"It's going to be a hot one today," said Rhonda, fanning herself with her hand. She was walking and window shopping with her boyfriend Vincent, who was more interested in the various spots of gum on the sidewalk than spending a day in and out of stores. He had his hands in his pockets and dragged his feet a little, feeling the texture of the ground through his sandals. It was all he could do to stay awake, and it was just the beginning of the ordeal.
"Yeah, I guess," said Vincent, squinting up at the morning sun. He wished he was still swathed in a maze of sheets in bed, TV remote control in hand, watching bad action movies from the eighties, as Sunday mornings ought to be spent. Rhonda was unaware of his distress. She did promise him his pick of an afternoon matinee, so he was reticent to get into an argument or do anything else that might delay getting to the movie theater on time. Rhonda stopped in front of a window with several minimally clothed, headless, white plastic mannequins that held awkward poses no normal human would naturally entertain unless they were suddenly avoiding getting hit by a careening clown-car.
"Oh look! They're having twenty percent off sale! Do you think we have time to stop?" asked Rhonda.
"Uh, what do you need here?" asked Vincent.
"I just want to browse and see if there is anything I like. You might find something too," said Rhonda. Not likely, thought Vincent.
"You should ideally only spend money on planned purchases," said Vincent. He hoped it was a sufficiently diplomatic way of getting her to move along.
"Oh," she squeezed his arm, "you're thinking about our future finances. That's so sweet." She visibly blushed as she said it.
"Uh, yeah, of course," he said. She pouted her lips out at him, and, unnecessarily, did her puppy eyes routine.
"But I really just want to see what's on sale," she pleaded.
"It's just twenty percent. I bet you could get a better deal if you go to their online store in a month or two," said Vincent.
"But don't you want to see--"
There was a scream back down the road. They both turned to look, expecting to see an accident, a heart attack victim, or at least a purse-snatching. Instead they saw several people pointing further down the road. A man was running in their direction. Behind him there was something very strange, and they couldn't figure out at first what it was.
"Run! Run!" screamed the man.
"What is that?" said Rhonda.
"It looks like a shadow," said Vincent. "But that shouldn't be there, with the sun where it is in the sky."
"It's moving," said Rhonda. The shadow was very dark, but it sparked red in various places, mostly where it outlined a change in the surface it covered--the bend of a curb to the road, or the break in the sidewalk pavement.
"Run! Run! You idiots, Run!" The man passed them and veered into the store with the twenty percent off sale. The people on the street where he had run from were standing still and staring and pointing at the shadow as it crept along the sidewalk. Vincent looked around. It extended to the tall buildings, wrapping them in darkness.
"This is not normal," said Vincent.
Then a man next to the shadow put his foot over it, and as he pressed down, and made contact, his leg and then his body was sucked into it in a blur, in an instant. There was a faint accompanying 'pop'. Other bystanders started running, arms flailing, screaming frantically.
"We should go," said Rhonda, looking into the store, then up the street, which was clear of the shadow. "I wonder if it can get inside a building."
"I have no idea--let's go this way," said Vincent. He pulled her forward and away from the store. Rhonda slipped off her heeled shoes, then they started walking briskly. Rhonda was breathing rapidly.
"I think I'm going to have a panic attack," she said.
"You'll be fine," said Vincent, not sure he was reassuring her. "You're with me, aren't you?"
"Yeah," she said, trying to catch her breath. People were running past, jostling them. "But I don't know what's happening. I don't know what that is."
"It's probably just an optical illusion," said Vincent. Rhonda gave him a dirty look. Vincent looked back over his shoulder. It seemed to be gaining speed. It flowed under the door of the store with the sale. Then a mannequin shattered the glass window and landed right on the encroaching shadow, which swallowed it up. The shards of glass bounced oddly, as if made of rubber, but they were not consumed. Several people were standing in the display case window, unable to take their new escape route. The shadow crept up the wall. Vincent turned back just as the people screamed then popped. He pushed Rhonda forward. "Don't look back," he said.
"We need to run," said Rhonda.
"You sure?" asked Vincent.
"Oh yeah," she said, starting to sprint. Vincent ran to catch up with her.
"No buildings," he said, panting. "Those are a trap." Rhonda was too focused on running to respond. Her face looked grim. Behind them a car honked and squealed its tires. Vincent looked back to see the car crumple inward, glass breaking and metal groaning, its backend already consumed by the shadow. It took a few more seconds to disappear than the man or the mannequin, and Vincent noticed this time that it sent whorling trails of red sparks along the shadow. They met and flowed back along the shadow, down the street. The shadow itself, in that area, seemed to grow more quickly than the where it was just gliding across surfaces. All that was left of the car was the broken glass.
Vincent turned and looked ahead. Rhonda had slowed as well, but for a different reason. The shadow was creeping down the cross road ahead of them.
