While future stories in The Penumbra are inherently entwined, they are mostly standalone.
However, everything springs from this.
If you enjoy the idea and want to continue reading strange and speculative fiction, purchase Stories From The Penumbra: here
Now, sit down, dim the lights, cast some shadows.
For Ray, Richard, and Rod,
who thought out past here to there.
“Would that I could continue these wonders into a thousand, thousand worlds, each a different, glimmering facet of the strange and the improbable that we lend our imaginations to…”
– Charles Gloaming’s finale speech, 1962
As the shells rained down around him, pelting him with mud and shrapnel, Iverson swore he had seen this before. No, it wasn’t simple deja vu or a matter of repetition or a routine done so many times that life became a blur.
He knew with all certainty that he had watched this exact scene play out before, his cowering along with his mates, from somewhere safe and sound and far away from the deteriorating trenches. Or had it happened to someone he knew well? Did he know anyone so old? In this great of detail? The pale light of day hanging over the battlefield was now fading and he had so little time left to think on these curling, threatening ideas.
He had been in the perpetual mist and fog of the trenches for what seemed like weeks, but he could not be sure. He felt as though he were pretending the entire time, that the uniform he wore was only a costume, though his mates around him stared so defiantly, so thoroughly at the tops of the plank walls, that it had to be real.
He didn’t remember enlisting, but he remembered scraps of training. The voyage to this muck was indistinct, only glimpses. His name was Alexei Iverson, which was not of The Isles, but forgiven during wartime; as easily glossed over as his aging, stout body, his weakening, dark eyes, his hint of an eastern accent, his lack of quick reflexes. It did not matter at the front. There were many others here that were nearing that old, fearful hill as well, and after a while everyone came to look the same hungry-sick, a matching array.
Every time he moved or spoke or smoked or stared out across no-man’s land, any time left to himself to view things from the periphery of his vision, it seemed as if he were someone else entirely. Most of the men mumbled similar thoughts, and he had almost convinced himself that this was something war did to a mind, like preserving moments in a specimen jar to save for a later, saner time.
And then the whisperings started. Or had they always been there? He was having trouble lining up events. They could have begun long before, but were only distinguishable now as human voices. Mostly murmurings mixed together (or was it more of a shuffling chorus?), though there was another voice behind them at times, at the edges of sleep. Male. Pronounced.
Most of the men didn’t bat an eye when he had hinted about hearing things; they had only grunted, stuck to their duty without a word, staring out and out, until a new, damnable mist fell around them. It had lasted for days on end, lightening slightly with the mid-day, but returning to dark and shadow-strewn with a blink.
It was in that stark, unknown time that the next troop over had got fresh replacements; seasoned fighters instead of plain green lads, and the rumours (so familiar now that he looked back) had swirled into Alex’s damp, muddy little home.
“Say that one of the bleeders, he survived going over the top a few times, even when the rest of his troop didn’t. Yeah, heard some others found him the next day, shivering and pale and not a scratch on him.”
Iverson knew not to heed idle gossip and yet, more men spoke of the miracle soldier, though none had seen him in the flesh.
“I got a school chum says he knew the man back home, nothing special, just lucky is all.”
“What rubbish, it’s probably not even the same bloke, just someone with a like name or face.”
“You know what I heard,” said one usually quiet youth, “I heard the few times his troop’s gone out on patrol, no sentries see them. No one fires at them, no rounds come near him. Searchlights brush right past.”
“It’s ungodly!” whisper-shouted another. And so it went.
To Iverson, it had to be true, because he knew it was true. Somehow he had foreknowledge of this battle-legend, even though it was spotty. The man was a survivor, but he had paid an awful price to become effectively immortal. But what was the twist?
If there was such a man (there was), he would meet him, that fact was unavoidable. There was another truth hiding in there, but it slipped off any capable thought. The nights drew on.
Ginger ‘Snaps’ Lampwick was probably not the smartest dame in the big, bad old city, nor was she the sultriest or richest, but you can bet when it came to being cagey, clever, or even conniving, well sister, I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of a case she worked.
See, some said she had a gift–she could read folks right straight through their lies, through their own tangled web of crap that they might have even believed in. Yes, she could wrangle the truth out of anyone (those sly green eyes of hers didn’t hurt any, either), if the work called for it. Thing was, this peculiarity wasn’t at her beck and call, no ma’am, she could only be effective once the sun went down and darkness took its turn.
Only nowadays that skill didn’t seem to work as well as it once did. Leads dried up, cases stopped coming in. Other things were strange to her, too. She felt like some days, scenes, moments, were repeating themselves. They felt predictable–no, more like directions she could almost call out before they happened, if she were inclined.
And to top it all off, what could be less helpful to a gal already late on her office rent, with a whiny ex battering at her telephone all day and only a sad, solo swig of whisky left in her life, than a new job with an insane request?
She didn’t usually take jobs from people without a reference, and precisely never when they came from packets sent through the mail slot, but this one came with a grand in advance and a promise for more. So hey, she figured, with a thousand reasons for it, I can’t even come up with two against.
‘Find a man in this town who is too afraid to leave his own shadow,’ was all the note attached had said. There was no card or name or even a number scratched down for her to get back to. She had asked around about such a man over the next evening or two, feeling foolish, but giving it a fair shake all the same.
She hadn’t been back to the office, working on this ridiculous, impossible offer. Her faded blue suit was a mess, holes worn through it, some questionable stains glaring out at the world. Not to mention her hair–the less said there, the better.
Yet she felt compelled to go all-in on this one. It might have been in her nature to be a helpful altruist if she hadn’t felt the need to charge for her services (a gal’s got to drink). She had been hired to find a man who she now increasingly expected didn’t exist.
