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The days don't get much easier. I try to keep my mind and my hands busy. It's only been a month since Mattie went away, supposed to be the best time of the year. I guess I'm not much for the holiday spirit anymore. It always feels like something's missing.
Chase has taken to pity me, and I just hate it. Every time I look at her, if we catch eyes, she smiles at me like she's trying to let me know she's there. Tries to give me reassurance. Jason hasn't said much to me. Kind of keeps to his own now.
Momma tried to call Mattie's mom, see what was going on. She really didn't say anything that Ronnie hadn't already said. I didn't know if Mattie might have mentioned anything else. I never knew Matthew Hedquist would be the one to unravel my world. To leave me behind in hell when I thought it'd be him who saved me.
Momma tells me I've been mopey lately. Brooke's noticed it too, but she doesn't know what's going on. I don't plan on telling her, either. I want Mattie to have some dignity, and if I said anything, I'm sure everyone in town'd hear about it. Nobody seemed to have noticed that he was gone, either. Brooke brought it up once or twice, but it doesn't seem to matter to her either way.
When I go to bed at night, he haunts my thoughts like a sad ghost. I remember the way his skin smelled, the way it felt to the touch. His warmth when it was cold. The goosebumps on his arms. His smile, his kind orange eyes.
I cry at night. If it would make the world right, if it would have stopped Mattie trying to kill himself, I would have left Brooke alone. She complicated things way too much.
So did Jeff.
# # #
The first time I saw Backdraft was in a magazine. The second time was on a protest picket sign in Nevada. Someone had taken his picture and made it look like he was standing on top of a hamburger bun. Above it, in big white letters, read This ain't your burger.
These were the people who beleived that cows shouldn't be domesticated. They wanted to free all the ranks. Put them in some sort of rehabilitation farm.
I wonder how any one of those hippies would have stacked up against that animal in a pen.
# # #
I'm parked on the side of the road. The sky's a swirl of dark blue and orange. The setting sun hits the bottom of the clouds, mixes an eerie color of orange and red. Naked winter trees reach for the sky like fingers of a skelliton. A flock of geese fly toward the south in a delta. A picture that might just make a duck hunter feel right at home.
The red and blue light flickering on the sun visors reminds me that I'm in a world of deep shit. A highway patrolman is talking into his radio. I see him in my rear-view mirror. He's fixin' to come out, to walk up to this window.
I'm done for. I knew I'd get busted for this before I even took off with Jason's truck. Now I'm tangled up with the law with nothing more than my learner's permit and Momma's gas card. I throw my arms across the steering wheel, lean my head against them. I am so fucked.
There's a heavy tapping on the window. This cop doesn't look like he's ever touched a donut in his life. He looks like a fucking drill sergeant. He's got on this flat-brimmed hat that's covered with a plastic hairnet looking thing. A black jacket with fur around the neck. His billy-club's in his hand, he's knocking with the handle, got his other hand on his pepper spray.
Look at me, I'm pathetic. Really fucking threatening.
I try to roll down the window, but it feels like all the energy's gone outta my arm. Takes some effort to get the damn thing down, but then again, this window handle's always been difficult. I stare at him, blink a few times. Looks like he's trying to size me up.
"We goin' for a joy ride?"
I fold my hands in my lap, look down at them. "No, sir."
"You keep those hands where I can see 'em. Up on the steering wheel."
I do as I'm told.
"You know why I pulled you over today?"
"Um, no, sir."
"Care to tell me where we're heading, Mister Taylor?"
"Out of the frying pan and into the fire."
He grins, nods at me. "Into the fire." He shines his flashlight around the cabin, then on my face. Bright as the light of God himself. "Not gonna get wily on me, are ya'?"
"Good. You hand me those keys there. Step on out of the truck. Gonna need your license and registration."
I turn the truck off and hop out, close the door behind me. Hand him the key ring and my permit.
He eyeballs my ID, then brushes the light on the hood of the truck. "Why don't you hop up on the hood there and have a seat. I'll get to you in a second." He walks over toward his car, stops by the door and starts talkin' into the radio on his shoulder. Keeps an eye on me. "5-1 to dispatch."
"5-1 go ahead."
