They Stand. They Watch. They Wait.

Standard
Digital drawing. The silhouette of a person facing forward stands at center with arms to the side. The eyes glow with the color of the sunny halo behind the figure’s head and torso. The figure stands on ground that is cast in dark shadows. The ground fills the bottom fourth of the image. Scarce shrubbery is visible to the left of frame. A bush or small tree is visible at the right of frame. All in shadow. The sky fills the top three-quarters of the image and is streaked with sunset colors.

“What would happen if I accidentally looked at one of them?” Adira asked.  “Or if I spoke by reflex, before I could stop myself?”

She was the passenger.  With a sudden swerve, the driver pulled aside.  Ignoring the horn of the car that just missed side-swiping them, he gripped the wheel.  His shoulders heaved in a single breath.

“Addy…are you not able to follow the warning instructions?” he asked, his voice tight and quiet.  “If not, I will turn around.  It’s both our lives at stake.  Both our souls.  I don’t care if you believe or don’t believe.  I just need to know if you will follow the instructions.”

His gaze was on the steering column.

Adira had leaned away from him.  She took a moment to think of an appropriate calming response before she spoke.  “I will.”

He bit his bottom lip, heaved another breath, nodded, and pulled back onto the road. 

Even knowing what she knew about Patrick, his reaction seemed over the top at best, alarming at worst.  She’d only met him a few days prior and was alone on a trip into the woods with him.  Adira made a note to herself not to be so reckless in her choice of sources in future.

He was a victim.  That didn’t mean he was harmless.

“We can turn back anyway,” she said.  “I’ll still pay you.”

He was silent for a moment, then said, “That wouldn’t be fair.”

“Neither is what happened to you.”

He nodded.  “Yeah, but it’s not like I’ve never been back.”

Adira nodded as well.  She knew this already.  It had been five years, almost six, since he suffered tragedy in the mountain woods, but he still returned a few times a year.  Not to search, of course.  But to check.  And maybe to try some new thing he had discovered.

They arrived at the foot of the mountains.  They wouldn’t be going up too high.  Patrick parked in a lot that starting to empty out.  Dusk was approaching and would soon depart itself, giving way to night.  Any campers would have been settling in, she imagined.  Most hikers were clearing out. 

Adira was not an outdoorsy person.  She had over-packed, she was sure.  Her backpack was full of snacks, two sandwiches, and enough water for a few days.  And she was over-dressed.  A turtleneck and a puffer jacket.  But she tended to get cold, so for her, she was properly dressed. 

Patrick on the other hand, only had water, a flashlight, and a flannel shirt over a long-sleeved t-shirt. 

This was because they would not be there long.

What they had come to see would only be visible for a few moments.

What they had come to see could not be acknowledged, could not be looked at directly or approached or addressed.

What they had come to see were the shadows of the souls that haunted the mountains of Jannock Pass.

***

Some called the shadowy figures that stood watch over Jannock Pass an urban legend.  But Adira quickly discovered that sightings went back far beyond the times when any place near the mountains could properly be called “urban.”  She’d began investigating this new legend for her part of the ongoing project that her company had initiated to gather and assemble their own library of local folklore.

Right around dusk, figures could be seen around the hiking paths in and through the mountains, above certain elevations. 

The legends had warnings for those who might stumble upon these shadows.

Don’t look at them directly.  Don’t try to speak to them.  And don’t approach them. 

As long as those rules were followed, they were not dangerous.  They didn’t chase or hunt. 

They stand.  They watch.  They wait.

But wait for what?  Adira didn’t know…yet.

She hoped that Patrick had some answers for her.

***

Adira took a few steps away from the car, hoisting her backpack onto her shoulders and peering up at the already darkened mountain peaks.

“We can turn back from here too,” Patrick said from behind her.  “Or at any point.”

She turned back to look at him.  He was standing some ways apart from her.  And he was holding the keys to his car out to her.

“Just say the word,” he said.  He didn’t say anything about it, but he seemed to have realized that he had scared her earlier.

