Shadow & Me
January 14th 11am
“How are you feeling right now?” I asked.
“Weak and dizzy,” he replied, expressionlessly.
He was lying on the hospital bed, with his body below the neck covered under the white quilt. His skin was as white as a film of rice paper. His upper lips curled up a bit with a tad of dried blood stuck there. A small tuft of hair had popped up around his chin overnight, making his finely boned face even more gaunt.
“Why are you staring at me?” He shot a gaze at me.
“Nothing.” I slightly shook my head.
“Do you have any memory of what happened after you fell down?” I asked him in a serious tone.
‘’ I don’t remember it clearly. I was standing there, the next thing, I don’t know,” He said. “It felt like I was thrown into another space, definitely not earth, a totally black spinning space…”
I know what happened last night: His head hit directly on the granite floor tile; blood seeped through his forehead and out of his mouth. One part of his front teeth chipped off the moment he bumped into the ground. His grandpa found him, and called the ambulance immediately.
January 14th 1 am
It was pitch dark outside, but from time to time, you could hear the howling of the alcoholics wandering in the nearby block，the knocks and rumblings of the neighborhood, the flush of a toilet somewhere downstairs, and the groan of pipes in the bathroom.
A faint light came in through the gap in a curtain, and it only illuminated a corner of the room. The rest was shrouded by darkness.
He was standing by the window; the night breeze stroked his unruly thatch of hair. For a while, he just stood there.
He raised his left hand, and stared at dozens of pea-shaped things on his palm.
“Joe, don’t rush into any decision.” I locked eyes with him.
His hand was trembling. Tears welled up from his eyes and spilled down directly at his nightgown.
“Think about your favorite radio program, the park you take a walk in every day, the sports stadium, your family and friends. Once it’s done, all is gone.”
He whimpered, the saliva leaked out of his mouth, treading across the down lip, mixing with the gush of tears. In a second, he stuffed the things into his open mouth, and swallowed them.
“No, stop,” I hollered.
A moment of unearthly silence ensued.
He stood there, still sobbing. His tears glistened under the faint light sneaking through the window.
Then—bang—in a fraction of a second, he fell, face down on the ground.
He lay there like a withered leaf; the non-deciphered darkness descended from the ceiling and enveloped his body.
I disappeared soundlessly.
January 13th 11pm
The night was deadly quiet and I could not fall asleep. My heartbeat was racing. I feared the silence; I feared the silence in the darkness. I was just like a guinea pig chained on the bed, waiting for the darkness to rip me apart.
With a quick yank, I pulled the quilt from my body. I sat up, gasping for breath. My eyes popped open as if the darkness was trying to tear them out. Cramming my feet into the cotton-padded shoes, I dashed out of the bedroom.
“I hate myself for being such a coward,” I whimpered at the corner of the living room.
“Don’t say that, you are not a coward,” The shadow cut in. “You just happen to hate the darkness.”
A grin spread over my face.
”I also hate the silence,” I muttered.
“Why not turn on the radio? It might help,” he purred.
I turned on the radio. It was the program’s time; the familiar sound of the radio host came into my ear:
“Hello, dear listener, welcome back to tonight’s Quiz With Awards. I am your favorite host, Xiaoliang. Today’s riddle is,” the host cleared his throat, “listen carefully, there is one kind of book that you must buy two copies at once, and you are only allowed to buy it when you reached a certain age. One more hint, you must buy it with another person. One more time, there is one kind of book…”
Stupid quiz. Stupid program. I shook my head and closed my eyes.
“The listeners now by the radio, call us right now, 400 Yuan is waiting for you…”
The program went on. The deep and vigorous voice of the host ripped one small crack in the sack of darkness I was in. The fresh air blew in, my breath returned to the normal rhythm, I was not trembling anymore; all the fear and sorrow was temporarily locked away.
The Quiz With Awards continued…
‘’See you at the same time tomorrow. I am your favorite host, Xiaoliang. Bye —“
The sound faded away and the silence once again descended on the room.
January 13th 8 pm
He trailed through the dim, desolate street. I followed him silently.
I was wondering whether the things that had happened in the afternoon still affected him.
We entered the front gate of the sports stadium. The janitor nodded at him, but he just walked by as if he had not noticed the fifty-year-old man.
“That was rude, it was extremely rude,” I paced forward and said to him. “He was always nice to you.”
He strode forward and ignored me.
“Stop being a dickhead, do not treat everyone like they owe you something,” I blurted out.
