CHAPTER 4: IN THE SHADOW OF DARKNESS
“There he is again!” Julie said jumping from her seat.
She looked out the window of classroom 4E. Fellow Homme classmate Anita Brown stood beside her and curiously looked around for this mysterious person too.
“Where is he?” she asked.
“Over there! By the swings!” Julie then pointed at the swings in the vacant playground, not far from a colorful flower bed and the elderly willow.
“Nobody’s there! Stop scaring me!” Anita said and gave Julie an angry stare.
“Somebody is on the swings outside! Look, he’s waving at us!” Julie could not understand what was wrong with Anita.
There was somebody on the swings, she could see him clearly. Anita looked again, but all she saw were the empty seats on chains rocking about to the passing wind.
“Miss Travell, Miss Brown! What on Terrathos are you girls doing?” their teacher, Mrs. Sadira, asked.
“Teacher, Julie’s being a weirdo!” Anita exclaimed.
“Wha—I’m telling the truth!” Julie gave a cry of frustration.
“Ms. Travell, you’re disrupting my class. Return to your seat at once!” Sadira demanded firmly.
Julie pressed her forehead against the window, still looking at the strange man on the swings. She turned around to meet the eyes of her teacher and peers. Whispers and odd looks were exchanged among the children. With her head down and frowning, Julie quietly plodded back to her seat next to Anita.
“Look Ron, Nutty J gets halitosis!” The Theo boy sitting behind Julie said with a snort.
His name was Logan. Sitting behind him was his identical twin brother Ronald; both were the tallest kids in class and were also more muscular than the typical fourth grader.
“The word is HALLUCINATIONS, stupid… which I don’t have and for the record my breath smells of fresh mint!” Julie kept her hand close to her mouth, hoping her breath still smelled good.
“Guess we’ll have to call the madhouse!” Ron laughed.
“Leave me alone!” she demanded.
“They’re coming to get you, Nutty J!” Logan teased.
“Poor Nutty J!” Ron snorted.
“That’s enough!” Sadira warned.
“At least I don’t get stupider each day!” Julie said.
The twins laughed, prompting their teacher to slam a book onto the desk, startling the children. With their focus on her, she marched towards the trio, hands to her hips. The other students and Anita looked on in silence.
“Another peep and you three are going to the office!” Sadira’s hand fiercely pointed towards the door, making the colorful beads on her hair and bracelets jiggle. She then eyed Julie.
Don’t look at me! I was the victim of their psychological abuse! I could sue them, damn it! Julie quietly met Sadira’s glance with amusement. Sadira gave her a nod and the girl then turned to the window. It’s all your fault, nudie creep!
Since two days ago, at Anita’s party afterschool, Julie had been seeing this peculiar character following her. The first time she saw him was during dessert but before the cutting of the cake. She had been standing deserted from other guests (who except for her classmates she thought were snobs) by the bushes near the buffet table.
Suddenly, her peripheral vision noticed her long shadow had vanished. Then she sensed something or someone looming over her. She grinned, getting ready to smoosh her plate onto the face of who she thought was Arial Tymnuzroman, the prankster from Grade 5 with the funny word-processor-sounding name. The moment she turned, her mouth dropped. She initially thought in front of her stood the most realistic Halloween decoration she had ever set eyes upon—noteworthy, it was almost six months since October 31.
He reminded her of one of the living dead; he was hairless and looked as if his gray parchment skin had been stretched over a bare skeleton. Suddenly… without warning, his black marble eyes slowly glanced at her, sending chills down her spine and the puff pastry in her hands to the rocky ground with a splat. Wide-eyed, Julie gasped.
The man opened his lipless mouth and tried to bend down closer to her, about to tell her something. She panicked and backed away. To her dismay she did not see where she went and bumped onto the party clown who along the way grabbed onto Anita’s adolescent cousin Cyrus, who then grabbed onto fellow classmate Drake Lavender, who then yowled and viciously clawed onto the dress of Mrs. Brown… and they all plummeted into the pool with a tidal splash that dampened guests within a four feet radius.
Eyes soon were on Julie, who tried to explain herself. Anita in return gave her a rather diabolical glare that frightened her even more than the man who startled her to begin with. Unfortunately, everyone but Julie could see this ghastly character that stood by the bushes, holding onto his skeletal torso and wheezing hysterically like a howling beast. She had not mentioned anything to her father, not wanting to give him more things to worry about, given his recent poor health.
From that experience, Julie did learn something. Whenever he was near, the shadows of people, animals and objects would always unnaturally face the direction he was at. When she followed them, he would always be there. Sometimes he would go “BOO!” and startle her, other times he would remain still and observe in silence. Nudie stalker creep!