“Sounds good,” she said.  She waved her hand in front of herself, indicating that he should take the lead.

“And if we do, you can still pay me,” he said, pressing his lips together in what might have been a smile of apology as he passed her.

Adira offered only a solemn nod.  “Deal.”

***

She didn’t have to do this.  She didn’t have to climb up a mountain. 

The interview with Patrick—which would follow, the rare first-hand accounts she had already discovered, and the rest of her research so far would have been enough.  If she had been investigating one of those haunted houses that were supposed to drive trespassers mad, she would have declined any opportunities for an in-person visit.  Whether or not she believed in any particular legends, she wasn’t one to take unnecessary risks.

But with the shadow souls, there was little risk.  She wouldn’t even need to go that far.  So even for her, the likelihood of getting lost in the woods was extremely low.

When she first offered to attempt witnessing the shadow souls herself, she did have some inkling about what happened when the rules of encounter with the shadow souls were broken.  But the rules seemed easy to follow.

Even after she heard about Patrick’s story, she thought she’d be able to manage those rules.

Adira had learned a lot about the shadow souls in her few months of dedicated research.  But Patrick knew more.  He’d been studying the shadow souls for over five years.  Her reasons were professional.  His were personal.

Patrick believed that his brother was one of the shadow souls.

***

“I didn’t see any,” Patrick said with a sigh.  “Did you?”

It was full dark on the mountain now.  Adira spotted figures from the corner of her eye, figures that approached, crunching over pebbles.  A couple of night hikers passed them by as they stood beside the path.

They exchanged greetings and then Adira looked at Patrick and shook her head.

“We can stay a few more minutes,” he said.  “But if we were going to see them, we would have seen them by now.”

***

They found a chain restaurant a few miles outside of the pass, a place that Patrick passed on his solo visits and had been curious about trying. 

“But whenever I come by myself, I find I just want to get as far away as possible,” Patrick said. 

They sat in a booth, sipping drinks while they waited for their food.

“Even when you don’t see anything?”

“Especially when I don’t.”

Adira couldn’t think of a soft way to approach the topic that she most wanted to interview him about.  “Do you feel up to talking about what happened with your brother?”

He took a sip of his soda and nodded a few times.  His eyes shifted to the side and down, as if he were trying to figure out how to start.

“Take your time,” Adira said.

“We were newbies at hiking,” he began.  “So the trail we were on was an easy one.  Easy to walk.  Easy to follow.”  He gave a quiet chuckle and glanced up.  “Kids were walking it with their folks.”

***

All Adira knew before she sat down with him was what she had read in a few articles and one short video segment in the local news.

Patrick’s brother, Miles, had disappeared while the two were making their way back down the mountain after their third hike without a guide.  A search was mounted, but he was never found.  Patrick was asked over and over if he remembered anything, saw anything.  He was asked how it was possible that he’d lost sight of his brother.  Miles had been walking in front of Patrick. 

No one understood how Patrick hadn’t seen what happened to his brother.

Patrick didn’t understand.

But then he learned about the shadow souls. 

“Everyone else had to stop looking,” Patrick said, “even though we didn’t find a body.  Some people think that I was still searching.  No one questioned that at first.  But I told a few people that I wasn’t going back to search for Miles.  That I knew what had happened.  I even knew where he was.  I’d even seen him.  I knew by then that I shouldn’t look directly at them.  But I felt like it was h—“

He stopped short when the server arrived with their food.

Adira gave him a chance to eat by taking over the conversation.  She told him about some of what she’d learned in her research.  Some had attempted to provide a scientific explanation for the shadowy figures that people regularly saw in those mountains.  A few had claimed to see the figures at night.  But most accounts reported that it was dusk, and often times it was foggy.  With the sun behind the person, it was their own shadow cast into the fog, magnified and made eerie by the reflection and refraction of light on particles in the mist.  Glints of light within that cloud were sometimes perceived as glowing eyes. 