"Hey there Tammy. I intercepted the boy from the missing persons call we got this afternoon on 15 about thirty miles south of Cascade. Male, age sixteen, five-six, one-thirtyfive, brown, green. Driving on a permit without an adult in a stolen vehicle. Name is Taylor, first, Lem. Would you call his parents and tell them we'll have him at the police station in Cascade?"
# # #
They've had me locked in this little conference room for the past three hours. The clock just drags on and on. Every once in a while, one of the dispatch ladies comes in to make sure I don't need a bathroom break or something. I want to go home, but not with the hell-storm that's coming around the corner.
I hear someone coming up the hall, wonder if this could be it. The end of me. Maybe it's a chance to get out of this room for a little bit. Another bathroom break.
No use wasting my time wondering, whoever it is walks past the door, on down the hallway.
I'm resting my head on my arms. I almost want to doze off for a little, but I know it's not gonna do me any good. I look at the back of my hand. Turn it over and eye the tips of my fingers. Stained black from when they fingerprinted me. They took my picture. Gave me a number. Put me in a computer. If I ever get outta line again, they'll add it to my gone-done list.
My leg's falling asleep. I try to shake it a little, end up hitting my knee on the table leg.
One of the dispatch ladies peeks her head through the door. Plump little redhead with her hair pulled back in a braid. She's all of about five-foot nothing. Very personable. She's the one that processed me, talked to me when I came in. Filled out the paperwork and sat with me for half an hour and just chatted. Told me her name was Irene. Asked what I was doing sneaking away from home.
I told her a little about Mattie, that I was trying to find him. She said she thought I had a big heart, trying to find my best friend in his time of need. I wish I felt the same.
"You ready, hon?"
I get up slowly, walk to her with my eyes down. Don't know where my parents are gonna show up, which corner they'll walk around. I don't wanna see them when they do.
She puts her hand on my shoulder. "Don't worry, sweet pea. It's nothing time won't heal." She leans in real close, whispers. "And just think, in a few years, when this is all past you, you can look at this as a learning experience."
I don't understand why she's being so sympathetic. I just swallow, nod. Keep my eyes down. Have my jacket over my arms.
She squeezes my shoulder, leads me down the hall toward where I came in. We come around the corner. My parents are sitting in a little lobby, on seats that look like they came from a bus stop twenty years ago. Jason's sitting on a padded bench across from them, legs stretched out in front of him. He's got his hat pulled down a little, arms crossed. He must have slept in the truck all the way here. I don't think he's all the way awake yet. Guess they brought him so he can drive his truck home and they can both take turns yelling at me on the ride back.
Dad and Momma stand up when we walk in. Momma grabs my arm and shakes the evil outta me. "I was worried sick."
"I'm sorry, Momma."
Dad chews on the inside of his mouth. Shakes his head. "Yeah, you're gonna be sorry."
I can only bring myself to stare at the tile.
"Mister, Missus Taylor, if you'd follow me, I have some paperwork that needs to be taken care of before we can release Lem."
Momma turns toward me. She points at the spot next to Jason, snaps her fingers. "Sit yourself down."
Irene leads them down the hall.
I sit next to Jason. Slowly. As far to the right of him as I can get. I have a feeling that he's going to do something to me for stealing his truck. I hug my arms, hunch over a bit.
He puts his arm behind me. I just know he's gonna smack the back of my head.
I jerk to the side, cover my head. Squint at him and wait for the hit.
He holds his arm up. "Lem, come here."
"No! You're gonna fuckin' hit me."
He motions with his hand. "No I'm not. Come here."
He's used this tactic before. If it doesn't happen now, he'll just sneak into my room when we get home and beat the crap outta me then. I take a small scoot toward him.
He wraps his arm around my back, pulls me tight against his side. I wanna get away from him 'cuz I can smell his body odor. "I got to thinkin' bout things a little on the way over. Bout everything that's gone on the last month. I'm not mad at you for this."
"You'd beat the shit outta me for lookin' at you funny."
"You had your reason for what you done. When I get into trouble, I'm only thinkin' bout myself most of the time."
I try to push away from him. "Why are you being like this?"
He sighs. Folds his arms up and looks over at me. "I've treated you'n Chase like shit all your lives. You threw that curve pitch at me when you asked why I hated you. I couldn't say I didn't because I've always resented you. Mom'n Dad have always loved you more. Always treated you different."
"That's bullshit. Dad and Momma love us all the same."