Julie then glanced at her teacher, who had on display a hologram of an ecosystem, complete with happy little clouds in motion and animals. A few minutes ago her teacher’s shadow had wandered off to the window, where she saw the man sitting quietly in the swings and waving. Now with the commotion past them, class resumed.
“For this assignment, each group will capture images of ten living specimens with your holographers. They can be animal or plant. You will also have to tell me their official scientific names and give three facts for each. Group presentations are due next Monday so don’t procrastinate and get as much work done today. Trust me, when I was your age I cherished my free time,” Sadira said.
She then turned to the electronic board behind her and tapped it twice, making the bullet points and graphics fade into a blank screen with the rotating elliptical 3D logo of Algol Industries in its place.
“You have five minutes to pick your groups, unless you want me to do it for you,” she added.
Sadira eyed Julie again and noticed the girl did not go around looking for a group partner. Instead she leaned over her desk with a grim look on her face. Julie soon caught glimpse of her teacher and noted she gave her a warm smile and made hand gestures for her to get moving. Julie returned a weak smile at her and rose from her seat. She may be strict but I know Ms. Sadira likes me… in her own way, Julie thought with some comfort.
“Wanna be partners?” Anita asked her.
“Eh… sure,” Julie said. Her voice uninterested and cold. Stupid Anita, she thought.
The two girls needed one more person for their group. They obviously overlooked Ron and Logan who were infamous slackers. Everyone but the timid Homptilian girl named Yuki was already taken. At least she cannot be as bad as those Castle twins, Julie thought giving Ron and Logan another quick glance. They were cornering meek classmate Drake Lavender, whom they usually forced into their fray so he could do all the work for them.
After 10 minutes, the students were led to the playground in line formation by their leaf-whistling instructor. Despite her strict demeanor, Mrs. Sadira enjoyed having fun and was much respected. She was also good-looking: her lean figure accentuated by her curves were known by Grade 5 students to have helped some boys (and girls) break into puberty, her smooth bronze skin contrasted with a pair of bright blue eyes that gave her mystical appeal, and she wore colorful beads and streaks on her dark curly hair. She also reminded her students of the blessings of Mother Nature whenever she could, which for the fortunate Grade 4, Class E students could only mean… outdoors instruction (and random occasional field trips to city parks)!
I wonder if Miss Sadira is single. Daddy would certainly find her interesting! Julie thought with a smile. She certainly did, and was sure her Dad would too. Whenever she saw her teacher, she was always drawn to the circular object around her neck; a pendant, which resembled a small compass with five red gemstones in pentagram arrangement. The only time Julie had asked her teacher about it, she said it was gifted to her by her Elder Priestess when she was born and that it identified her as a Collector, a member of the Wefan faith. Yeah, it will distract Dad from looking at her boobs… or give him more excuse to! Bloody mac and cheese!
Julie also remembered on her first day Sadira introduced herself by full name and revealed herself a native from the sovereign Kingdom of Hieros in the Middle East. Dad likes foreign stuff… and people! She’s perfect! Julie then noted her teacher had some Irish ancestry. The plate on her desk revealed her full name as Ninfa Uisneach Tariq al-Sadira. Quite a mouthful… but I’m sure Daddy can pronounce it!
“These are school property. One per group and group leaders are responsible for whatever happens to them. Break one and it will cost your parents 3,000 pesos! Just so you know!” Sadira warned her students with a warm smile.
She sat down on a black boulder shaped like a snail’s shell and carefully unzipped the bag containing the devices over her lap. The children stood around her, looking with awe and the ovoid machine Sadira cupped in her hands. It was no bigger than a tennis ball, had a reflective coating that shifted between blue and pink, with a pair small buttons on each side above the grips that resembled ocelli and two larger ones on each end; the holographer looked like an insect.
“How wicked!” Julie exclaimed in surprise.
“They are beautiful, indeed,” Sadira commented, holding the holographer by the grips on one side.
“How does it work?” Julie asked.
“Like a regular camera, except…” Sadira explained, holding the holographer from the bottom grip to eye level and pressing the button under her right thumb. The larger lens began dilating like a pupil, seeking focus and finally aimed at Julie as it gave off a light blue glow.
Julie blinked—her eyes wide in surprise. Sadira then cupped the holographer between her hands again, and with her index and middle fingers pressed two buttons on the left side of the ovoid body. The eye-shaped lens began moving up and down, forming from its blue light a holographic rendering of a marveled Julie and her curious classmates.
“AWESOME!” the children chanted. Sadira grinned, then began passing around a small electronic tablet to each group.
