As a boy, Kevin relied on Shadow to protect him from his always-angry father. Shadow killed an alley-wolf that broke into his home. Shadow purged Kevin’s baby brother of the devil that invaded his body, drowning the evil in a bathtub. As a teen, Kevin counted on Shadow to keep him safe when he ventured out of his cell to shower or exercise or eat in the prison cafeteria. As an adult, Shadow accompanied Kevin to the house where he was told to live while he learned to adjust to freedom.
But then Kevin started the job he’d been assigned and that changed everything.
“He’s gone now,” Kevin told Miss McGuire, the social worker. Her thin arms reminded him of his frail mother. She had that same slender body. “He left when I took the job.”
The robots did it, he thought, though the machines where he worked didn’t look like the robots he saw on TV or in comic books. They didn’t have hands and feet; didn’t amble about on ball-jointed metal legs. No heads with eyes and ears and mouth. These robots rattled up and down and left and right, attached by intricate gearing to rods and rails as they plucked grocery items from plastic tubs bolted to steel shelves.
Kevin picked up what the robots dropped. Sometimes a can and sometimes a box. Robots labored without caring about waste, he’d been told by Mr. Goodland, the balding night shift manager, who laughed, belly-like-jelly, his sagging jowls red and his eyes bulging.
Friendly Mr. Goodland.
Kevin knew not to trust him. Like the prison guards, Goodland could turn on him, strip him, hurt him, sear his insides with white-hot weapons. And Shadow wasn’t with him in this warehouse. So who would stop Mr. Goodland?
Kevin prayed for Shadow’s return.
He prayed while he walked with his eyes on the floor in search of what the robots dropped. He prayed while taking cans and small cartons to a bin, where they’d be sorted by men and women who could read, and it was while he prayed that one of the robots attacked him.
He cried out and rushed to a corner, arms across his head, fingers digging into his skull, opening the razor wounds in his shaved head. A screeching robot rammed him. Kevin screamed for help.
A white-coated woman and Mr. Goodland, armed with a mallet, rushed to his aid. The two joked about malfunctions and stupid software that didn’t know better. A third person warned that this kind of accident wasn’t a joking matter.
Kevin remained in his corner. He ignored Mr. Goodland’s entreaties, and those of the seven strangers bunched together and talking all at once. He ignored everyone and cried, as he used to when his father stood over him with that flying belt buckle.
Miss McGuire emerged from the anonymous crowd.
“I’m sorry if we got you out of bed,” Mr. Goodland said. “The House said you’re the only one who can do anything with him.”
“It’s okay,” Miss McGuire said. Kevin liked how she knelt in front of him. Her soft fingertips assured him, as did her faintly musty smell and her hot breath sweet with toothpaste odor.
He went with her.
“Will the robots let me come back to work?” Kevin asked. Miss McGuire glanced back over her shoulder and then said that Kevin could come back tomorrow. She promised, the robots would be fixed.
“Shadow would tear them apart.” Kevin put on his jacket and clamped his narrow brimmed wool cap atop his head. Outside, the cool night air caressed his face.
Miss McGuire said, “I’ll take you home.”
Kevin stood at the back door of a small car in the dimly lit parking lot.
Miss McGuire said, “You can sit up front.”
“I never do.”
“Tonight you can.”
He sat up front. In the flash of light when the car door opened and Miss McGuire took her seat behind the wheel, he saw white flesh above her knees.
So beautiful, he thought. So fragile, those arms and stick-like fingers on the steering wheel. She’d crumble like his mother always crumbled; she’d been no match for his father in a fight.
When they reached the halfway house, Miss McGuire drove past it to the corner and pulled over next to a fire hydrant.
“You can’t park here,” Kevin said.
“I’m letting you out. Whoever’s on night duty will let you in. They’re expecting you.”
Kevin always approached the house from the bus stop at the other end of the street. He’d never come from this direction.
“Just walk back that way,” Miss McGuire said, and then she got out on her side of the car. “I’ll walk with you.”
“But your car.”
“It’s just for a moment.”
Kevin stood on the sidewalk. Cars and trucks of various sizes and descriptions lined both sides of the narrow street. Tall brick houses set side-by-side stood dark and uninviting, with closed doors at the top of white stone steps.
Miss McGuire extended her hand. Her hair fell in jagged waves down the sides of her narrow face. Her jacket, zipped to the neck, hid her body, but her skinny arms and legs exposed her as vulnerable.
He couldn’t help her.
When she screamed and tumbled backwards: he couldn’t help her.
Her eyes widened—gray-green in her stark white face.
He never could protect himself or anyone. Shadow fought his father and saved him, sometimes saved his mother. Shadow killed that murderous wolf. Shadow washed out the devil that devoured his brother. Shadow did all the things that Kevin could not.
And from out of the night, Shadow came to Miss McGuire’s rescue.
The attacker bellowed and fled. Red and blue lights flashed at both ends of the street. Police arrived, more frantic than when they came to Kevin’s home when he was a boy. Police pushed Kevin against a stone wall. They hovered around the screaming and bloodied Miss McGuire.
“No,” she shouted, and broke loose. “Not him. Not Kevin.”
“What happened?” a female officer said.
Miss McGuire gagged. She doubled over. Then she said, “Someone just grabbed me. Then someone all in black–I didn’t see his face–came out of nowhere.”
“He came out of nowhere?” someone said with a hint of doubt.
“Out of nowhere,” Miss McGuire said.
But Kevin knew better. Shadow grew from the play of light on the lace covering his bedroom window. Shadow materialized from the recesses of the buildings. Shadow grew from his fear and need for help. But he wouldn’t tell anyone. This was a secret only he and Shadow should know.
Miss McGuire said, “He chased him off. My attacker. He chased him into the alley.” She pointed to a narrow passage intersecting the street.
Two of the police rushed in that direction.
“Let him go,” Miss McGuire said. “Kevin didn’t do anything.”
Kevin bolted into Miss McGuire’s embrace.
“Where did he come from?” Miss McGuire asked. “This Shadow.” She sobbed. Kevin hugged her. Hard. Like he used to hug his mother when Shadow chased his father away.
“Shadow came just when we needed him,” Kevin said.
◊ ◊ ◊
After a long and successful career as a software developer and technical architect, David has turned to a first love: SF, fantasy, and magical realism. He’s published stories in Phase 2, Farther Stars Than These, Martian Wave, Flash Fiction Press and other online as well as print magazines. Visit his web site: http://www.davidsjournal.com to learn more and for links to his Kindle books on Amazon.