Not much came out of the usual suspects and she would have dropped the job (despite the lack of other work) if another hundred hadn’t come sailing through her apartment mail a morning later. That had got her back on track with all the aplomb of a booze-hound jumping after a broken bottle full of single malt.
As day rolled into night again and the oppressive mist reigned, Iverson tried to remember life at home and, in a return to despair, found he could not. The only notable things left were those wondersoldier rumours and now, during his late shifts, a slight rustling to go with the whispers and cutting breeze. Had he not been so conditioned to the trench, he might have wondered where there could possibly be any dry leaf, twig, or brush to make that sound. Paper, maybe? Only the officers would have that these days, and that was in short supply.
The next night was a break in the monotony, though no one wished for it. The boys caught hell in the form of shells shattering their world for hours on end.
Iverson learned the next morning (through pounded eardrums) that they got off easy, that the neighbouring trench suffered near total casualties. That there was only one left, completely unharmed.
Word spread down the line of a counterattack next dawn, a foolish attempt to show strength. Dread filled every man around until evening meal, when a small clamor came from a crowd down past the next alley.
“It’s him! Really him!”
“I told you- ”
“No, he’s far taller, I tell you.”
Keeping back, Iverson fidgeted, not daring to look up until the crowd parted for a moment to reveal someone that had haunted his waking dreams. A memory of someone so familiar, but where had that lingering spectre come from?
The lone survivor was just a scrap over Alex’s height, his cropped hair pale and greying, with pale skin to match, a set of large and defined eyebrows taking up his features. He moved slowly past the men, like one remembering the way to walk, and his eyes–a shining, wispy shade of grey–stayed fixed forward. Plodding. Boots soaked through and probably rotting. No one knew his name. Charlie? some whispered.
Iverson felt the urge to grab him, talk to him, question him. But the moment passed, the man was gone, leaving him to gnaw his ration and mull over the bloody business to come.
But where to find someone who had to always cast a shadow, Ginger mused. Somewhere well lit, but not all-consuming. Somewhere with edges and backdrops and corners for darkness to find. In this town there were a lot of shut-ins that fit the bill, but then why pay her to find just one? And how would her benefactor know when she did? There had to be something else to this.
It was a tough town no matter the weather, but when the rains hit, when the clouds massed forward and muttered for weeks, that was what broke people. The constant grey sogginess ruled out any outdoor candidates, but an indoor sort of guy.
Finally, one of her leads, a usual suspect whose name she actively tried to forget due to his unpleasantness, had arranged a meeting with a local informant or ‘presenter,’ as he called him. “Kinda like the TV type.” Someone that might know a secret or two that others failed to pick up.
So here she was, stuck between bouts of chilling evening rain, waiting near an alley between two streets named Splendor and Grace. She still tasted the bitter remains that her contact (which was far too polite a title) had so graciously offered as coffee. She fingered the cold steel of her snubnose in her coat pocket, more out of idleness than anticipation.
She started thinking about the paper trail angle when a sound rose up from somewhere down the street, something flapping, dry and scraping like a loose bill or poster half-stuck to a board.
Only Ginger didn’t remember seeing anything like that in the moist urban field. The rest of the street litter was far too soaked to make any noise like that rustling. She peeked down the alley, then back out to scan the sidewalk, up and down. I’ve got to start drinking less, she thought. Or more.
The street was nearly abandoned, save for a man in a smart black suit crossing over kitty-corner toward her.
A brief, unwelcome breeze picked up as the man neared, making it even more difficult for Ginger to act relaxed, casual. Before she could say anything clever to the man, gain the upper hand, he stopped square in front of her, split his long, bushy moustache with a smile, and stuck out his hand. He was pale and slim, hair going to grey, but his eyes danced with a sort of mischief.
“My dear lady,” he said, taking note of her concealed fist while shaking her free hand. “So sorry we have to meet like this, in this land limned with shadow.”
“You’re the guy, then,” she said, noting his verbiage. She took her hand off her gun and out of her pocket, letting it hang in the damp air. She cleared her throat, only to hear someone whispering to her from nearby. Ginger whipped her head around, hearing what she swore was her own name.
“I’m… a guy, I suppose,” the newsman said, heedless of the mystery speaker. A tinge of unease was creeping into his eye. “Is there something amiss?”
Ginger lifted a finger to stall him. Nothing else sounded. “Did you hear… never mind. Let’s make this quick. What do you know about the type of person I’ve been asking after.”
“Not much, I’m afraid.”
“But you do know.”
“I can give you a place. Something I’ve heard unusual things about.”
“So spill it.” Ginger could feel the rolling clouds ready to burst once more, was anxious to get moving.
“The Point–Sharpe’s Point–has gone dark, they say. Way out on the bluffs. An old, forgotten place with no one about, except a man with only his shadow as company. I shudder to think of what could happen.”
False dawn came with hardly a wink slept. Everyone stood ready, pushing aside misery for any spare courage.
The whistle and the shout came, and they roared into the slap of mist to meet death or terror or to stumble into grey oblivion.
Possibly an hour later, Iverson was lost in the mist, hearing scattered fighting and the cottonlike, mist-dampened sound of explosions, and fairly certain he had been shot clean through the leg. He heard someone struggling, though quiet, in the immediate surrounds. It took a long second, but he dropped prone and readied his weapon. He tried maddeningly to think of a codeword, or if they had been given one at all.
As he delayed, another man came slop-stepping across a bare patch to his left.
Too sluggish to shoot on sight, Iverson held his breath, only to let it out once he realized who it was. The pale man! True to the tales, he was unscratched, though severely shaken.
Iverson hissed at the fellow, who only glanced over for a second, nodded, then continued plodding into that clumsy, gauzy curtain.
More terrified at the thought of being alone than of stray shots, Iverson wiped at his face, his stubble, his brow at the helmet line, then rose to catch the phantom.