He stepped onto the track, still ignoring me.
Maybe I should console him more instead of criticizing, but in what way? I mused.
A gust of wind was blowing into the spacious track field; the only two people jogging on the track shivered and immediately balled themselves into knots.
My gaze landed on him, he was standing on the starting line, motionless, like a weathered fossil.
A few minutes later, He took his first step, keeping his head and chest up, looking straight ahead, pushing up and off the ground.
One lap, two laps, three… His head bent a little forward. His shoulder swung and lurched. He stumbled and almost fell.
“Joe, are you okay?” I leaned forward and patted him on his shoulder.
“I…am…fine.” He was sucking up the cold air and then coughing terribly, with tears and saliva bursting out. He struggled to move forward and then leaned onto the goal post at one end of the football field.
“Joe, take some rest, do not exhaust yourself,” I said solicitously.
“I am not exhausted,” he replied, still trying to catch his breath.
He lowered his head and was quiet for a moment, then raised his head, looking me straight in the eyes.
“I am not exhausted. Trust me, I feel nothing. Maybe I look really worn out, but that is just the outer appearance,” he said.
He swiveled gaze away from me and muttered, “One master once aptly stated that body is literally the shell and what hurts is something inside.”
“What a kind of bullshit pseudo-statement,” I snapped. “Stay away from that nonsense.”
He did not reply but just stared at the moon up in the air.
I held his right hand and squeezed it.
“Joe, stop torturing yourself. Let’s go back home and take some rest. Forget all about this, okay?” I said mildly.
He pursed his lips a little and took a slight nod.
January 13th 4pm
Class delay, again!
I glanced furtively at the serious face of Ms. Liu while stuffing the textbooks and notebooks into the shoulder bag on my lap. My feet tapped the floor rhythmically.
“Okay, that’s all for today.” She laid the textbooks on the podium and said, ‘’Dismissed.”
As if hearing the sound of the starting gun, I darted off the desk towards the back door.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of Ms. Liu who was furrowing her unbalanced eyebrow, and shaking her head slightly.
I know I was that incurable douchebag in her eyes.
At this time of the day, the narrow, humid and dark corridor was jammed with students, moving in every direction. All of them wore the clown-looking school uniform; light blue with dark stripes.
I slowed down my steps instinctively. My mind went blank, my sight blurred, I was like a puppet hung in the air by the string, numb, could not process the situation in front of me.
It took a while before I recovered from the numbness, but immediately I felt like I had been thrown into another world.
My feet were glued on the ground, my fingernail ripped into the part of the sweater where my heart lay beneath my skin. I exhaled strongly—in front of me was a light blue sea. The wave was high and fierce, it was howling and dashing over me.
HELP! HELP! I howled in despair.
I was swallowed by the waves; they pushed me back and forth, and in the background wretched, disturbing noise.
I craned my head, my hands flurried back and forth. The water drummed into my mouth, I was suffocating.
“Joe, wait for me.” A husky voice came from afar.
I was fished out of the water in no time, back to the land.
“Corridor, not the sea.” I gingerly looked around, still startled.
I was aware of someone standing beside me, squeezing my right arm. As if I was being stung by thousands of ants, I shook off the hand and turned around. There he was, Xiao Lei, my best friend in the school. He bent over, and still tried to catch his breath.
“Why did you ignore me?” he asked. “I was shouting out your name several times, and people stared at me like I’m crazy.”
He cracked a smile.
“Leave me alone,” I mumbled and then dashed out of the corridor.
He and I walked side by side, all the way without a word.
“Why didn’t you ask me about Xiao Lei?” I finally said, breaking the silence.
“I didn’t wanna annoy you,” he replied softly. “But why did you treat your mate like that?”
“I don’t know.” I gently shook my head.
Now we were walking around the park lake. The wind was blowing from the other side of the lake, hustling the few surviving brownish leaves dangling on the branches. On the bank, a boy skipped stone across the lake, the stone bounced clumsily on the surface several times before sinking down into the body of water. On the lawn by the side of the lake, a brown poodle was scampering around.
I seated myself on the paint-stripped black wooden bench.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” I sighed. “I don’t wanna talk to anyone, I don’t wanna interact with anyone. I wanna cut myself out from the rest of the world. This is a torture for me.” My voice was shaking; the stream of air was half-blocked in my throat. “I don’t know why, there’s always sadness springing up from my body.”