"That's bullshit. Everyone plays favorites, Lem. I wish I could be more like Ronnie. Dun' know why I can't. I'm just not him. But I'll tell you one thing- don't go around fuckin' up your life like I have. Ten to one Mom'n Dad come right out that door and tell you they'd expect this sort of shit from me, but not you.
"They're gonna tell you they don't think they can trust you anymore. You're grounded. This shit, that shit and the other shit. Got one hell of a shitty ride back to Burlee. Relieved for once it's not me."
"Well, there's a surprise."
"I might be a piece of shit, but I'm still human. We all make mistakes. Yours just meant something. Believe me or not, I respect you a lot for sticking up for Mattie, and for doin' this."
I cock my head to the side. "Man, what the hell got into you?"
"Like I said, you got me to thinkin' about a lot of things. Putting yourself in front of others."
"Now, what would you know about putting yourself in front of others?"
He looks at me. Cracks a smile. "I'm joining the military."
He sits up. "Don't say anything to anyone yet. I've managed to keep my grades up above C's. Got two B's and an A even. I want to tell Mom and Dad when I get my next report card. Try to make something of myself. Show them I'm not a huge fuck-up." He punches me in the arm. "Well, not as huge a fuck-up as you."
"Damn, Jason. That's... something." I'm shocked. I... for once I don't know what to say.
He chuckles. "Next time you wanna go for a joy ride, ask for the keys, first. I might just make myself scarce so they didn't know it was you that gone."
# # #
"You gonna say something or am I?" Dad scans the road in front of him.
"I'm so pissed right now, I don't think I could even talk." Then, Momma turns in the seat and points two fingers at me like a gun. "What the hell's gotten into you? This is the kind of shit Jason does. Now I don't even know if I can trust you anymore!"
Dad looks at me through the rearview mirror. "Answer your mother."
"I... I'm sorry M--"
"You know how lucky you were, Lem? What would've happened if you'd wrecked, or got stranded somewhere? You know how your father or I would feel if something had happened to you? Do you?"
I look down at my lap. "Yes, ma'am."
"Don't yes ma'am me. You know stealing a car is a felony? You can go to prison for that, Lem! You're just lucky it was your brother's truck. If it was someone else, they could have pressed charges. How'd you feel if we let you go to prison for that? You know I had to plead with that lady to drop the charges for running away from home?" She sighs. "Now we're gonna have to come back in a month for court. Maybe if you're really lucky they'll expunge that from your record. Be lucky if they don't suspend your license until you're twenty-one. Where in the hell do you think you were you going?"
I stall. Feel myself starting to get stirred-up.
Dad turns around, grabs my face by the chin and squeezes.
"Damn it, Gary, watch the road! I'll take care of this." She looks at me again. "So, where were you going? Huh?"
I bite my bottom lip and look out the window. Look at a light off the highway a ways. There's a farm or something out there in the middle of--
"You look at me when I'm talkin' to you. Why were you going to Billings?"
I look at her, angry-like. "If you knew where I was goin' then you know why."
"I want to hear you say it. Tell me."
"I wanted to set things right with Mattie."
"How would you have found him? You don't even know where he is!"
"I would'a found a way."
"You think if you did manage to find him, that they'd even let you see him?"
I don't wanna talk about this anymore. "Goddamn it, leave me alone."
Dad looks over his shoulder at me. "I'm gonna pull this truck over and pop you one in the mouth."
"Gary, just... stop it. That's not going to help anything." She shakes her head. "I just don't know who you are anymore." She sighs. "You're grounded for two months, and--"
"...two months. And while you're grounded, you're going to go over to Missus Jensen's house every day after school. She's gonna have chores for you to do, and I expect you to do them thoroughly, quickly, and without complaining. And starting next Friday, I'm taking you over to Havre to start seein' a doctor."
"A doctor? What for?"
"A therapist, Lem. Because I don't think you understand what's going on or how to deal with it. You need an outlet now that Mattie's gone."
"Don't fuckin' say it like that!"
"Lem, watch your mouth or I'm gonna smack the stuffin' outta ya."
"You don't have to say it like he's dead."
"Well, seeing you're probably not gonna see him again, I'll say it how I please."
"I hate you." I cross my arms and look off. I didn't mean to say it, it just slipped. I don't hate her. I'm pushing buttons. I want a reason to hate her.