“Hallo,” he called in a hoarse whisper. “Do you know where the line is?” After no response, he continued, “Best stick together, eh? I hear you’re the man to have next to a body.” He couldn’t tell if his was a weary cheerfulness or a mask for his confusion. The dazed-looking man cocked his head, giving Iverson an odd look, then shook it no.
Hours passed them by without any other signs of life, only refuse and haze, until Iverson spotted a familiar looking jut of beams and sandbags. To be sure, he crouched and looked for traces of cigarettes, scraps of uniform, shell casings, things that belonged to their side.
Satisfied, he waved to his companion, then rushed ahead, ready to jump to friendly territory. A moment later he heard the faint hiss and click of what could only be a shell stuck in the mud struggling with a withered fuse.
Panic gripped him. And as his comrade slid down beside, he was ready to scream and shove the mystery soldier away. Then, in that frenzied, rush-of-blood slow time, he realized the man was the key to salvation.
Reaching out (almost delicately so), Iverson grasped at the stained collar, shifted his position, and with an unusual grace, placed the docile, pale man next to the hissing weapon. He imagined himself grinning, thinking he had outsmarted death, thinking that it could possibly be a dud fuse, a–
Most of what he could smell was acrid smoke and singed hair, flesh. Where he would have expected screaming, he only heard strained coughing, felt wet. He was laid against the trench wall, but couldn’t feel his legs.
Pale hair and eyes and face came before him. The eyes looked sad, as if any apology or comfort wouldn’t cure them. They remained untouched by the blast.
And as he realized his mistake, so foolishly late, Alexei Iverson was brought back to feeling like he had viewed this exact scene before. If this was death, it was an oddly lucid thing, as though he were only pretending. Even still, everything was growing dim, and though it came from outside the trench, he heard a faint voice. Its cadence was firm and even and mentioned death and sacrifice and what might have been his name. Someone was trying to make a point.
Then there was flickering, a greyed out picture of a world turning on and off, then void.
Next thing Ginger knew, she was out driving in the dark patches of one AM, angling her way up the coast road, winding through the long breaks between patches of moonlight.
Something had started to tap at her brain, now threatening to burst out and trample over her thoughts. It had flared up with her conversation with the presenter, but had began its nagging far earlier.
That thing resolved itself between the stray sets of county lights into a familiarity. It reminded her of something she had seen before, or at least been told of in broad strokes, filtered through decades of life. It was such an accurate feeling of premonition, or perhaps prediction.
She felt like turning around then and there and defying this idea of a pre-scripted destination, but reminded herself of the money, how she could really use it, how her work ethic was more important than simple defiance of an unwelcome gut feeling.
The wind had picked up, sending the leaves of autumn skirling out of the woods to the east across the road, out to reach the scrub-filled dunes of the beach below. The Point rose before her then, a lone rise looming up along the cliffs. The squat, boxy lighthouse that shared the Point’s name jutted out like a paper diorama given life. Its signal was absent, though Ginger could definitely see a glow about the place as she neared.
“I don’t understand,” she muttered at no one. “You’d think a nut that loves his own shadow would throw it across the sky, grand like. Stand in front of it to flaunt it at everyone.” She killed the engine and let the noise of the wind and surf take over.
What was truly bothering her was the voice, haunting and bodiless. The one that had called out from the chilled street air. There had been scraps of it here and there during her ride, repeating its murmurs, describing things in spurts and spatters of coherent monologue. If only she could make sense of what the hell it was saying.
She got out and looked at the night, up at the antique structure and the now pronounced nimbus coming off the top. The metal of her sidearm lay cold and damp in her pocket, offering little respite. She dry swallowed and made her way in through the unlocked door, the wind trying to snatch her wide hat away.
Inside was silent and near dark, save for the glow above the wind of stairs. The place was in good shape and smelled like the sea mixed with fresh paint. Without a doubt, there was someone else in there. Ginger only hoped her sleuthing, teased with a faint remembrance of this place, was correct.
The stairs went by quick and, sure enough, the lamphouse door spilled light from every crevice once she stepped onto the top landing. Ginger handled her gun, cocking it, leaving it in the coat’s confines. She turned the latch and went through.
A startled yelp greeted her, along with the blinding yellow-white lamplight as it swung past. Her eyes tried to adjust, but couldn’t work fast enough. She crouched, stared at the floor, saw the bulk of the beacon light’s housing. Nearby, the yelper tried to speak, spitting out halfhearted apologies in an accent that reeked of old places.
She crouch-walked over to the housing, trying to stay under the rotating light. There was so much reflection that it took her a moment to realize what he had done.
The flaring beacon was bouncing all around her in its path, reflecting back a thousand times by layers of carefully placed foil, making the place look like a spaceship from an old B movie. Wherever it glanced off of her or the man opposite, shadows swam.
“It’s okay,” she cut through his yammering. “We’re both alright here. Sorry I startled you, it’s just so damned bright. I’m not going to hurt you.” The feeling of recognition hit her again, this time nearly knocking her over. She knew exactly what this scenario meant. She had to be sure who the man was.
Who she saw was almost the exact opposite of what she so surely knew. The man before her was dressed in the tatters of an old army uniform–American, no British–something from a long forgotten part of last century. He was wild-eyed, was more a man pushing through his fifties instead of a dapper raven haired showman (a man she expected to greet her at the top of the lighthouse). His gut was showing, grey shivering through his hair.
He didn’t belong here. Neither do you, her mind screamed.
“It wasn’t you before,” she said, squinting. “No, someone else was here, I think. The last time. This is wrong. How did it go? It was a snippet, someone told me this one…”
The man responded with a knowing look in his eye, one that told her he knew of or had done this before as well. She spoke but her words disappeared, the sound rushing past her in a wash, the piercing light getting hazy, the world turning inside out.