I buried my face in my lap, trying to squeeze tears out, but to no avail. My emotion was like a grapefruit with all the juice squeezed out，leaving only a film of white inner membrane.
“Relax,” he said and gently patted my back. “Talk to someone, I mean, a real person in the life, not a virtual one in the cyber world. It won’t help by cocooning yourself from the outside world.”
January 13th 1 pm
His eyes were glued to the screen, and with a click of his index finger, a QQ dialog box popped up.
I know, his one-pm cyber-therapy session began.
“A therapy?” I released a sigh.
That is his word for it, not mine.
In fact, the so-called therapy is a QQ group; members of this group come from all corners of the country. They have different occupations, preferences, lifestyles, but one common thing gathers them together.
He seldom joined in any group talk but just browsed the conversation among the other members.
He cupped his chin, lips pursed a little bit, eyebrows arched up, and the black pupils in his big eyes reflected the images on the screen. At that moment, time was frozen, only two things left—him and the dialog box.
My eyesight landed on the dialog box, and skimmed through the conversation.
Wanna give my life this evening
TBT last month You have said the same thing HONEY
I am serious this time
OK I believe in you Good Luck
Anyone wanna end their life tonight too
Maybe we can keep each other company on our way to hell
A grain of sand on the beach
Gone with the wind
How did you guys choose the way? I mean strangling, burning yourself, jumping from the building or bridge or cutting wrists
I bought one bottle of Estazolam Tablets
Costs me 70 Yuan—fucking expensive
Gone with the wind
One bottle is enough??? Last week I took one bottle of sleeping pills
Still alive Horrible!!!
Ah Thank you for the reminder
buy another one this afternoon
Maybe two OR a back-up plan
Gone with the wind
Good luck Guys
He closed the dialog box, and then slumped back into the seat.
“Joe, exit this QQ Group, they are terrifying.” I said.
“No,” he replied staunchly.
“Why? You are not like any of them.”
“I am one of them,” he pursed his lips, “not accepted by others.”
“This is no true, you have friends in school, and what about your family? They all love you very much.”
“Do not let what happened at school bother you anymore.” I looked at him and spotted a bead of tear escaping from his right eye.
January 14th 1pm
The winter sun, not as hot as that in summer, brought warmth to my body. I felt rescued from an icy hell. The warmth, like mild electricity, circulated in my body down to my toes, and my big toes twitched slightly.
I gently opened my eyes; a beam of light hit me.
I slightly moved my body, and seated myself on the head of the hospital bed.
He was by my side.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” I asked.
He nodded his head.
“Remember the first time that we met?” he asked mildly.
“Yes,” I replied.
The memory cartwheeled out of my head.
I couldn’t breathe.
My head was jammed into the sink, and then yanked away from the water. Before I could restore my breath, I was ducked into the water again. The bubbles accumulated in the water, like a translucent but airtight sack, trapping my face.
“Am I going to die?” I wondered.
My head was finally hauled away from the water and I was flung onto the ground.
“Ha, ha, coward. Remember, you are just like a bug, I could pulverize you in one second.”
The restroom door slammed shut, and the footsteps in the corridor faded away.
A shaft of sunlight sliced through the crack of the window, but was swallowed by the darkness immediately.
“This is the icy hell,” I sobbed and buried my face in my lap.
One hand lay on my shoulder.
I lifted my head.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I’m your shadow.”
Outside the window, two birds were hopping up and down on the eave, and they were chirping from time to time.
What are they singing about? Why are they still here in the winter?
I could not figure it out, but their cheerful sound echoed in my heart. I did not want to part from this sound.
“I don’t wanna die,“ I said.
He swiveled his gaze to look me straight in the eye.
“But the shadow of suicide could be with me forever,” I said in a muffled voice.
“As for shadow,” he snapped, ”have you heard one quote that goes like my dark eyes were born in the dark night, with them I keep searching the light?”
“Yes. So?” I looked at him curiously.
“So that may be where the road lies,” he said, eyes dancing.
I looked more confused.
“Why ignore the fact that you are in the darkness? Why not try to make the best of the situation? Why not search your light and find your way out?”
“So what is my light?” I asked.
“Writing down the story, maybe.” He elongated the last word and then gave me a sly smile.
I smiled back and stretched out my hands, held him…
Zheng Wei is a PhD student in English literature at Sun Yat-sen University, having finished his MA in applied linguistics from the same university in 2015. His major interest is in creative nonfiction and self-translation. “Shadow and Me” is his second short story.