Too much paranoia will send you to an institution. However, a little can save your life.
I'm a shadow watcher. I know it's silly, and for years I tried to break myself of it whenever I noticed I was doing it. But it's like trying to keep your eyes open when you sneeze. Does that make me a paranoid obsessive-compulsive?
My schedule has me arriving at perfect shadow watching times. I come in early in the morning and I don't leave until late afternoon. Coming up in the morning and going down in the afternoon has the sun always to my back. Perfect shadow watching conditions. The afternoon shadows are longer. That's good as it gives you a little extra time when they come at you from behind. You just hope they're foolish enough to come at you from directly behind. If they come at you from an angle, the shadows are tricky. They flicker across your own and invariably cause you to turn around. By then, it's too late.
I suppose it's a fascination that began in my boyhood. I can't remember how young I was, but it was early--before I was five, I'm sure. I would spend hours in front of a burnt autumn brick wall my father had built to keep our front yard from pouring onto our driveway. It was a remarkable wall, probably eight feet high. I could cast a deep shadow at about 6:30 in the summer and hold it till almost 8:00. I'd start with just my head touching the cracked bottom crease of the wall. The rest of my body would be almost correctly proportioned on our aggregate driveway. But as the minutes clicked by, my image rose on that terrific wall; my head becoming cylindrical and my wiggling digits becoming three-foot long spindly talons sizable enough to rip out the heart of any creature foolish enough to cross my path. By 8:00, with my heels on the edge of our driveway farthest from my father's masonry masterpiece, I was easily fifteen feet tall-- an incomparable force in the universe. After 8:00, the image still grew, but its depth faded to such a degree that it was no longer daunting. It had become, as it were, a ghost of a shadow. I'd pull myself away, waving to my grey counterpart, and promise to see it the next afternoon.
That daily ritual came to a close three days before my sixteenth birthday when the wall crumbled under the weight of six straight days of rain. Preternaturally patient, the yard did finally baptize our driveway. And although my father had dammed such a calamity for almost two decades, he regarded his work as a failure and took the collapse quite poorly. He never rebuilt the wall, and instead had a landscaping outfit come in with a bulldozer and taper that section of the yard to gently slope into our driveway. My wall was gone, replaced by dozens of flaccid flowers that my mother had planted without joy or pride.
There was also a great wall at the high school, but security policed the parking lot, and after repeated episodes, they threatened to take me to jail if I was found on school property after hours. It was during this time--my late teens--that I learned (of necessity, as you've seen) the art of appreciating moving shadows. At first, I'd watch my own. I'd twist my body to form grotesque apparitions which invariably turned into self-mutilating monsters. After all, it'd be a shame to waste that talon talent. I'd experiment with different angles to see which could conjure the most imposing pseudo-me. Eventually, I moved on to the shadows of others. However, I'd always make an attempt to have mine interact with theirs as I find voyeurism distasteful.
At first I thought I'd hate my custodial job at the library. The library has virtually no good shadow watching surfaces. The people inside are too stationary to cast interesting images and the building is too well lit anyway. But the walk! Because of the hierarchical structure, custodians are not permitted to park in the garage underneath. We must park in a gravel lot approximately a quarter mile from the building, and either walk or catch a shuttle to the building. At first, I'd catch the shuttle to save myself the walk. I also assumed that the windows and poor lighting of a shuttle would create wonderful images. I was wrong. It took less than a week to realize that the shuttle riders might as well have been sentinels, they were so devoid of motion. In disgust, I turned to walking. And what joy. It was then I discovered that the morning sun was at my back. My first day walking up the hill to the library was more like an inaugural dance, an ode to joy. My silvery twin spun and leapt with me. In fact, I could have sworn the giant smiled! At the end of the day, the walk down was filled with no less frolic.
I was content for a while. But, like before, there is only so much I could do with my own shadows, and the absence of variation became lonely. All the other custodial staff arrived after hours, and I had no one to walk up or down the hill with. The library staff that did get off work late in the afternoon like me parked in the garage and were probably halfway home by the time I reached my car in the gravel lot. I'd only been at the library five weeks when I gave them my resignation letter. They didn't seem upset that I was leaving. I offered them two weeks to find a replacement and they accepted. Three days later, I contemplated withdrawing my resignation. For on the way down the hill that day, I noticed a shadow…one I'd never noticed before.