“Consider if you will… a perfectly normal town, glorious in every way that it is mundane, except for its sole claim to fame… a small zoo on its outskirts that contains very unusual specimens…”
Ginger heard the droning voice above all else pushing through the thick fog in her head that matched the formlessness around her. She knew the man behind the narration, the speech and timbre all resounding down the long halls of her childhood.
And that other man she saw before, it felt as though he was a key, or clue to all this. Something flickered in the grey wash around her, somewhere (she assumed) directly ahead. White and black shades flashed out into the banal mass. Some of it began to resolve into images, but more than that, it was becoming an entire teeming thing, breaching her reality, as though what started as projections on the thick walls of fog around her were becoming actual.
She blinked, forced her mind to work through the half-made world around her, but already she felt her body contort and reform without her permission, her head filling with pieces of someone else.
Alexei knew he didn’t belong in the cage, such as it was. This scenario, as he had come to think of it (Of them? How many?), had placed him in another body, another place full of strangeness and rules he couldn’t fully grasp. He had come from a bright, safe, blinding place into this one, and before that, some place full of mud and sorrow. Were there others before that?
Children were creeping toward the energized barrier that surrounded him. They clutched at each other or at their parents’ clothing. Their bright eyes showed wonder mixed with trepidation.
Without warning, he cried and lunged at the crowd, only to crash against the very solid-feeling field that kept him from the audience.
There were shrieks of terror and some of delight, a few nervous laughs from adults. Alexei felt like snarling, like beating his fists bloody, like escaping the interminable prison.
Soon enough the crowd pressed past into the dark that surrounded the exhibit. Alexei sighed, or at least tried to sigh. He felt the sting of frustration at being paraded around on stage like some animal. A stage, he thought, yes, that was important, but why?
Ms. Lampwick–it was more of a title now, since there was an outfit and nametag to match–wandered about the evening halls of the exhibit, shuttering up for the night after the patrons exited.
The regularity of such business was both unsettling and full of a bleak sense of humour (but not her own). It was hard not to think of her charges as animals, though compared to her and the patrons, it was far more true.
Ginger (the Ginger on the inside, the one that remembered a separate life) felt that she was playing a part more than ever, but for who? This place was a copy of an imagined space, same with the one she had inhabited before, and before that, and possibly more back down the strand.
Yet it felt real enough, like she had a life and ambitions. Again she was her own distinct mind fighting through another’s personality. She had to tend the creatures here, she felt compelled, but there was more. Shaking her head, rubbing her arms, she moved on.
Alexei swore he had seen this before. Originally, it came in patches, bits and pieces. He could tell that the general storyline here made sense, that there was a point or moral to observe. Some elements were off, though. Different. It was all shaped as if through screens and screens of gauze and muslin. Like fine craftsman detailing done with thick rubber gloves.
He looked down at his wheezing body, his marked arms. (Human zoo? What possible notion could that serve?) The general plot he remembered was that he was going to free himself. He would befriend someone that could help him, such as a small child who could open the cage, and then he would ride the wind on out of there. He would take any comrades he could and run, only to realize the world outside the zoo and its sanctuary was filled with the dead, all of them ghosts that only wanted to reminisce about the living world.
At least, that was what he could piece together from his thoughts. It wasn’t just his own memory, it was pieced together, cobbled out of several different episodes. A twist of a twist. Scenes that he had been directly part of.
There was a shuffling further down the exhibit hall, someone turning off display lights, ushering the others off to their dark stasis.
A rustling sound followed, like the one he heard before. It wasn’t the wind or leaves or stray trash, there was no sign of any. Before he could place it, the caretaker rounded the corner. His body tensed, surprised.
She was a shade or two older than forty, very short hair, dyed dark with patches of russet roots coming in, with a larger healthy figure, pleasing if there was time to even consider that. The same one from the before place. She was important. Did he know her? The real Alexei (or the one that had memories of another life) had no idea. He wanted to speak, but his mind only raced on, a fury of motion, heedless.
The man in the exhibit was gawping at Ginger, mouth and eyes working in a wave of activity. It was certainly a man, a man she had seen before, but not one she knew. Unlike the voice she had heard before, he was less important, but why?
“What’s… who are you?” she asked, reaching out to the barrier of the exhibit. She felt a great resistance as she spoke out of character.
“A-Alexei. Alex.” He shook his head, sticking an arm out against the innocuous wall, trying to push at it.
“Do you remember another place, Alex? Maybe more than one? Where you weren’t, like, well…” she motioned up and down at him.
It was hard for Alex to think. So much haze in his mind, like before in the trenches, like elsewhere, when he was in a grey between places. There were holes in what he saw. The more he thought on it, the more these events were scenes that seemed so stagelike. Yes, that meant something to him–a stage.
“Yes. A fake place. But feels real. Like this one, truly. Do you remember coming here?” The energy in front of him was shimmering around his chained hand.
“Yes, I do. But only before this latest place. There was something like static, and a flickering.” She thought for a second. “I do not think we’re dreaming, unless this is unlike any other dreams, one where we inhabit each other’s.”
Alexei nodded, relieved (and unsettled). “Not a dream, no. What I have seen, this is more like a construction. Something made in pieces that we must be put into, whether we fit or not. Tell me, have you too seen these performances before? Somewhere else, some other time?”
Before she could ask him to clarify, Ginger felt a sudden shift in the world, like the lurch of a roller coaster rushing sideways on its tracks.
Alexei looked like he felt it as well. He felt himself, no, the whole chamber shudder. There was an odd whirring sound. Then a flicker. More flickers like an entire tail of a scene coming off an old-fashioned film reel.
Ginger threw herself at the barrier between them, hoping it would give, let her in next to her newfound and only companion. The world shuddered again and she felt it give and there was a rustling and she reached for the man’s hand and squeezed, just before things emptied out.