"I don't think we're going to make it," she said, calming. Vincent put his hands over his mouth. The other people on road and the sidewalk started to bunch together, gasping and wailing. Vincent looked around, and saw a manhole cover. He ran to it, dragging Rhonda.
"Help me with this!" he said. He and Rhonda and several other people pried it up. He helped Rhonda down first, then went next. He landed ankle deep in fetid water. They were followed by a dozen or so other people.
"What now?" said Rhonda. "It might come down here too."
"This is the storm drain," said Vincent. It should let out into the ocean." He looked to see which way the water flowed, then lead the group towards the ocean. They had to duck and crouch in many places, and always they watched the walls. As they progressed the water started to slosh back and forth.
"I think we're close," said Rhonda. "But it could be out there in the ocean too."
"It didn't absorb glass," said Vincent.
"So?" asked Rhonda.
"Glass is clear, or mostly. Maybe the shadow has some optical properties."
"And the ocean is clear, mostly," said Rhonda. "Oh my God. You're right. Or I really hope you're right."
the water was hip deep now, and cloudy with sand. They turned a corner, and down a long tunnel they saw a grate.
"Oh, no," said Vincent. Others in the group moaned. Someone started to cry.
"Maybe it's rusted out," said Rhonda. Someone screamed behind them. Vincent and Rhonda turned, to see a young woman pointing at the ceiling. It was the shadow, sparking. Rhonda turned, waded quickly, then started swiming towards the grate. Vincent and the rest of the group followed, periodically looking up to see the shadow tracking them closely.
When she reached the grate, Rhonda started wrenching it back and forth rapidly. It was loose.
"You're right," said Vincent. He and the rest joined in and in sync, they pulled and pushed on the grate. Bits of cement crumbled away from the sides. They worked frantically for a minute or so before the shadow was right above them. Everyone let go of the grate, and moved back. It started to creep down the grate, it's red sparks lighting up the tunnel. Then Rhonda reached out and rattled the grate.
"No!" said Vincent.
"Maybe it will treat it like that man instead of a regular surface," she said, rattling it again. It worked--the grate was sucked up, but Rhonda's hands were still on it. In a split second, Vincent reached out and grabbed her by the waist. As she was sucked in, another man from the group grabbed Vincent around the waist as well, and they pulled back on Rhonda together, halting her absorption. Instinctively, more people people joined in and pulled, and they recovered Rhonda's chest. The shadow lit up like firecrackers. They pulled more, grunting, and then Rhonda came free. They all dropped into the water.
Vincent cradled Rhonda's head. She wasn't breathing. He felt her neck--her heart was still beating. He tilted her head back, held her nose and opened her mouth and blew in air. Suddenly she gasped, then she started shuddering, and her eyes rolled back. Then the other people pushed them out of the tunnel, and they were swimming in the open ocean. The shadow did not follow. Vincent floated Rhonda on her back, watching her carefully. The group propelled themselves several yards out from shore, where there were other refugees from opaque surfaces swimming. Everyone looked back at the shoreline as it was eaten by shadow.
A catamaran came near them and scooped up the group. Vincent sat with Rhonda. She had stopped shaking once she was out of the water. Once everyone else on the boat heard that she survived the shadow, all faces were turned to her, watching her sleep. Finally, around noon, she came back to consciousness. She looked around, disoriented and groggy. Everyone leaned in, expectant.
"Where am I?" she asked.
"On a boat," said Vincent. "Thanks to you." He smiled warmly.
"Oh," said Rhonda. "Oooh." She sat up and rubbed her head. "Oooh no."
"Is it still here?"
"Yeah," said Vincent, pointing to a shore that was now entirely black except for a thin strip of wet beach and the windows in buildings that were made of clear, untinted glass. "What was it like in there?"
"It was...oh my God...I don't know how--indescribable," said Rhonda.
"Do you remember?"
"Yes, it's just that--all I can say is that I think part of universe collapsed or something. Dimensionally," said Rhonda.
"What does that mean?" said one of the onlookers.
"I was still me, but there wasn't any up or down," said Rhonda. "I could move in four directions, and I couldn't really see much, just lines of light. I could feel them too. It was weird. I thought this had to be a nightmare, but...I guess not." Vincent rubbed shoulder, then hugged her.
"I thought I was going to lose you," he said.
"Me too," said Vincent.
"I guess it was just a temporary stay of execution," said Rhonda, chuckling grimly.
"No, actually," said Vincent. "The captain said he got word over the radio that the mainland is fine. It's just here for some reason."
"What, really?" said Rhonda.
"Yeah. We don't have enough fuel to make it, so they are sending out ships for survivors. In a week or so we'll be sleeping comfortably on a cruise ship."
"We lost everything though," said Rhonda.
"We have each other," said Vincent. Rhonda nodded and they hugged.