“There’s a word for it,” Adira said.  “When people see things, especially see human features where they’re not expected.”

Patrick nodded, chewing on his sandwich.  “Yeah, it’s…”

“Pareidolia.”

He swallowed.  “Mouthful.”

Adira smiled. 

But then she told him a darker tale, from a myth she’d found that explained how the shadow souls came to be there in the first place.  “I found plenty of unconfirmed fragments of stories, about curses and disturbed burial sites.  One of them was a little different, about a god dying here.  But it wasn’t a god.  It wasn’t anything from human times.”

Patrick finished eating and wiped his mouth with his napkin.  His brow creased.  This seemed to be something he hadn’t heard about. 

“Long before there was any such thing as a god or a human being,” Adira said, “something died there.  Something with a soul.” 

That soul did not move on.  It didn’t vanish.  It rotted along with the body.  Not much of that soul was left by the time human beings came around the area.  Only enough to trap a living soul, to trap and infect, and just hold in place.

“That’s what happened to him,” Patrick said, gazing down at the pool of ketchup on his plate.  “That’s happened to Miles.”

He glanced up at Adira and frowned.  “I still wonder sometimes, more than I used, if I really saw what I thought I saw.  We were almost out.  We could see our car from where we were.  The path was clear.  No bears.   Not mountain lions.   The fog was up to our knees, but we could still see what we needed to see to make it back.  I heard people nearby.  And I wasn’t looking away.  Some people asked me if I looked away for a moment.  But I was looking right at him when it happened.  Miles just…dropped into the fog.  Just dropped, as if he’d walked off a cliff.  I thought he’d just tripped, because we couldn’t see our feet, so I called out to him.  I was worried.  He might have hit his head.  But I was a hundred percent sure I knew where he was.  I walked over to that exact spot.  I was standing on solid ground.  The fog swirled all around my ankles and knees.  I kind of kicked at it to clear it out.  I called out to Miles again.  When he didn’t answer, I was annoyed at first.  I thought he might be playing a prank on me, and that he’d jump out at me.”

Patrick glanced away then back toward Adira.  “Do you want to guess how many times in our lives my little brother has played a prank on me?”  He raised his left hand and shaped his fingers into a “zero.”

“I remember being hungry,” he said.  “Because just like today, we had planned on eating after.  I remember being tired already.  I had gone to the car and started it and yelled out that I was leaving him behind.  I closed the door without thinking.  Locked myself out.  I got more annoyed.  And at the same time, I hoped that would be the worst part of our night, being locked out of our car and having to figure out what we would do.” 

He looked down at his plate.  “By the next morning, all of that was done with.  I pictured a scenario while I walked through the woods calling his name.  If Miles suddenly jumped out from behind a tree now, I would just hug him, and call off the search, take him to get food.  Later, when people found out Miles had just pranked us, when they wanted to give him a talking to for putting us through all that, I would tell everyone that I’d handle it.  But I would never say a single word of blame to him.  I would never be annoyed with him again.  Never take him for granted again.”

His eyes still cast downward, Patrick drew in a breath and exhaled.   “I searched, and others searched. Through the night and the next day.  Miles was nowhere.  There were no clues.  His backpack was gone.  His phone.  His dumb high-tech water bottle.  All gone.  He was gone.” 

Patrick paused.  When the server laid down the receipt, Adira quietly reached for it, slipped her card in, and set it at the edge of the table.

He looked up at her.  “That evening, I went back to the spot where I’d lost sight of him.  I went back at around the same time on purpose.  It was half out of logic—thinking I’d see something that would jog a memory.  Some important detail.  And it was half out of superstition—thinking that if I came back to the same spot at the same time, he would be returned to me.”

Patrick leaned forward.  “And he was.  Just not the way I expected.”

Adira too leaned forward. 