Alexei Iverson could feel the woman still holding him. She was with him now, in this unfinished place between settings. He knew they were pushing back against the false personalities and static. A word formed up in his mind. “Backstage,” he breathed. “That’s the best way I can think to call this,” he motioned with their clasped hands.
“How?” said Ginger. It fit, but didn’t explain anything. “What does it mean?”
“It means I know a set when I see one, however much fog. This one is simply empty, it needs to be filled in. I used to do much of that. Build sets, I mean.”
Ginger stared at the man, then realized this and looked away, dropped his hand. Everything surrounding them was composed of grey, light and dark.
“Nothing makes sense to me here. Not even you. Is this a test or experiment of some kind? A government spook show?” Out in the grey, the pallor shifted, and there were sounds now, objects being moved about.
“You find nothing familiar? These too-real stories? Like a deja vu, but not exactly? Or is your memory no different from this shadow, this gloom?”
A light the size of a ten foot neon sign went off in Ginger’s head. “What did you say?”
Alexei gave her a strange look and started to answer, only to be cut off as the entire environment moved again. Flashes came at them like tears in reverse, combining and sucking outward. The two grasped hands again and then they were some place new.
He could see that Ginger (she looked much the same) had her face all screwed up in thought, cocked to one side.
They were on a new set, though it lay dark. All the objects, the visual elements were stuck out at the shadowy stage’s edges.
“I know who that is,” said the woman, breaking the silence. “Tell me you hear that. That’s the only thing I’m sure of! That keeps coming back to me. You said something before we were… transported here, what was it?”
“I can’t recall. I want to, but something else is in the way. I did hear noises before, sounds of whispers and voices.” Alexei felt a sheen of sweat find its way to his forehead.
“It’s a man, and he’s talking about us,” Ginger continued. “Us and these individual places and I know him, I’ve heard him before, but I can’t picture him, yet he’s important. His voice, I mean. I’ve heard him speak years and years ago. I remember who I am now, mostly, and in my own life and not these pretend ones. He’s from my own life, but I don’t know how.”
Alexei turned to look at her. “Yes, that sounds as how I feel about these situations I–we–are in. Important, but lacking some qualities. I wonder if there are others like us here?” He motioned her onward from the dark space into a new terrain, fighting himself to take each step, sweat now breaking freely.
The place reformed around them as they walked. It now looked like some high desert in the steppes. Though it was desolate, they felt no thirst or hunger. Around them, small creatures scurried between rocks.
“I don’t know what scene we have stumbled into, but if this is like a set, then it is one I’ve seen used over and over. Before, I didn’t imagine that we were forced into roles and make believe stages, but now that is all I see.”
Ginger, in the meantime, had tried to remember her light-bulb moment. That voice, her other names (Snaps the Detective? Honestly!), the twist endings. It was maddening. This particular place didn’t help clarify her thoughts, it was all dirt and rock and could go on forever, or close to it. “It’s like we’re watching someone put together a show out of puzzle pieces, or out of stray bits you get while half asleep in front of the TV.”
Alex stopped dead. He sat down on the scrub ground, hard. “That is exactly it. Yes, exactly!”
Ginger loomed over him, massaging her temples. “But we aren’t asleep. The sensations are so different.”
“Yes, but you have said it! It is like a program. That is why I know this, I helped make it.” He sighed. “For a time, anyway. This, all this, is a show I built once, but…” he trailed. Off in the distance, there was a screeching, howling racket, like animals, apes, a menagerie.
Ginger jerked about, eyes scanning. “We’re in a TV show? One that you made? How is that possible?”
Alex’s face contorted with thought. “Those noises. In this one, this production, they should be creatures from an ark, landing on a desolate moon. Or they are an alien Adam and Eve and their pets, finding ancient Earth. There were a few of these plot lines. As I say, I worked on this, but only for a season, so long ago. That seems to be a clue.”
Ginger felt as if she had taken a blow, felt like staggering. “How can we be in a half-made old TV production, though? I’ve never met you or watched anything like this. I was… never allowed. Are those things–are we in danger here?”
“I don’t know. We should move away. This must only still be a set of some type. There are limits. I believe what we have seen backstage we can see again. These places are incomplete and whoever is creating them is making them off of the fly.”
He held an hand up and Ginger took it, noting the tremble in her own. Her mouth went dry. “We have to get back there, then. If all these thoughts and experiences now are truly ours, then they are part of our real reality, right? We must be able to get back to our own world.”
A new batch of howls chilled her. Alex was tensed up, ready to bolt. He was nodding, at himself or her, she didn’t know. He motioned off to one side of the bare landscape. They ran, bolstered by a new surge of energy.
It didn’t last long. Both of them were exhausted and the unchanging terrain defeated them. “How did it shift before?” huffed Ginger, slowing her pace. “We must be causing it. We don’t fit in here, and whenever we notice, it all changes around us.”
“Every time we come close to making a connection, everything is wiped. Maybe we have been doing this many times now, but have only just noticed. Those flickers and shudders, we can use them to get out. I think so.” Alexei nodded.
Ginger was trying to slow down her breathing, take control of her gasps of dry air. “What you said before, about deja vu and all that. About how these are all shadows.”
“Yes, like the coming of night, this feeling like they say it, a gloaming.”
Wide-eyed, Ginger said: “That’s who I know. The man.”
The world–the set around them–droned. A prelude to another change.
“Who?” said Alex, half a shout.
“Gloaming. That’s the voice. Charles Gloaming!”
Then the film slipped and the stage cleared.
She coughed a bit as she shifted to get up, a mix of sawdust and paint fumes in the air, tinged with plain, ordinary dust. There was a low whirring sound, a few flashing, pale lights. Her hands stuck into soft, plush smoothness.
