it got worse after you left. All I could think about was how I couldn’t afford anything while paying back loans and hating the job that I got a degree for. I’m supposed to be happy at this point in my life. Instead, I’m jobless, chained to massive debt, and looking for a shadow that’s far better off without me. How sad is that?”
A single tear dripped onto the granite from Haden’s eye. A hand reached out and patted his back. “Well, I’m here now. Maybe we can get your life back in order? If you even want that.”
Haden turned his head to look at him with one eye. “What do you mean if I want that?”
Henry lifted his hands. “Just saying, I think you’re putting a lot of this on me. You could’ve moved on and picked yourself up out of your slump.”
“No, I couldn’t have. It’s not that simple. I felt like I couldn’t get passed the knot in my chest after you left. You took something of me with you when you left. I guess I need my shadow more than I thought I did.”
They sat together in silence. Some old ACDC song played on the radio, but Haden was too tired to pick out the words. He really wanted a beer, but he knew he didn’t have enough on his debit card to even purchase that. His credit card had been frozen long ago.
“You know, I forgive you for cutting me off. I obviously had it better than you.”
Haden snorted. “Dick. Way to rub it in.”
Henry nudged his shoulder. “No, really. Just to show no hard feelings, I’ll let you have my beer. I’m not going to need it.”
“What do you me—”
Before Haden knew what was happening, Henry had him in a bear hug from behind. He grunted in pain as he couldn’t breathe. He struggled for a second, his eyes bugging out as he panicked. His shadow was going to kill him after all. What irony.
Eventually, his chest loosened as Henry’s grip eased up. Haden watched in fascination as Henry’s arms turned transparent and dimmed. Soon, Henry was nothing but a flat shadow stretched out on the tiled floor of the diner.
Taking a seat, Haden quivered. For the first time in five years, he felt complete. He smiled and stretched, watching his shadow move with him. Together again, he could now fix everything.
Or could he?
The smiled slipped from his face as he took in stock of what he had. Henry’s wallet sat on the countertop. Grabbing it, he saw it was filled with cash, maybe a couple hundred bucks. What an improvement over the quarter and dollar in his flimsy wallet. Still, he had loans to work off with no job. He hadn’t paid in a while, though he set up an account way back when he graduated that would automatically make the minimum payments for him. But it would be empty by now.
He had been so consumed with chasing his shadow, he never cared about anything else. Five years of searching later, he had been successful at finding and regaining his shadow. He was technically complete.
Yet, despite all his searching and efforts, he still didn’t feel any better. Not really. He reached for the Red’s Apple Ale and swallowed.