Dad leans back a bit. Reaches across the back of his seat and grabs me by the back of the neck. Pulls me forward. Keeps his other hand on the wheel. "You apologize. Right now!"
"S... sorry, ma'am."
He lets me go. I slide back, sit against the door. There will be quiet the rest of the way home. I know how Momma works. When we roll into the driveway, her brain will hit the reset button. Start all over again.
# # #
"You're being awfully quiet." She leans back in her chair, crosses one leg over the other. Rests her hand on top of her writing pad. She's got those thick black cat-glasses like people had in the sixties. A younger lady that looks like she's just outta college. Thin, small, brown hair. She's got little nicknacks all over her office. Toys and gadgets. Her diplomas are hanging on the wall, the one from Penn State hangs right next to an old picture of a bald man. There's a little plaque on the picture that reads Freud.
"Didn't reckon I was supposed to say anything." I squeeze a pillow, lean up against the side of the couch. Look around the room to find something else, other than her, to fix on. I don't like it here.
"Are you uncomfortable?"
"I don't like people tryin' to get inside my head."
"Why would you think I'm trying to get in your head?"
"You're a psychic. You work with crazy people. I ain't crazy."
She grins, lifts her glasses so they're sittin' on her head. "Lem, I'm not a psychic. I'm a psychologist. And nobody's calling you crazy."
"Then why am I here, lady?"
"Call me Reagan. Lady makes me a bit uneasy."
"We're here to talk about what you want to talk about."
"What, so you can tell my parents everything I say? Great, my parents are paying you to spy on me." The last kid that was in here, I was sitting in the lobby with his parents. 'Bout ten minutes before I went in, the kid came out and she took his parents in for a while.
She shifts in her seat. "Lem, whatever we talk about in this room is between you and me. I won't tell your parents anything we talk about. It's, like, I can't tell you what me and any other patient are talking about."
"Then what do you say to my parents when they come in here after we're done?"
"Well, I ask them how things are at home. Try to get a better feeling about your family. Try to see things from your parents point of view. It helps paint a bigger picture of what's going on so I know what I should talk to you about next time I see you."
I sit back. Look out the window. "Whatever."
"I'm not here to judge you."
We sit for a while. She watches me, writes something down every so often.
"Tell me about Matthew."
I look at her. She's starting to get on my last nerve. "What about him?"
"What's he like? How long have you two been friends?" She shrugs. "I don't know, why'd you take your brother's truck to go find him in Billings?"
"Shy, eleven years, and because I needed to make good on a few things."
"That's a start. What do you think you would have said if you were able to find him?"
I sigh. Squeeze the bridge of my nose. This is gonna be a long half hour. "I can't say."
"You don't know, or you don't want to tell me?"
"Let's get away from Matthew for a little bit. Your mom tells me you have a rough relationship with your brother?"
"Yeah. He's a douche bag. Always has been."
"Why do you think that is?"
"I don't know. I asked him why he hated me so much, and he just shook his head and walked off. Made me feel like the world was against me, you know? Mattie's been the only one who's ever really understood me."
"Is that why you wanted to find him?"
I shrug. "Maybe a little bit."
"Out of curiosity, why did you hit Jason?"
"He was sayin' some shit..." I think I'm blushing. "Sorry. He was sayin' some stuff I didn't like. Running his mouth like usual. But when he called me an emo fag and asked if I was gonna cut myself, I just... I don't know. I saw the bathtub. Where Mattie'd done it. I felt sick. I wondered if it'd been me, if Jason would have done what Ronnie did or just let me die there all alone."
"Do you think that's how Matthew felt? Alone?"
I taste sour in my throat. Feel I can't control it, hold it in. I hear myself sniff in. Put my hand over my mouth. "You bitch."
She grins a little, like she wasn't too offended. "Seems like I hit a nerve. Why do you think I'm a bitch?"
I look at her square. "Nobody should die like that. Especially someone like Mattie. He didn't deserve it. Any of it! Fuck! Why am I even here?"
"Why do you think you're here?"
I can't believe her. "Is this some sort of game you play? You think it's funny runnin' me around in little circles like this?"
She pouts her lips up a little and shakes her head. "I'm not playing games, Lem. I'm here to listen to what you have to say."
"Why do you even give a shit?" I hold up a finger. "Wait, 'cuz you're paid to give a shit."