This place was different than the others. She recognized the clothes she wore as distinctly hers. Not shabby, not regal, but she was trying to make an impression nonetheless.
A seat or two over, a man stirred. “The Penumbra. Of course.” It sounded like Alexei.
Carefully, Ginger pushed herself up and out of the seat, took a look around. It was a combination storeroom and small, intimate theatre. A single row of seats stretched out, five or six, it was too dim to tell. There was a screen before them, and a fluttering, mute flickering played across it. A light flap-flapping sound came from what had to be a film projector.
“Are you okay, Alex?”
He stirred, eyes wide open, practically glowing.
“Did you hear me? The Penumbra. That makes as much sense as anything to me.”
She knew the name of course, had heard it many times over the years, breathed past family members’ lips, seldom with anything kind to say. Along with another name.
“Charles Gloaming. He made it, didn’t he? Created it. That was the show’s name, and now I think I know the reason I’m here.”
Alex turned about, looking older than before, a full weight of years of hard work etched into him. “He started it, yes. But he had help continuing. Lots of help. It was not so popular in early days and some gave much time and money until it captured the audiences. So many good friends to pitch in, yes, we all became close because of it. It ran for quite a while, had its own little following.” He laughed dryly, testing to see if that was the reaction he wanted. “Like a late night story, only half-awake.” He shook his head and chuckled.
“I never saw it,” said Ginger. Alex sat up, stared. “Gloaming was a dirty word in my family. It wasn’t always, but that was when I was very young, back when things were good, I guess. He was my uncle, but one from the far side of the family.”
Here she stopped to check her own history, nodding to herself. “He visited us some, when he came back from the city and his theatre work, called many times. He was always asking for money or for some feedback or donations of items we no longer needed. My parents thought when he got his little show on the air that he would repay us. My mother said he never did, just cut all ties. Friendly one day, then nothing once he got famous.”
She pulled at that particular thread of memory some more. “He was either talking to us through the projections or whatever kind of hypnotic suggestions those were, just now. Him or someone has used a very good imitation. I remember that voice on the phone, when my family would argue with him. Were the… episodes like that at all? Even close? I only ever snuck out once or twice to see bits of it at my friend’s place.”
The man (now cast harder by age) had gone over into the dark behind the portable projector. “Then we have another thing in common. The screwing over of friends, I mean. And no, they weren’t all like that. Some were, some weren’t. Even after I stopped work, I would check up, come to set, and sometimes they were as… real magic.” He stopped, shrouded in the dark. Then he swore, slow and low. “These reels are almost empty. There is nothing on them, little pieces only. Splices made by a clumsy hand. Some kind of joke or experimentation.”
Ginger felt like she should sneeze or shout or stamp her feet or something to lose the spider crawling down her spine. “Is that light there coming from a crack in a door?” she pointed. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Alexei agreed, following behind. “Now, if we knew where here is.”
The door opened into a lengthy hall, filled with large bay windows that looked out onto a world filled with cloud and moonlight. There were several wings to the place, sweeping out and around an overgrown courtyard.
It all looked so disused, full of expected dust and cobwebs, peeling paint. The outside looked as though it were loved once, filled with trees and hedges, now browned or bare by the late fall season.
There was something in Ginger’s coat pocket, which she was sure answered Alex’s question. A small, but fancy envelope containing a letter and directions.
“We were invited here,” she said, pulling it out. “This has to be his house, wherever he moved after he quit show biz.”
Alex gazed outside, nodding. “And we came. The only ones, it looks like. No one else was in the room, no one else in the hallucination.” He leaned his bulk against a window frame. “He stole many ideas, you know. Not just mine, everyone’s. Fans, crew, studio workers. Oh yes, we all had input and he took it, squirreling away. I saw friends of mine ask for credit or money, but there was always an excuse.” He bared his teeth. “Perhaps that is why I am here. I no longer fear what I will do if I see him.”
“That was so long ago. I wonder if anyone besides us still cares.” Ginger felt like she needed to stretch. “I’m sure he is or was dying. At least that’s what his note said. Maybe he’s dead and someone’s playing with us. It has to be part of why we’re here.”
She would have continued, but a noise reared up then, the same rustling both had heard in their semi-scripted ventures. A breeze blew in through cracked glass, freezing patches of their skin, forcing their attention back outside.
A light flickered somewhere along the side of the yard, shining through rows of glass that marked a conservatory.
“Dying… maybe dead,” said Alex. He was trying not to shiver.
“He was slipping, yes. I don’t think he’s gone yet, but he was old and alone. The letter just says he needs to see me. Maybe trying to make amends?”
“If he was offering money, more people would come sniffing around. We both had reasons not to come at all, so why ask us? I wonder.” Alex coughed, looking at the glass to the plants beyond, then down the narrow hall stippled with moonlight. “Someone let us in, put us in chairs, maybe. Someone is making these noises.”
He started off down the hall, stodgy little steps that echoed. Ginger frowned and wished she had her handbag. She usually kept something in there for self-defense. She followed.
The hall was punctuated by an intersection of more halls and the swinging double doors of the conservatory, which Alex shuffled through.
Most of the plants inside matched those on the grounds, though the warmth of the place was welcome. Dead brown and shriveled green greeted them, and the rustling sound grew louder. A few fluorescent lights hummed and whined, clinging to life.
They moved down the aisles of old creeper vines and fallen leaves until they came upon Gloaming.
He was ensconced in an ancient-looking wheelchair, slouched over next to a cleared space on some long work tables. Ginger could only see the piles of notebooks, letters, journal, looseleaf, reels of 16mm film, all unfurled and spread about by a revolving fan, sheets flapping like ghostly appendages.
The rustling was all the captive sheets full of scrawlings, leather or coilbound, or pages from cheap yellow pads. Each of them filled with words, designs, scribbles, and scratches. There was a smell of aged pages and ink and something deeper that sunk in to the dark green and blue blanket covering the old man.
