Instead of counting sheep to fall asleep, I used to stare at my wall and watch the tree shadows sway, the leaf shadows fall, the squirrel shadows scamper. In the summer, I tossed my blankets to the floor and suffered through waves of heat, because I refused to let my parents install an AC in the window. I wanted it unblocked, curtains open, so that I could watch the outside world projected onto my wall.
It’s funny in a fucked up kind of way. I paid attention to every shadow, except my own. I never cupped my hands or pinched my fingertips to make shadow puppets sing. I never looked down at my feet as I walked to see how large or small my silhouette grew with the sun.
I never scrutinized my own shadow, not once. But I should have. Maybe things would have worked out differently in December if I had.
After the last house party of sophomore year ended, I swapped my heels for the crumpled flats in my purse and headed home. All three friends that had helped me pick out an outfit and do my contour six hours earlier ended up going home with their boyfriends, leaving me stranded.
Some frat boy offered to walk me back to my dorm, but he was really offering me his dick, so I declined the offer. Stumbled down the stone steps alone.
I made it about halfway to my off-campus apartment when a strange sense washed over me, a feeling that someone was following behind me, walking with my same speed. I spun around to see a light post, but nothing else. No leftover people from the party. No raccoons or birds or snails. Nothing.
I picked up the pace, sweat dripping even in the cold air, because something still felt off. It reminded me of an old art class where the professor showed us an optical illusion with a young woman and an old lady.
No matter how much I squinted my eyes and tilted my head, I could only make out one face and not the other. I felt like I was missing something obvious. Something that should have been right there in front of me.
And I had that same feeling walking home from the party that night. Like I was looking, but not seeing.
I managed to make it back to my place in one piece and passed out on my bed fully clothed, but my thirst woke me at six in the morning, so I rose to pull a Gatorade out from the fridge. I chugged it on the walk back to my room, wondering why the hell things still felt off.
I settled onto my comforter and glanced around the slightly spinning room. At the corkboard on my wall. At the desk situated beneath it. At the potted plant in the corner.
Hold on, hold on, hold on.
I usually kept it cluttered with notebooks and jewelry and empty Starbucks cups, but I spotted something extra hidden in the mess. It looked like a knitting needle with thread looped around the eye, attached to a thick black spool.
I had no idea how those materials had gotten out from the sewing kit in my drawers and onto my desk. Unless… Did one of my friends use them while I was applying makeup in the bathroom when we pre-gamed before the party? I vaguely remembered one of them having a ripped skirt and whining about it – but then she decided it looked cuter that way.
Too drunk to come to a logical conclusion, I fell back asleep to disturbing dreams of the shadows on my walls attacking me. The bird shadows flying off the walls and pecking out my eyes. The tree shadows peeling themselves off the ceiling, reaching down and curling their branches around my neck to cut off my airflow.
I tried to scream in the dream and kept trying to scream when my eyes popped open, but no sound escaped. I couldn’t even force my lips to part. The most I could do was bob a toe, twitch a pinkie.
I worked my hardest to remain relaxed, because I’d seen documentaries on this type of thing. On sleep paralysis. It must have been sleep paralysis.
I struggled to keep my breathing even as a black hand cupped my shoulder, not the color of skin, but the color of night. The fingers curved like a mitten, rounded without any separation between digits.
I waited for the hallucination to vanish. Tried to will it away. To force it out of reality and back into my subconscious.
But it stayed. The shadow figure spread its entire body out on top of me, facing the ceiling with its legs over my legs and crotch over my crotch. I could only see its solid square back as it sat up like it was about to stretch for its toes.
With a silent swish of its arm, it dug the knitting needle through its own foot – and into my skin beneath it. I felt the prick. Felt my flesh pull. Felt the hole grow as the needle squeezed through it.
The process repeated itself again and again. Prick. Push. Pull. Prick. Push. Pull.
The pain pulsed through my entire body, searing my throat, pounding my head, clogging my ears. It hurt all over. Every inch of me stung.
When it succeeded in attaching its legs to me, it leaned onto its back with its chest against my chest and sewed our torsos together. Then our left arms, our shoulders, our necks, our heads, leaving the hand with the needle for last.
As it finished, I felt all the air escape my body in one hard surge, like someone stomped on my lungs to deflate them. I imagined that was what dying felt like – but that was another symptom of sleep paralysis. Feeling like you were dying.
My eyesight faded away and when it jolted back, I was staring at the ceiling. At the glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the paint overhead. I felt better, numb but better, and thought it was finally over. That the dream had ended.
But when I tried to sit up, nothing happened. I couldn’t lift my body. Couldn’t lift an arm or a leg. Couldn’t even twitch a pinkie or a toe.
What the hell? How long did sleep paralysis last? Could it still be going on? Could I be trapped in a cycle of nightmares?
I kept asking myself questions I had no idea how to answer until I saw something towering above me. A girl. A mirror image of me. The same hair, same eyes, same waist and boobs and butt.
She stretched out her long, thin arms and I mimicked her. Reached up when she reached up. Shrugged when she shrugged. Followed every movement she made against my will.
I acted as her shadow.
I don’t know how she found the power to do it — maybe it took her all twenty-two years of my life to figure it out — but she discovered a way to switch positions with me. To step into my place and force me into her place.
Now, I have no mouth to speak or smile or scream. Now, I’m a faceless creature, a silhouette, a shadow, forced to forever follow the body that used to belong to me.