Paul Godfrey walked the corridor. He paused at each classroom door, peering through the square window like a headmaster checking in on his staff. Godfrey wasn’t a teacher though, and there were no pupils. Room after room was empty and with no flicker of reaction upon his face Godfrey moved on.
The corridor was streaked with zebra stripes of pale blue moonlight filtering in through those rooms and windows. The rest of the building was steeped in an opaque black, the lights and electricity having been cut.
He stopped at a pair of fire doors, safeguarding a stairwell beyond from the spread of any inferno. He leaned against the door gently, pressing his black, stab-proof vest to the blue paint of the door. Pushing, carefully, he eased the door open until, after an eerie and silent pause, he was satisfied that it would make no sound. Opening the door the rest of the way he boldly stepped through. Pausing on the other side he took a moment to listen out for any noises, but was only treated to the smell of floor cleaner. Satisfied he ascended a flight of stairs.
Up one floor he found an exit and after a quick check of the few rooms on this floor he stepped outside. A cold but calm breeze greeted him. Above, a clear sky gazed at him, watching through the unblinking shine of the stars. The moon, full, loomed above, its pock marked surface clear.
The entire campus had been evacuated. It was early in the evening but the student nightlife would have already started and certainly there would normally have been one or two stragglers left around, whether it was someone throwing up or someone with a deadline the next day desperately trying to finish work they hadn’t started yet.
Godfrey walked over the cemented ground, straight ahead to where a much larger, and older, building lay waiting. Its stone walls and archways were rubbed smooth from years of erosion.
With a quick glance behind him Godfrey stepped through the main entrance to be greeted with a modernised interior. The whitewash walls turned blue under the moon’s gaze and an empty receptionist’s desk cowered into the shadows.
Godfrey took a cigarette from a pack in his breast pocket. With a glance to his left and right he lifted another object from a trouser pocket and with a flick produced a flame. He cupped his hand around the flame as though protecting it from the wind, though he was inside. Simultaneously a pair of amber glows emerged behind him, fixed in the wall, they watched the flicker of the flame play on his cupped hand and bearded chin.
He paused for a few minutes, sitting in a cushioned chair in this lobby casually puffing his cigarette and playing with the smoke that issued from his mouth. He rested his policeman’s cap in his lap and ruffled his hair.
A sharp roar echoed through the lobby. It sounded like a mix of a high-pitched wail and the deep, rumbling roar of a lion. Paul leapt from his seat, his hat tumbled to the ground and rolled a short distance to rest at the paw of a panther.
Paul stared at it, not daring to move but keeping his knees bent ready to run should the panther pounce. It watched him back, its amber eyes the only solid aspect of its being. It was difficult to make out the black creature in the dark surroundings but he was sure there was something indistinguishable, indefinable about its edges. It looked as though it had been drawn by an expert artist, lifelike in every regard, yet had been smudged, blurring reality and hallucination together.
It roared again and pounced for Paul Godfrey, just managing to tear a corner off his coat as he turned and ran.
* * *
That morning a boy had left his home, shutting the front door behind him and slinging his backpack across his back. His name was Peter and he was completely indistinguishable from the rest of the crowd, if you weren’t looking.
Peter walked to the university, trudging alone the entire journey. As he walked the pavements and footpaths he joined the crowds of students meeting each other. They banded together travelling in packs of two to four on their pilgrimage, all of them except for Peter.
He walked across the pavement past the blue, glass of a modern building, toward stairs that led to some of the older, stone buildings. Head down, hands in coat pockets, he moved at a slow pace. He was oblivious to it all, surrounded by hundreds of other students, still alone. Anywhere, he could have been, and still those downcast eyes would be downcast.
A crowd of boys, jostling each other playfully, bumped into him. He shied away from the touch but gave no more reaction than that. The group disappeared into the crowd behind him soon enough and he ascended a large set of stone steps.