"I'm paid to listen and help you dig yourself out of the shit you're in." She sighs. "I don't give a shit to get paid. I give a shit because I care about my patients."
"How can you care about me when you don't even know... shit about me?"
"I took an oath to help people. I really would like to get to know you better, Lem."
"You want to know me? You want to know me?" I stand up, start pacing around in front of the couch. "I'm sixteen. I have a criminal record for stealing a car. That's not like me. I beat the holy living fuck outta my brother because he said some shit I didn't like. That's not me. I'm confused, I haven't been happy in a long time, I'm stuck in this fucking room with you for the next twenty minutes. Is that enough for you?"
She blinks at me.
"Okay, how 'bout this? I'm coming uncorked. I want what I cant have-- like riding a steer is really gonna fucking kill me, Dad. I jerk off three or four times a day. I think dirty thoughts when I do it. I feel guilty about it later. I don't think I like my girlfriend. I've had sex, but not with her. Now do you think I need a fuckin' prescription?"
"That's a bit melodramatic, don't you think?"
"And you keep asking me these fucking questions!"
"Why is this funny to you?"
She covers her mouth, tries not to laugh. "You're trying to rationalize not talking to me."
"I'm not talking to you!"
"No, you're yelling at me."
I sit down. I'm frustrated. Grit my teeth.
"You know what I think?"
I sigh. "No, but I get the feelin' you're gonna tell me."
She smiles again, leans forward a bit. "I think you're intelligent, sarcastic, confused, scared and a little hurt. You're an everyday, average teenager going through the same everyday stuff almost every other teen in the world is going through. I don't think you need a prescription. I don't think you're crazy. And if you keep being ornery like this," she chuckles, "I'm gonna have to take down that wall you've built, brick... by... brick."
# # #
I ring the doorbell and wait. It takes Mrs. Jensen a while to get across the house at her age.
After a minute, the door opens slowly. She stands there, one hand on the knob, one hand on her cane. Hunched over. She looks up at me, smiles. "Well, hello there Lem! You're just in time. I've got myself a spider I can't get at, and I think you're just the person to evict him and tear down his little house." She laughs softly, moves her hand from the door to her lower back. Hobbles backwards to let me in.
She leads me through the house. Points at this and that. Each little antique in her house has a story, a history of some sort. Once in a while, she stops and asks me if I could reach something, or tells me something that needs to be done later on. We get to a room in the back of the house. It's a sewing room. She's got an old foot-pedal Singer on one side that looks like it still gets some use, and a newer pistachio colored electric sewing machine that looks a just a little bit older than Momma. There's part of a quilt spread across the table in front of the green machine.
I rub my fingers across the fabric. "Sure is a nice quilt you're mending, Miss Jensen."
She laughs, swats at the air. "You." She comes up next to me. "That's a little quilt I'm making for Jenny Perkins. Her baby's just about due, so I guess I'm gonna have to hurry things up a little bit." She looks up. "Oop. There's the little bugger." She steps forward. Looks up at it. "Dandy long legs." She looks at me and smiles. "That's what I used to call 'em when I was a little girl. And by the looks of him, he sure is dandy." She looks around the room, hobbles around me to a table.
There's a little jar with a few buttons in it. She dumps it over, spills the buttons on the table.
"Here. Use this to catch him. If you put him in the garden, he'll eat some of those aphids that've been eating my daises."
"Okay." I take the jar and get up on the chair. Try to scoop him in, but he darts across the wall. I follow him along, scoop him up. "You want it out front?"
"I think that'd be just fine, Lem."
I take the spider to the front yard, shake the jar over a patch of flowers. He falls out and scurries away.
I go back inside. She's in the hallway on her way into the kitchen. "Come in. Keep an old gal company." She stops in front of the fridge. "Can I get you something to drink?"
I shake my head. "No, thank you."
She goes for the coffee pot. Fills a half-empty cup and balances it in her hand while she heads for her seat. "I was thinking of going to Havre tomorrow. Going to the Wal-Mart there. Would your mom be willing to set you free for an hour or so. I can't reach those high places anymore. I need a sturdy set of legs and a good, long reach."
I take a chair, lean against the table. "I don't see that she'd have too much an issue of it."
"I hear you like to fish."
"I do, when the urge scratches."