“I didn’t know about the warnings then,” Patrick said.  “I mean, I’d heard, but didn’t really pay attention.  So when he appeared, I looked right at him.  I looked right into his eyes.  It wasn’t my own shadow reflected on the fog.  It was a human made out of dark shadow and…other things.  I couldn’t make them out.  His eyes were hollow and bright.  Yellow, with an orange rim.  Kind of like a sunset.”

He couldn’t look away.  But as the sun sank, the shadow faded until it was gone.

“I felt my brother in that shadow.”

***

It was said that if anyone looked directly at the shadow souls, or attempted to address them, or walked up to them, that person would be taken by the shadow souls.  That person would become a shadow soul.  There would be no body, no remains for loved ones to find and mourn.  The person would just disappear.   If their loved ones returned, that person would be there, right there, but they wouldn’t be able to call out or approach. 

All they would be able to do was stand, and watch, and wait. 

“They’re waiting for someone to come and release them,” Patrick said. 

During optimistic times, stories were told of ways that the trapped souls could be freed.  They could and would step out of the shadows and once again be flesh and blood and bone.  During cruel times it was said that there was only one way that a shadow soul might be freed, and that was if someone else took their place.  If someone were to approach, address the shadow, look into the shadow’s eye, that person would invite the shadow to switch places.

“Miles didn’t switch places with a trapped soul,” Patrick said.  “If he had, we would have found that person.  I think what happened to him is what you were saying about there being traps.  I think they’re not stationary.  Otherwise, someone would have fallen into that one.  So maybe they float around like dust particles.  And one of them just happened to hit Miles.  Whatever it was—the rotting remains of a soul or some kind of space-time anomaly—it doesn’t really matter.  Because he’s trapped.  I could have freed him that night.  If I’d come closer.  If I’d said anything.  When I found out, I figured I’d do that.  I decided.  I prepared.  But then I thought…I told myself he wasn’t suffering.  And maybe I had time to figure out some way to save him without having to take his place.  Or better yet, to save them all.”

Adira gaped.  “You think you can do that?”

He shrugged.  “I think I’m close.  But…I still sometimes think I might be fooling myself with false hope that one of those shadows is Miles.  But it would still be worth doing to free them all.”

Adira nodded.  In one story that she’d read, the souls would abide for as long as the Earth abided.  But some said that even if the planet were to shatter, those shadow souls would remain, their empty eyes watching the cosmos.

“I know how it sounds,” Patrick said.  “Me thinking I’m the one guy who’s figured out how to save all those souls after all this time.”

“Not the one guy,” Adira said.  “Not if we’re pooling our knowledge and resources.”  She gave him the combination of a nod and a measured smile that indicated he was not in it alone.

That’s when he dropped his gaze in what Adira perceived as unspoken gratitude.  His gaze swept the tabletop and he looked up at her with an arched brow.

“Did we get the bill?” he asked.

***

Adira stayed up far too late that night, sorting through her notes from that day, and catching up with her correspondence.

One of her friends was up late too.  They ended up messaging each other for a little while.  After some ribbing about avoiding demon possession and honest questions about how useful Adira’s latest source was being, they started watching a movie together and fell into conversation about more frivolous topics.  Adira started feeling sleepy halfway through and went to bed at last.

She spent the next day organizing her notes, debating about taking a nap to catch up on sleep, deciding to stay up so she wouldn’t miss Patrick’s call, and then waiting for Patrick’s call as she was drafting an update report.  He had told her that they might need to visit the mountains a few times before she would glimpse the shadow souls.  He no longer lived in the area.  But he had family nearby and he always visited them when he made his trip to check on his brother’s shadow.

So when he didn’t call or message, Adira let it go.  She would message him the next day.  And if he wasn’t available, she would find someone else to guide her up to the mountain.

But she hoped that Patrick would get back to her.  After his revelation that he may have discovered a way to free all the shadow souls, she would feel as if she’d left unfinished business behind if she didn’t follow up with him.

Her hotel was on a street with lots of little shops (many of which had “shadow soul merchandise”).  She went window shopping and picked up a few souvenirs, including a book for herself. 