* * *
The bathroom was deserted, the stalls empty, though the lingering smell of bleach and urinal cakes permeated the air. He let go of the door as he caught his breath and the pounding of his chest calmed. Paranoid, fully aware of the danger now, he set about checking the bathroom.
Godfrey stepped back from the last cubicle, certain no one was present. The moonlight , casting a thin blue sheen across everything was, here, filtered through frosted glass. It cast tiny shadows across everything, giving the appearance of rough surfaces and casting haggard wrinkles onto Godfrey’s thirty-three year old face.
He watched the shadows play across his hand and curious turned to the mirror that ran the length of the opposite wall.
At first he assumed it was due to his gloomy surroundings, but as he peered on he depicted his silhouette in the mirror. At least he assumed it was his. It appeared to have the same height and build as him. As for its features, well, it was impossible to make out. It seemed to Godfrey that he cast no reflection, as though he were a vampire or some other supernatural creature. And that the shadow that would normally trail behind him like a faithful lapdog, now stood tall and fully formed, taking his empty place within the mirror world.
Godfrey watched it for a while, since there was nothing to be afraid of. The apparition, or anomaly, or whatever still behaved exactly as a normal reflection should.
Godfrey stepped back and produced a cigarette. Lighting it he took a quick puff and stared at the amber glow, the only real sense of colour in this nighttime place. He relaxed, feeling some of the tension fall from his body and satisfied dropped the cigarette butt to the tiled floor.
He watched in fascination as instead of the normal grey of the seductive wisps a black smoke issued forth. It did not snake immediately upward, instead choosing to move with its own mind, crawling across the tiles to his leg, curling up his thigh, slithering past his stomach and chest.
He later wondered if it had placed some kind of enchantment upon him, or the nicotine had dulled his mind. Maybe the harmless figure in the mirror had lulled him, or he had been entranced in sheer fascination, whatever the reason Godfrey had not moved or attempted to stop the black smoke before it had formed a circle around his neck.
* * *
Stood outside his classroom Peter waited. Girls nattered away in the queue ahead of him. In front of him squeezing hands and kissing was a couple. The boyfriend left shortly with a wave and the girl smiled demurely after him. Then, quick as a wink, her mobile was out and clicking away as she played with her hair. He saw out of the corner of his eye her phone scroll down the contacts list until it highlighted a name: ‘Darren’.
A musty, unwashed smell wafted over him as two guys queued up behind him.
“…It was such a fucking mess.”
“Man I wish I hadn’t missed that.”
“You left pretty early, hey where’d you stay last night?”
He coughed. “Jessica’s”.
The other guy raised his eyebrow, “You hit it off then?”
The queue started heading into the classroom, the boy moved in as quickly as he could but still caught some more of the conversation.
“She’s pretty filthy you know.”
“What? Into kinky stuff?”
* * *
Godfrey clawed at his neck. The smoke had fused into his skin, turning once more into that living shadow. Like a tattoo it collared his neck, rippling and waving as he tried to rub it away. Panicking Godfrey lurched forward to a sink, and with a quick spin of the tap summoned a flow of water.
He splashed it on to his neck, a gut reaction to attempt to clean or smear away the tainting presence of the moving ink. It achieved nothing, except to freeze his blood as it exacerbated the presence of the chill air.
After awhile, in which no danger had presented itself, his panic subsided, though he still tentatively fingered at his jugular, fearful of deception, fearful of being caught off guard. The turbulent rush of water as it smashed on the porcelain sink obscured the noise, so he turned the tap off.
Turning away from the sink, listening to the wind sweep past the window, he stared at his cigarette. Still lit, with a feeble line of the usual grey smoke being blown gently away from the window. It reminded him of a memory.
Of his first experience. The girl had been a smoker too. They’d been stood under the wooden canopy of the beer garden inhaling each other’s fumes and musing on minor absurdities. Her lightly freckled cheeks rose and fell with each spoken word. She was a poet, possibly, he hadn’t listened to much she had said, his thoughts being otherwise occupied. Her dark red lips pursing together as she trickled the smoke out of her mouth, refreshed to make her next point.