She sips her coffee, puts the cup down on the table. "You might be just the one who can help me out. I'm supposed to make a quilt for one of my great nephews who likes fishing. Maybe you could help me pick out some fabric." She smiles at me. "I'm sure if I sent him something with flowers on it, he'd be tickled the wrong shade of pink."
"So why all the trouble lately? You've always been the quiet one in your brood."
I sigh. "I don't know. Just this stuff with Mattie an' everything."
She looks at the ceiling as if she's lost and floating in space. "The Hedquist boy? Matthew? The shy one?"
This lady has a mind like a tack. "Yeah."
"What's he gone and got himself all wrapped up in?"
"I'm not really supposed to say, since his family's trying to keep it quiet."
"Oh, who would I tell?" She takes another sip. "No use getting all caught up in that gossip, or spreading it either. Doesn't do anyone a bit of good."
"No, no--I trust you. It's not that, it's just a sore spot." I clasp my hands together, stare at the table. "Little 'round a month ago he tried to take his life."
"My, my, my. God bless the child." She sighs, takes another drink. "Why are you getting tangled up in a mess like that?"
"Well, we both said some things. Got into a fight that caused him to think that way. I said some things I had to make right for, and I didn't think there was any other way to get to him, seeing his brother was fixin' to kill me. Matthew's been my best friend since we were little. It's just weird without him around."
She nods, thinks for a moment. "That's a pickle you're in. The both of you." She looks at me. "Is he safe now?"
"As far as I know. Ronnie said he was in a home in Billings."
"Speaking of which, you've reminded me, I need to get my Christmas cards sent off to them sometime before Easter. Gosh, look at me, always one step behind myself! You know, while we're sittin' here, would you mind helping me put stamps on some letters?"
I smile. "Happy to."
She turns and points to a room off the kitchen on the other side from where we came in. There's a step down into a cluttered office. There's a desk covered in papers. Books scattered all over the place. "There's a box sitting on the chair in front of the desk. Stamps should be in with them. Bring it on in here."
I step in the room and scoop up the box. There must be at least a hundred small envelopes in there. I remember back to almost every Christmas as far back as I can remember. Always getting a card from Mrs. Jensen. I set the box down on the table. "Here we go."
"I'm so happy the stamps are little stickers, now. I remember how dry my mouth'd get, licking all those stamps. Had to sit there with a class of water with lemon in it, just to get that awful taste off my pallet." She hands me a stack about thirty thick. "Why don't you start with these. I still have a few I need to sign."
I start peeling stamps off the wax paper, place them neatly in the upper right-hand corner.
She puts on a pair of glasses. "Speaking of the Hedquist clan, here's Ronald..." she thumbs through the envelopes. "...Taylor. Here's John. Ah-ha! Matthew." She pushes her reading glasses up her nose. "I'd just be willing to bet they'll be sending a care package his way. Would you like to write a little something for him?"
"I better not, Missus Jensen. I don't want Ronnie or his parents gettin' mad if they open it."
She smiles. "I don't think they would, if they think it's only from me."
"I just don't want to set him off, since I was the reason he did what he did."
"Lem, dear, that wasn't your fault. People get into fights all the time. Do you think they all up and try to end themselves when they're on the losin' end of things?"
"I'll agree to that. But maybe it'd help him heal, to hear from you."
"I... I don't know." I put a sticker on the next envelope.
She puts her hand on mine. Stops me. "Just a little something to let him know he still means something to you." She nods at me. "It's easier than goin' out and gettin' yourself in trouble with the law."
"What if Ronnie finds out?"
"Well, if Ronald finds out, you just send him over here to me, and I'll take care of him."
"Just you make sure his Browning's empty before you send him back."
She laughs a little. Swats the air at me again, then slides the card over the table. "Go on. Even if it's only a word or two."
I think for a minute, look over the front of the card. A little cherub angel praying over a manger. A lamb on the other side of it. Light shining down from a star. I don't know what I could say that wouldn't make things worse. I open the card. Mrs. Jensen has written a novel inside. She must start doing her Christmas cards in July, from the looks of things.
I find a small blank spot at the bottom edge of the card, there's just enough space for a word or two. The only thing that comes to mind: Miss you, Shadow.
Please let me know what you think of the story. Send critiques to email@example.com with the subject "Lem.". Thanks for reading!