The path to the gravel lot is comprised of a sidewalk for the first two hundred yards. Then there's a shortcut through the lawn of a utility company. Folks have actually worn a trail through the yard. A narrow dirt path runs along the side of the utility building and then opens to a large paved parking lot, finely landscaped with tree and plant islands. Beyond this parking lot is another street that has to be crossed to get to a back alley. The alley runs about thirty yards between two buildings, both owned by a produce wholesale company. Emerging from the alley, you come to the gravel lot, usually veiled by a hovering dust haze.
I immediately knew that another person was casting the shadow. Like mine, it had a long, cylindrical head--longer than mine, letting me know it was quite a distance behind me. I watched as it bobbed up and down in rhythm to my walk. I only turned around when it disappeared. I didn't see its caster. Perhaps it was my imagination.
The next afternoon, however, I saw the shadow again. It seemed to swat at mine in a playful way. For a moment, I thought I was in front of my father's wall again. With reserved gestures designed to look spontaneous, I'd penetrate the mysterious shadow with mine. This went on all the way down the hill until I crossed the street to the alley. Once in the alley, my shadow was devoured by the block shadow of one of the produce buildings. I'd hide around the corner in the alley and then peek out. Again, nothing.
This went on until the day before my resignation. For the first few days, I was apprehensive, noting how peculiar the daily appearance of this phantom mate was. But I have to admit, I didn't mind. Not at all. Every afternoon was the same, save that the mystery caster would follow me down the hill further and further. By the end, we were interacting past the utility company's parking lot and even into the cross street. Once in the alley, the swallowing of my shadow by the produce building ended the encounter. But on the day before my last day at the library, I decided not to wait before peeking. Perhaps this mystery person wanted to make contact with me and was using my love of shadows to do it. I didn't have the luxury of time with my last day being tomorrow, so a second after our shadows were lost in the alley, I whipped around to see my covert cohort. I only managed to see a bolt of color merge into a tree in the parking lot. I immediately regretted my action, as I knew that by looking I'd betrayed unspoken shadow dance protocol and would be without a partner for tomorrow afternoon; my last walk down the hill.
Alone and despondent, I trudged my way through the alley. Halfway through, I noticed another dash of color sweep across the opening. Perhaps my partner wanted to play in the gravel lot! We'd never done that before. I was relieved that I hadn't spoiled things by looking. After a few more steps, I was confused by a sound behind me. But I dared not turn around again. I'd foolishly done that once. I was at the mouth of the alley now and had spied my car in the gravel lot when the bolt of color suddenly appeared in front of me. I felt a simultaneous smacking on the inside of my right knee and the back of my head. I fell forward and to my right into the waiting expanse of the gravel lot. My forehead struck some of the stones and a crimson veil descended over my eyes. I saw two shadows as they hovered above me, kicking in jubilant dance.
I woke up in the shadow of my car. I could only open one eye. My bag was gone. My wallet was gone. But my keys were still in my clenched fist. I stood up and limped to my car. As I turned the key in the ignition, the clock lit up and showed that it was 5:16 AM. I was due to be at work in less than 45 minutes. Since I still had my keys, I could get into the library, clean up, and complete my last day. It would have been distasteful to call in sick on my last day. I got out of my car and started up the hill, noting the shadows as I walked. I was the first one in the building, and was able to clean myself up without interruption. Without my wallet I was unable to eat lunch, but one of my coworkers brought doughnuts to the office in honor of my last day. I had three and that tided me over. No one asked about the cuts in my forehead or my limp. I was glad.
That afternoon, as I walked down the hill, an unexpected sadness swept over me. The only shadows were mine and the trees'. My playmate did not return. It could have. I wasn't mad. It would have been all right. I only got a little nervous at the end of the alley. As I looked out onto the gravel lot, I feared my partner would be lurking behind the corner of one of the produce buildings. I darted out into the gravel lot as best I could with my sore leg, and was actually disappointed to find nobody there. I got in my car. I looked out the passenger window at the shadow it was casting. It looked like a double decked bus. I turned the key and drove home.