When she got back to her hotel room, she found a package waiting on the dresser, with a handwritten note attached.  She caught the signature and checked her phone.  But the only messages were the usual “just checking in” notes from her mom.  She had no missed calls.

She read the note.

***

Addy,

Thanks for listening to my story and sharing all the things you’ve learned.  I’m returning the favor.

Here’s all my research.  I won’t need it anymore.  I’m sorry to dump this on you.  But I’m done.  I’m not giving up.  I just can’t take small steps anymore.  And keep going for—what—another five years?  Another ten?  Twenty?  I’m going to try one more thing.  If I’m wrong, maybe I’ll end up like Miles.  Or maybe I’ll have to come back down the mountain and find some way to do what everyone else has done.  Move on.  If I’m right, your project will have a happy ending.  Either way, good luck to you.  It’s been good getting to know you.

Patrick

***

She called, but he didn’t answer. 

Adira wanted to open the package he’d left her.  But she also wanted to go back up to the mountains.  It was a short drive from her hotel.

He said he would take her when he went back up.  But maybe he changed his mind. 

She had to know what he knew.  It might help her figure out what he intended to do.

Adira ordered dinner and stayed in her room.  She opened the package that Patrick had left for her.  It was full of paper notes, drawings, photocopies, books, and a couple of storage devices rattling around in what used to be a travel first aid kit.

She glanced at the time and confirmed when sunset would be that night. 

And she started reviewing Patrick’s research.

***

Sunset was halfway over by the time Adira arrived at the mountain.  She scanned the lot for Patrick’s car, but didn’t see it.  Maybe it was there, but she didn’t have time to lose.

She tried to call him again, unsurprised when he didn’t pick up. 

She remembered the path they had taken to the spot where Patrick had lost his brother.  It wasn’t far from the lot.  She could make her way there and she could find her way out.

Adira had rushed through reviewing Patrick’s notes.  When she realized that he’d been lying about having found a way to free all the shadow souls, a cold dread had begun to form in the pit of her stomach.  His notes did have plenty of detailed references about freeing a shadow soul. 

Taken together they came to only one conclusion, there was only one way to free a soul from the strange trap that held it in place, a living soul to stand and watch and wait until the end of time.

Someone else had to take that soul’s place.

But Adira saw glimpses of other ways.  Surely Patrick had too, but something must have happened to shift his mind away from hope.  She had to find him, convince him to at least help her get through his notes.  Their two minds together were more likely to see what his one mind could not.  Another way.

Adira made her way down the path.  It was quiet.  She didn’t hear the voices of other hikers.  Before too long, she could barely hear the cars in the lot.

The sunlight was fading.

She glimpsed plenty of shadows, but whenever she turned to them, it was just the woods.  A bird skipping off a branch.  A fallen leaf fluttering to the ground.

Her face was turned toward some movement in the trees, when she caught a glimpse of a figure on the path ahead. 

She wanted to look at it, or call out to it.  Maybe it wasn’t a shadow, but another person.  She stopped herself.  She waited.

She thought she was near the spot where Patrick said Miles had vanished, but she wasn’t sure.

She wanted to call out Patrick’s name.  That wouldn’t break the rules, unless…

She didn’t want to get any closer.  She didn’t want to turn her back on the figure.  Adira took a careful step backward.  She’d made a mistake coming alone.  Nightfall was almost complete.  The shadow would fade.  Then she could turn around and leave.  She just had to wait.

But she couldn’t.  She tried to swallow.  She slowly turned.

“Addy.”

It was Patrick’s voice.

If he were a shadow, he shouldn’t be able to speak. 

Adira turned her face away from the direction of the shadow before she looked up.  But she couldn’t see anyone.  The only figure ahead of her was the shadowy figure in the corner of her vision.

“Addy?”

Adira inhaled a gasp.  The voice had come from the shadow. 

How? she wondered.

Adira took another careful step back.

“Please, help.”

She didn’t know why she did it.

Adira looked over, right into the shadow’s eyes.

