A short story.
“Ms. McCleary, what time of day was it when the shadow appeared?” I ask, tapping my notepad with my pen. I am nervous, but trying to hide it. This is my first official interview, and I am here to determine whether Ms. Jane McCleary lied on her report. I’ve accepted this nice old lady’s offer of tea and a seat on her sagging couch, but she knows that I am watching her and taking notes while she tells me her most personal stories. It’s unknown why people would file false reports, and nearly impossible to prove. But a task force was formed to combat the issue, and I signed up immediately.
No one is quite sure when the so-called shadows started appearing, or why. Only people who have had kids get visited by them. Without warning, a vision of their child appears – always younger than they are now, or ever were. Sometimes it’s a once in a lifetime experience, while some people see them as often as every month. Only they can see the shadow, which means it could have been years or even generations before enough people, or the right people, shared their stories and were believed. Historians are going back through letters and records to find clues of when the shadows first appeared, or if they’ve always been here.
I was ten when the news broke. I remember the weeks of coverage, testimonials from parents, ranging from the ecstatic to the distraught. I was fascinated even then, and remember asking my parents if they had ever been visited. They replied by turning off the news. A month later they sat me down and revealed that I had been adopted. They answered every question I had, except about the shadows. I wanted to know if they had ever seen me. Had they seen Jason, my brother,
their biological son? I have often wondered whether their unwillingness to answer stoked my interest in shadows, which quickly turned into an obsession. It became the focus of my studies, and eventually my career. It’s the reason I’m interviewing Ms. McCleary today, though it was a long process to get here.
Right out of school I began working for the company that collects all the data about shadows. It started as little more than a call center, but eventually was funded to be the only repository of citizen reports about the visits. My first job was data entry, then transcribing messages left with the call center. Once I worked my way up to assisting research teams, I realized how essential detailed and trustworthy information is. Psychiatrists, neurologists, and cognitive scientists in labs around the world all work together to try and make sense of the shadows, but as of yet there are no patterns to be found. I have always believed that there must be a reason for their appearance, and I want to be part of the team that figures it out once and for all.
My new job is to substantiate abnormal reports, to interview people who have stories that are deemed by a computer program to be “suspect.” I have been officially training for months, but I feel like in actuality I’ve been at it for years. It took me a long time to accept that I am never going to hear a story about my shadow self, but once I did I began to enjoy listening to other people’s stories. I like to watch their faces as they recount the details, and am fascinated by the variety of responses people have to shadows.
During my training, I decided to test out my newly honed interview skills on my parents. I invited myself home for dinner, brought a bottle of wine, dropped the “we’re trying for grandbabies” bombshell on them to warm them up, and then broached the subject over dessert.
“I go out into the field next month. Have I ever appeared to either of you as a shadow? I asked you this twenty years ago, but…”
I trailed off as my dad poured more wine into all three of our glasses.
“You haven’t. I’m sorry,” he said, without looking up.
“Me either, baby,” said my mom. She looked at me, I could feel her gaze even if I couldn’t meet it.
“There’s been no substantiated reports of adoptive parents seeing a shadow,” I mumbled, “I didn’t expect you to be the first.” After a pause, I continued, “Have you seen Jason?”
My dad, whose lips were almost smiling, said, “Once. We played baseball one afternoon. I left work. Your mom sees him a few times a year.” He moved my mom’s wine glass towards her, letting his hand linger on hers. She took a sip, and I remember seeing her eyes wet with unspilled tears.
In an attempt to change the subject away from Jason, I blurted out, “Sometimes, when an older person is looking at me, I think they might actually be my birth parents recognizing me. Like they’re trying to decipher if I’m a shadow or the real thing. Someone must see me.”
My mom smiled at me, but didn’t say anything else.
Because I didn’t push, that is all I got out of my parents that night. It was ultimately unsatisfying, and I vowed to not let other interviewees off so easily.
After that, I began informally interviewing anyone willing to talk about the shadows they have seen. Even within just my circle of friends and acquaintances, reactions ranged from seeing it as a blessing to a curse, and everywhere in between.
One friend admitted to me that she ignores the shadows most of the time. She was very matter of fact, telling me, “I used to feel guilty about just walking away, but it’s not them, not really. They won’t remember that you ignored them, it doesn’t mess up my actual kids. And I just don’t… have the energy for it.”