Every now and then, a scrap or two blew loose, skirling down the wasted aisles.
Alex looked at the man he knew so long ago, now a withered stalk in autumn. His once proud jaw and clever eyes nearly gone. A trail of silvery drool reached out from his chin.
Below the whirring of the fan (how long had it been running?), the man was wheezing, murmuring in a low, but officious voice.
“What’s he saying? Does he even know we’re here?” Ginger asked, hand to mouth.
Gloaming cough-wheezed and spoke louder and louder, more like a presenter, “–all those demons and angels, dancing across their pinheads, could they have anticipated such a fate? These cruel visitors, curious and hun-h-hungry, hungering,” he broke into a low, rasping cough.
A sheet broke loose off the pile and swept into Ginger’s open coat. She glanced at it while Alex turned Gloaming’s chair toward them, his face ghastly in half-light.
“It says ‘Story Idea 73a, phase B of development,’ but it’s torn.” She looked around her feet at the disparate piles. “They’re all full of these scribbles! All in different writing or type. So many.”
“Our interlocutors, a man and woman,” Gloaming started again. “Both with an axe or more to grind. Little did they know that, that, the surprises, their cares,” he stopped to rasp again, laughing.
Alexei seethed, his arms shaking, trying not to lash out at the pitiful man. “What kind of sick trap is this? What’s the trick? It wasn’t enough you alienate your friends or family or the world outside, you play a deranged game now? After so much time gone? With us? Why did you come to call!”
Ginger looked at the sad, demented man her family had made into a ghost for most of her life. “Forget him, Alex. I can’t really sort through all the things I–we–have been through, right now. I remember coming here, in bits and pieces. Of pulling up to the house, the fancy instructions he left.” She stopped, lost in the chain of events. “It wasn’t long ago. A night, maybe two at most. Look, we can just leave. I don’t have anything to say to him, there’s nothing he can do for us. I know I want… I want to ask for something, compensation or something. But this is all worthless. Gibberish,” she motioned wide, taking in the scraps and the old heap of a man.
In his chair, Gloaming rocked back as if seized, watery eyes wide. “You can’t leave!” He was panting, looking at the pile of works, of pieces of ideas. “I didn’t put you through whatever happened in the house! How could I? I’ve been out here. For so long. Years. Years and years. Day into night and back. Only rarely do they let me leave, to rest, to see if anyone has answered my invitations.”
“You had your riches after so many seasons and glory and popularity. You turned your backs on friends. On family,” said Alex. “Why should we stay and feel sorry. So much money with tie-ins and sales and syndicates. But none of it for those that brought you there, of course. People with hard sweat and work and ideas. You did this to yourself, making your own seclusion and paranoia.”
“That isn’t it. That was never it! Alexei? Yes Alex…” Gloaming was riled now, nearly climbing out of his seat, withered arms straining with effort. Another gust blew in, feeling different, more chilled than before.
The old man shook, white-knuckling the side of his chair. “Whatever happened to you tonight, I’m sorry. But you came! No one else has. Not for years! You are worthy, you have to be. You found the instructions? And so the screening room?” He glared at the written works around him, at the equipment. “I’ve filled the gap as long as I could. Ever since I found it. Kept everyone away from here for safety until I could codify the containment, figure out a structure. I’ve had to live these broken fantasies, these ideas, complete or not. I couldn’t keep doing it by myself.”
The entire hall of glass shook as punctuation. Almost as if a large hand had grasped it and rattled away.
“I worked with what I could. The Penumbra was only a beginning, an entryway. It opened up possibility. It led to… to them. They have wanted through to here and I’ve done all I can to stop them. They followed me so long ago, hungering, and I’ve kept them at bay.” Gloaming moaned and clutched at his heart, rubbing in circles.
Alex shot his new brown-and-redheaded friend an odd look. She felt that the senility was catching. She wanted nothing more now than to make an exit, take something valuable to pay for her time. “He’s gone. Actually off his rocker. Completely. I don’t know how he pulled off that stuff in the room before, all the head games, and I don’t like the point he thinks he’s making. I’m going to go.”
Somewhere off in a corner, a clay pot burst. Dry plants whipped about, scratched at old, dusty panes.
“We have to fill the gap! They’ve loved The Penumbra, fed at it, needed it for so long.”
“Who? How?” said Alex, looking back and forth.
“Them!” If Charles Gloaming had been excited before, he was leaping towards panicked delirium now. “I don’t know. They came through a tear, a rift, right after the original show ended. Here, in my workroom, right when I was at my typewriter. They’re a… a presence. Shadows of shadows and things seen at the edges. The only way I could affect them, communicate with them was with more Penumbra. They sent me pictures as I slept or wandered the halls, images of things we had filmed or wrote, but they wanted more. Everything I’ve had since then, scripts, plays, fan letters, dream fragments, comic book plots, scenarios for every possible art, given over to sate them. Sometimes I read it all out, sometimes I stand and shake the words at them, at the aether. However they can continue to get anything new, they consume it, even if the old Penumbra has been dead and gone so long. Idea, plots, characters, whatever it is they first broke through for.”
A new sensation wedged into Ginger now, of biting down on tin foil and smelling burnt hair all at once.
“Let’s get out of here,” her voice became a shout. Alexei took hold of the rickety chair and nudged it with them down the aisle between conservatory tables, wheels creaking as they went.
“Please!” the sick man cried. “I needed… need volunteers. The things love the stories, they need them, I feed them and they want more, there’s so many ideas here, but we need to keep them fed. I have more, people send me them even still, the die-hards and studios and agents, people who I thought had cursed me, or simply forgotten. We need to use the material, we need to fill the gap…”
Alex pressed forward, only to meet a great resistance about him. Ginger felt it as she tried to scoop up some books, some of the script fragments as they blew away or fell off the table. Everything was vibrating, shaking now.