The figure was dark, but not like a shadow.  And it had form, but not like a solid body.  He looked like a human being with a head and two arms and two legs, and two eyes, glowing a bright yellow, rimmed with orange.  There were other things within the shadow, things that pulsed and things that spun. 

Adira didn’t take a step forward.  She didn’t approach.  But she felt herself being pulled forward, as if she were about to rise up and float.

Incredible, she thought.  But she didn’t speak the word. 

A sudden flash of heat gripped Adira.  She couldn’t breathe.  She couldn’t hear anything but a distant ringing.  It felt as if she was about to pass out.  Her eyesight narrowed to a pinprick.  Her body shuddered.  The shadow moved.  He was walking toward her. 

Adira blinked, trying to restore her vision.  And she saw a sight that she hadn’t dared to hope she would see.  Patrick was there somehow.  He was standing some distance from her.  He was clutching someone else.  He was crying and clutching a young man.  The man drooped in Patrick’s arms.  He pulled free and stood on shaky legs.  He leaned over, his hands on his knees.

He pulled in a breath and huffed it out.  He did it again.  Without rhythm.  As if he was rusty at it.  At breathing. 

Adira couldn’t see him clearly.  But she knew who he was. 

Miles.

He looked up at Patrick.  “Trick?” he said.

Adira didn’t understand at first.  She thought he was asking his brother if his freedom was a trick. 

But then Miles straightened and said it again.  “Trick. Oh my—“

Patrick threw his arms around his little brother and pulled him into a hug.  He gently turned and guided Miles down the path.

Adira tried to follow.  She tried to take a step.  But she couldn’t.  She couldn’t move.  She tried to call out.  But she couldn’t.  She couldn’t speak. 

All she could do was stand and watch.

She stood.  She watched.

But she didn’t have to wait.

Miles broke free of his brother’s grip again.  He turned around and stumbled toward Adira before Patrick could stop him.

He looked right at her, locked his gaze with hers.  Adira’s pinprick vision widened.   

Miles was so gaunt.  His cheeks were hollow.  The spaces under his eyes were sunken. 

He stepped toward her.

“I’m sorry,” he said, in a rasping whisper.

He had just broken all three rules.

The path between them was open.

Adira could walk down that path.  She could switch back.  

She could see Patrick behind his brother. 

He was paralyzed, helpless to stop her. 

She could move now.  She could reach out to Miles.  She could take him.  She could pull him back into the shadow.  Leave him there.  Be free.  It was the best way.  She could leave him there while she found a way to finish what Patrick had started, to free all the shadow souls.  She could dedicate her life to it.  She vowed it as she held Miles in her bright gaze.  

Reflex swept her forward, like fierce unseen tides crashing against her back, pushing and then pulling her toward Miles.

She screamed at herself. Two words that sounded the same.

No!

Now!

No!

Now!

No.

Adira held herself still.

Miles held himself still.

Patrick’s paralysis cracked.  His hands reached out.  One hand grabbed Miles by the wrist and yanked him back.  The other hand covered Miles’s eyes.

Adira’s vision contracted.  The path before her vanished.

She watched Miles struggle against his brother again.  But Patrick was prepared now.  And Miles was too weak.  He couldn’t fight his brother.  He was pulled away down the path, finishing the journey that he’d started over five years past.

It was full night, but Adira was still there.  Her mind was a maelstrom of thoughts.  How long would it take before she was missed?  How terribly would her family suffer, her friends?  She would never deliver those souvenirs.  She would never—

She stilled the storm of thoughts and the feelings that followed.  She stilled them as she remembered what had brought her to that spot in the first place.  A box full of knowledge.  She had time now to sift through it.  If she kept her mind still. 

In the darkness, her memory was sharp.  She pictured herself flipping over that first page.  She began to read it carefully.  She began to sift through all the knowledge she had gathered on the shadow souls of the mountain pass.

As she stood.  As she watched.

As she waited.


Copyright © 2022  Nila L. Patel

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