Another friend told me that he uses the moments to make as many happy memories as possible. His teenagers have little interest in hanging out with their dad anymore, so he’s happy to take their younger counterparts to the park or lie in the grass and find shapes in the passing clouds. “The shadows deepen my love for my kids, and I would say it even helps me remember my own inner child,” he told me.
My mother, ever-supportive of my career choices, called me a few days after our dinner and invited me to her book club meeting. Her and some female friends had read a memoir from one of the first people to share stories of shadow visits publicly. When I showed up, my mom, already tipsy on wine, told the group about my new job. I listened as they talked about the book, though the subject was constantly interrupted with their personal stories. In my lifetime of listening, I’ve noticed that once the topic of shadows is broached, it usually dominates the conversation. People want to tell their stories, or relay stories they’ve heard, debate the history, and speculate about the point of shadows.
A lady to my right piped up, “Well, you all remember Johnny.” Knowing nods from her friends. She turned to me, “Deadbeat ex-husband.”
“Ah.” I said.
“It’s one thing to be a single mom because he ‘didn’t know he’d have to sacrifice so much,’ but he get visits from shadows of our kids. What the hell?! Even though I know they won’t have any memory of it, I hate the idea that they show up for him. If he’s not going to stick around for the hard stuff, why should he get any time with them?!”
I tried to imagine him, sitting in some small apartment, being visited by kids that he hardly knows.
Many of the women were eager to share, though a few sat silently. I tested out my training, sharing personal information in an attempt to get other people to open up.
“My husband and I are trying to get pregnant. I think he hesitated for a long time because he thought I just wanted kids so that I could get visited by their shadows.” I announced. “I can’t deny, that is part of it. To not just hear about it, but actually live it. But I also want kids, to see and watch and guide them growing up.”
That got smiles from the assembled crowd. What I didn’t tell them is that even though we can’t wait to be parents, it has proven to not be that simple. We had a pregnancy early on in our relationship, nearly seven years ago. I made it through one terrified month before telling him, then we had another indecisive month before the decision was made for us. I was sleeping soundly, the first night in weeks I hadn’t been nauseated, but awoke in a puddle of blood.
As of a few weeks ago, I am sure that I am pregnant again. But I am scared to tell my husband, I am putting off the pressure I will feel once I see the look of joy on his face. It would break our hearts now, if I miscarried again. I am too scared to even take a test, but all the symptoms are the same. I have been trying to hide my nausea and the fact that certain foods repulse me. I am
grateful for the days when I feel completely normal, especially since I have been busy training for this new job. It’s paying off though, as my plan worked.
“What about shadows of babies, why aren’t there more of those?” asked another woman, one of the previously silent ones.
“So interesting, right?” I said. “There are very few reports of shadows under the age of two. Theories abound, but there’s nothing definitive yet. I wonder if it’s just because people don’t notice them. Sometimes shadows hang around for hours, but other times it’s just a few seconds.” “Oh,” she says quietly. “I guess I’ve always been scared that I’ll have to relive the weeks we spent in the NICU.” The room went quiet with her admission. “She was so tiny and hooked up to machines. It was awful.”
“Yeah, that’s hard enough the first time around,” said another woman, taking her hand.
Someone else piped up, “But maybe it would be therapeutic, you know, to see the baby but not have that same worry.”
The woman who asked about shadows of infants seemed unconvinced, but I thought about it later and agreed. It would be a completely different experience without the overwhelming fear of those days before she knew that the child would grow up healthy and happy.
The subject eventually changed to the government’s response to shadows, which has been unorganized at best.
“Why is there no mandate? Tell people they have to file a report after they’ve been visited by a shadow,” one woman said.
Automatically I replied, “How would you enforce that? There’s no way to know if a shadow has appeared to someone. Maybe that’s where we should start.”
“Well there must be something the government can do. How can scientists find a cure without more information?”
Once the word “cure” is spoken, the room falls silent. I have noticed the trend before, it is a divisive topic. Many people advocate for a cure, though the idea would have never occurred to me. Why would you want to stop such an interesting phenomenon? Track it, yes. Understand it, even better. But why make it disappear? The usual response is to keep shadows away from parents whose kids were taken away from them for good reasons, though there’s very few reports of these as it is.