“They must have tried to recreate the program with you in it, make you players for their hunger, but you escaped. That was why they suggested putting you in the screening room,” said Gloaming, chair moving as though in thick mud. “I wasn’t attentive and you were arriving and oh, how I wish it weren’t like this.”
Grunting, Alex said, “You picked a fine time to repent. What you say sounds too complete to be false. But what can we do against all this?” He struggled with the chair as it inched forward, stared at Ginger.
“We cannot leave now. We must feed them,” said Gloaming, fingers chasing after Ginger. So very near, but making her own way through the force pushing at her. She glared at him and attempted to march through to the double doors. She would throw everyone aside to get free, so help her.
Wearied at the effort, they all arrived at the doors as a groaning rose up from somewhere deep down in the earth. Gloaming’s chair bumped up against something, a wall grown from the invisible force surrounding them. At the far end of the conservatory, a fluorescent light crashed, coming off its mount, the bulb popping. Then another.
Ginger planted her feet, then took a run at the door. It didn’t budge. “Dammit!” She rubbed at her shoulder. “These fans of yours feel really entitled, alright.”
Alex would have laughed if he wasn’t so bewildered, if he wasn’t straining to keep the chair from being shoved all the way back to the workbench by the otherworldly urging. Gloaming tried to speak, but only choked, sputtered.
“I’m sorry. I can’t stay, I can’t. I shouldn’t even have come. I’m going,” Ginger said between the frightful, yawning sounds. A pane nearby shook loose from it’s frame, causing a jumping crash. More overhead threatened to do the same.
Alex looked around at the sorry group. Gloaming had gone near catatonic. Ginger’s eyes were pleading.
He snatched at an old letter from Charles’ lap, margins chock full of notes and direction. He started to read.
The words didn’t matter. Interesting or rote, they had to do with The Penumbra, a possible storyline or plot. The whirling, squeezing tension tightened around them so much they could practically feel trembling hands passing over their bodies, grasping tufts of hair, snatching at clothes, they could hear the whispers of pleading, angry nothings.
Then after a few moments, everything started to subside. The page crinkled in on itself as Alexei read, using the scraps of notes he could see to put together something coherent, embellishing and improvising where he could. The words disappeared and the paper had almost devoured itself, Alex’s hand shaking. Then calm reigned.
Exhaling, Ginger looked at the two men, weighed the moment of calm, then dashed through the easily parted conservatory doors.
Alex continued speaking until the chewed little ball shrunk and dropped through his fingers. He glanced down at the unconscious form of Charles Gloaming, barely breathing. There wouldn’t be much of a break, he knew. Split between the two of them, could they hold out? For how long? He didn’t want to imagine the details of how to keep the things fed and at bay. It meant that he was already committed.
Outside in the hall, Ginger felt compelled to search for her things, hoped no one had trifled with them. All the time and money she spent coming here, she felt she was owed, even now. She halfheartedly ran, nearing the weird chamber they had awoke in. For some reason, she felt herself tearing up, though doing so seemed stupid. “Don’t owe them anything. Just get out.” Just get off the grounds and then, yes, she would drive away back home, never to acknowledge this again.
So why was she slowing down? Did she really want to go to that prison of a room again? What of Alex, what would he choose? They had both come through this, and now…
All the doors gave way before her as she gathered her bag, her hat (checking for her purse and plastic cards), and other items. Not a single other person looked like they lived in the grand old manor as she walked through it. Her heels clicked on down to the foyer, where she saw some old but pricey artwork and considered taking it along. And thought of her empty, one bedroom apartment, beloved pets long dead, herself inbetween jobs, and so very alone. Was Gloaming offering a job, or a challenge? She stared up at a half-torn painting of what looked like a vista of the old Penumbra sets.
Back near the conservatory, the two men rolled down the hall to the far wing, away from Ginger’s path, the older one’s breathing raspy but orderly. He raised a bony finger to the doors which had been locked to Alex before but now stood wide, opened by their sated captors.
Alex was debating (in that now quiet, lonely place) on wheeling them right back to the workbench and leaving the old husk of a man there by himself to deal with his own wild creation. Instead, he walked forward. Some old light of rekindled friendship struck at him, both through the sympathy and sorrow at the pathetic thing Charles had become. Alex could no longer build as he used to, but maybe he could still help the man in his ruined palace. He slowed their wheeling through the halls and thought for a long time, looking out at the moon. Before he could speak a word to his old friend, he heard footsteps come back up the hall.
“Look,” said Ginger when she came upon them. “What he said about ‘volunteers.’ I know I don’t have much of a life to go back to, but it’s mine and I need it. But. I can’t leave you here, either. Alone. You know, until we find a way to fix this for good. That was real. It can’t continue. Me and him, however,” she nodded dismissively at the chair, “We can work out the details later if, no, when he finds his way back here with us.”
“We can make a defence, yes. But of all our reality, it seems,” said Alex. “A trouble no thanks to me, I think. And Mr. Imagination here. And everyone else who wrote or thought of strange things, giving our hideous guests what they wanted for so long.” He wanted to smile or cry and collapse in a heap. The slightest tinges of the presence from before was skirting around them once more. Rising again. Ready to feast on more creation.
Ginger shook her head, left with the task of fully convincing herself. “Even if it’s a tiny bit true, we should fill that gap. We should tell others too, we will need the help. If we find a way to not seem nuts.”
“Maybe we can somehow sell tickets,” Alex offered.
They smiled. For now, it kept them from thinking about what could be a very long task ahead, presiding over the stacks and piles, maintaining the stories, possibly even closing that breach.
Behind them among the plants and glass and shades of night, the others waited, hungry for more.
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