She was about to head home, taking a few steps out beneath the dark sky on slick black heels. It had started raining then, and seeking to be the gentleman, Paul had offered her a lift home on his motorbike, a Honda CG125, he recalled the slick red body of the bike but his thoughts quickly reasserted themselves on the memory of the woman.
She’d accepted and with a tight grasp around his waist, resting her head upon his back, it wasn’t long before they were stood outside her house. There’d been no waiting at the door like he’d expected. She got off his bike, smiled at him and on those heels walked into the house, leaving the green door open and inviting.
Inside, he’d approached her, running his large hands around her waist, feeling through the red fabric of her dress. Placing his lips on hers and as one they moved into the bedroom.
Godfrey was nearly lost in memories of scented perfume mixed with his own musty cologne. But something was strange, he felt as though he was being watched. His fingers had fallen from where he tried to touch the shadow collar. There was something in his head, nearly indefinable. Strange compulsions and emotions hovered at the edge of his consciousness.
The creature was inside his mind. It wasn’t hostile, though Godfrey could not shake an intense nervousness and distress at the presence. It felt strangely protective like a gorilla guarding its young. A bold, self-assured presence nothing like the entropic smoke or the fleeting, two-dimensional shadows.
The memories of the girl beckoned his mind once more and this time he realised the separate consciousness was probing at his memories. Back he was in the bedroom, lying over the purple bed covers, entwined with the girl, single minded and determined. Sweat glistening over sinew and silky thigh.
The consciousness quelled: saddened, hopeless, confused. It witnessed the full climax of the memory until the younger Paul Godfrey disengaged and lay holding the girl tight within his arms.
* * *
Peter pushed out of the classroom. The brown doors closed behind him, he was last out. The rest of the class had already disappeared, merging into the passing crowds of staff and students. He exited the old, mediaeval building and paused, deciding where to go. To the right lay the chapel, the flint pieces held together with old mortar, and further the computer rooms and other lecture theatres. A gym lay that way too, though it was of no interest to him, and a pond which he briefly considered, but there would be too many passers by.
Mind made up Peter headed left, passing the giant steps, where hordes of students massed like ants crawling over a picnic, and passing the cafeteria where a similar horde gathered, though somewhat more civilised.
There was a sign outside the reception desk which distracted his attention briefly, ‘Careers Services Talk: Graduate Placements in the Police’ and just behind it, through a large, blue-tinted glass wall was a policeman, presumably the one giving the talk. He held his hat under his arm and chatted casually to the receptionist who wore a broad grin across her face and kept glancing down at her desk as if looking into the policeman’s face was as dangerous as looking into the sun.
The policeman too wore a similar grin, a casual smile that poked through the brown, short cut beard of his face. It was a well practised smile though, one that gave the illusion of being natural.
Peter was soon out of sight, he did not rush but his normal gait carried him at a quick pace out of the university grounds and across the road to a cemetery. Here a thoroughfare of people passed, using the pathway as a shortcut, but Peter cut left immediately, climbing up the grassy slope and walking between the grave plots, superstition prevented him from walking where he thought a body might lie buried. It was disrespectful. This was a very old cemetery though and amongst the fallen and broken tombstones were some graves that had become almost completely submerged in the dirt, leaving only a few grey stone edges visible.
He passed out of view of the pathway, reaching a far corner of the cemetery that kept him out of sight of anyone, with the exception of one or two dog walkers. A bench lay, enclosed within a natural arch formed by an eager hedge keen to lay claim to more of the land. Here Peter flopped to the bench, slinging his backpack from his back and plonking it in front of him.
For a while he just sat there, head in his hands. Smelling the autumnal mulch that lay around. Occasionally shivering in the chill air. Until, eventually, down the back of his left hand, trailing between the knuckles of his middle and ring fingers, leaving a glistening trail, was a tear.
* * *
Godfrey ran along the corridors chasing his shadow. He dashed out of one building and across the square into another. His shadow slid with ease across the wall, and up to the ceiling. Breathing heavily, he bounded up a set of stairs to catch it, losing ground with every second.