“Do you think sperm donors are just like surrounded by shadows all the time?” One woman said to break the silence. This makes the whole room laugh, and I make a mental note to do some research into these types of reports.
“I’ve never reported any of my visits,” another said, seeming proud. “What business is it of the government?”
I’ve heard this said countless times, and as of yet, I have no good reply to convince people to be a part of the research.
“I always do,” interjected my mom, much to my surprise. “It’s easy, it’s quick, and it’s important.”
“That’s definitely true. We need as much data as possible in order to find a pattern,” I smiled at her, but have been trying to figure out a way I can access her reports ever since.
A few days later, I had lunch with a childhood friend, the son of one of the ladies in my mom’s book club. Halfway through our meal, he asked about my new job.
“My mom tells me you’re training to do interviews now.”
“Yeah, I’m really excited to be hearing stories first hand. Though it seems weird to have to decide who is telling the truth. Like, what kind of person is going to waste my time on a fake story?”
“Can I tell you mine?”
“Yours?! You don’t have kids.” He traveled after school, never settling down. I haven’t met one of his girlfriends since we were both in high school.
“That’s what I thought too,” he said, and then hunched forward across the table and lowered his voice. “But last year, a boy about four years old started following me as I left work one day. I thought it was weird, maybe he was just lost…I honestly didn’t realize it was a shadow. I get to the train station, right? He’s still behind me, so I asked a couple who was standing there if the boy was theirs. ‘What boy?’ they replied. Only then do I notice that those blue eyes looking back at me matched these.” He pointed to his own eyes, which have always been the most alarmingly perfect shade of blue. “I start to freak out, right? Thinking about who this kid could be, who his mother is. Meanwhile, my train shows up. The kid follows me onto the train and sits across from me, in total silence. My mind is still racing, but I can’t seem to open my mouth. I just watched him and he watched me. I didn’t even say hi, much less ask him his name, or where he lives. Or any question at all. We never spoke. I swear, I’m still in shock.” He paused. A million of my own questions ran through my head but I remained silent. Again, I was practicing my training, to let people share rather than feel interrogated.
He continued, “So at my stop I got up, I got off the train. I don’t know what I was thinking, that I’d have more time maybe. But the doors closed behind me and he wasn’t there. He wasn’t on the train either. Just gone.”
“Right?! I literally haven’t told anyone.” “When did this happen?”
“Three weeks ago.”
“Wow. Any ideas who he is?”
“A few, I guess,” he said, cringing. “But what do I do, call these girls up and ask if they had a child they just decided not to tell me about?”
I didn’t have any other ideas, so I just shrugged. “What will you do if he shows up again?” “Not talking to him was horrible, so I hope I won’t do that again. But like, what if someone else is around next time?”
“Do you want to see him again?”
There was a long pause. “Yeah. I mean, if nothing else I can get some answers. Right now there’s only questions.”
After weeks of training at work and in my personal time, I was finally deemed ready for the field. I am given a name and an address, but nothing else. I don’t get to see the transcript of the initial report, it is protocol to hear the story the first time first-hand. I am nervous about going in cold. Will I be able to handle it if there’s disturbing details, or if it involves a child who has died? What if the person has clearly filed a false report, will I be able to catch them in a lie? I have to
admit, part of me is hoping for a story from an adoptive or step-parent. I would love to be the first to substantiate this type of shadow visit. I shrug off that expectation, and try to focus.
I knock on the door and introduce myself to a woman who appears to be about sixty-five. She settles into an armchair as I place a recording device between us on the glass coffee table. The first question is always the same, I’ll deviate after that depending on how she responds to being interviewed. I repeat the question in my head a few times before opening my mouth to ask it. “Ms. McCleary, what time of day was it when the shadow appeared?”
“I’d just laid down in bed, so round about 10pm I suppose.” There’s a pause, which I don’t fill. After a few seconds, she continues, “Clear as day, just like when I was pregnant with my three children. As soon as I could lay down, get some rest, they’d start kicking. Guess one of them came back for round two.”
An hour later the interview is over and I am back in my car. I don’t remember anything that I asked, anything that she said, only that I believe her. My head is spinning as I glance down at my notepad, which is blank except for a few words, “Shadow pregnancy??” followed by “Buy test.”