Reaching the next floor he saw no sign of his shadow. Godfrey opened a door he thought it had slithered through. Inside appeared to be little bigger than a cupboard and was used for much the same. He stepped around a bucket and mop and gripped the sides of a steel ladder leading up to a trapdoor in the ceiling through which a breeze drifted.
Peering cautiously, Godfrey’s head popped out of the hole in the roof of the building. A flat area lined with black tarmac covered the roof and on the other side of it stood two figures hugging each other closely.
He climbed on to the roof, unnoticed and checked his bearings. From this vantage point he could see the flashing blue and red lights of the police cordon, the tips of the trees and the layout of the rest of the university grounds.
Godfrey shouted to the couple, confused now that he could see them clearer, one of them in particular. At the sound of his voice the taller one gently kissed the forehead of the younger. Two adults. They turned to him, holding hands. One was Peter, the boy he had been sent to find. The other, was himself, Paul Godfrey, staring back at him. The other him had a foot forward, as though ready to protect Peter, to fight off any attacker.
* * *
Peter had ignored the tears as they fell from his eyes. He felt consumed with sadness and wanted a miracle solution to his problem. He did not know where he fitted in. He did not know how he could possibly be happy.
He wanted to believe everything would be okay for himself. He wanted to think that his loneliness was only temporary. Peter shivered, his tears felt as though they must be frosting over and he began to wish that his whole body would freeze. That the cold would reach deep inside and seize hold of his heart. That it would halt the endless thump of his heartbeat, of his existence.
Instead a soft warmth tapped his spine, between his shoulder blades, and gently trailed down to his lower back. The warmth seeped into his nervous system and flowed to his legs, his fingers and his head.
Peter straightened up and opened his eyes to find himself in the middle of an embrace. A huge, swirling mass of black smoke pulled itself away and crouched before him. It remained humanoid in figure, and as Peter looked at it a pair of amber gems loomed into place where its eyes should be, bobbing up from the dark, deep recesses of that black mass.
It screamed hope to Peter’s battered soul and he allowed himself to be led by this creature back to the university.
* * *
Paul Godfrey watched his doppelganger carefully. It wasn’t a perfect copy, some aspects shivered into being and out again. The body swayed too easily in the wind and when it took another step towards him the foot disappeared into a mass of black tendrils before reforming as the foot fell into place. The shadow creature, flushed with all the colour of Paul’s appearance, held a hand towards Peter, halting him from approaching.
Godfrey pulled his gun from his belt and yelled a warning at his doppelganger, telling it to stay back and to keep away from Peter. His voice sounded hoarse in the silence and was soon carried away as the wind began to pick up.
His torn coat flapped in his peripherals and he was reminded of the danger the shadow creature presented. He firmed his grip on his pistol and aimed at the monster.
It darted to his right in an instance disseminating back to a formless mass of shadow and in the second instance it leapt with a roar in panther form, slashing his hand and knocking him onto his back.
It retreated, flying on the wings of a dozen crows before coagulating back into his doppelganger. It loomed over him, his own face unreadable beneath the tawny brown beard and his eyes replaced with amber.
Backing away in terror Godfrey scrabbled for his gun with his left hand, his right gashed and covered in scarlet. His doppelganger stepped closer as Godfrey clasped the handle of his pistol and swinging it wildly towards his attacker squeezed the trigger.
The Paul Godfrey that was stood before him paused, he could see its replica of his mouth twist in shock. Paul watched his doppelganger darken in colour, falling apart at the seams. The smoke cleared. He could see through the creature to the boy who stood behind it: the boy who held a red stained hand to his chest.
Peter collapsed to the floor, the world dimming before him. He was content as he looked up into the starry sky. A pair of amber lights appeared amongst them and a face, struggling to maintain form as its partner slipped from life. Peter felt the coarseness of facial hair rub against his face and he died warm with a kiss upon his lips.