“I want the leader of every group to press their digit on the screen, to confirm you accept responsibility for whatever happens to these machines,” Sadira explained.
When the tablet reached the group of the Castle twins and Drake Lavender, Julie sighed in relief when she saw Drake was the one who input his digit. The dark-skinned Homme boy with glasses then moved past his towering teammates and with a meek smile handed her the tablet. Julie smiled back at Drake and quickly turned around to face her own teammates.
“Okay, who wants to be leader?” Julie asked.
Yuki shook her head rapidly and pointed at Anita, who stood beside her with her arms crossed and a confident ‘Who else but me?’ look. Julie sighed in annoyance and nodded. The girl then happily snatched the tablet from Julie and pressed her thumb on the screen.
“My mom’s boyfriend told me you could project yourself walking into a wall to prank people on Halloween! Totally awesome!” Anita said.
“Oh, yeah! My dad told me about those ghost pranks too!” Julie then realized she went unnoticed.
The three girls wandered the playground when Yuki noticed something. Julie quickly took notice of Yuki sitting by the fence and went near.
“Hey, find something?” Julie inquired.
“Oh… a kitten,” Yuki responded calmly, caressing the head of the peculiar feline. It had violet fur, large baby blue eyes and crimson tufts of hair at the tips of its tail and ears.
“I think it’s called faerie cat,” Julie added.
“Faerie cat?” Yuki glanced at her with curiosity.
The cat then meowed and rubbed its body against Yuki’s leg, swaying its hand-shaped tail around her arm, making it look as it was holding onto her.
“Yeah, I read it in one of my dad’s books on zoology,” Julie said.
“That’s so cute! Please… tell me more!” Yuki said excitedly.
Julie could not help to notice her classmate’s smile, as it was something she had never seen before. Yuki usually sat in the far corner and doodled anime characters in her notebooks during class, without speaking to anyone or drawing attention to herself; she was effectively invisible.
“Sure! The book said they are called faeries because they are said to bring good luck, unlike their cousins the black cats! Faerie cats are also known to be able to sneak into places and go unnoticed with ease,” Julie smiled and caressed the cat’s chin.
“Really?” Yuki’s face brightened.
“Hey, I got an idea! Let’s tell Anita to holograph it!” Julie got back up.
“Yes, please! Let’s do that!” Yuki held the cat close in embrace. The feline meowed in confusion.
Julie then spotted Anita, who was chasing after a jelly fly with the holographer.
“Anita!” Julie called.
“Ugh! What do you want?” she replied.
“Anita, over here!” Julie waved.
The girl came over and saw Yuki cradle the faerie cat on her lap. Julie sat beside her.
“Ewww! Don’t you know it’s a stray cat? How can you touch it?” Anita gave them a look of disgust. Yuki’s scowled and looked down in shame. The cat purred.
“Come on! Take a picture!” Julie demanded.
“No way!” Anita said.
“Okay, let me take it,” Julie reached for the holographer.
“I’m the leader; I decide which pictures to take!” Anita snapped at her, holding the device away from her reach.
“But we are a team!” Julie protested, “We are supposed to take turns!”
“I don’t think so. You two don’t even know how to properly use a holographer,” Anita responded.
“Seriously?” Julie raised an eyebrow, “Were you whoring again with Steven McFly, or did you not see Mrs. Sadira showing EVERYONE how to use it?”
“Did you just call me a whore? You’re lucky I didn’t tell on you, potty mouth!” Julie stuck her tongue at her.
“Eh… it’s okay,” Yuki said setting the cat back on the ground. The feline put its paw on Yuki’s arm and meowed.
“Yuki, no! Ana… what’s your damn problem?” Julie was furious.
“Sorry, but unlike you, I want to get a good report,” Anita raised her chin.
“Then take the picture! Look… it’s a cat! At school! It doesn’t get better than this!” Julie exclaimed.
“Let’s not fight… please,” Yuki plead.
“She’s right, we should be looking for things to holograph,” Anita said.
Yuki turned around and realized the faerie cat had somehow made it to the other side of the fence and was now crossing the street.
“Bye… kitty,” Yuki said, her eyes watery.
Julie was speechless. Before she could say anything, her eyes followed Anita, who walked past her towards the fence. The faerie cat had made it across and was staring patiently, waving its hand-shaped tail, at construction workers. The girls noticed two burly Theo laborers in blue jumpsuits were carrying an electrical street lamp.
“What’s up?” Julie glanced at Yuki, who shrugged.
“I know that Theo,” Anita said.
“Really?” Julie inquired.
“Yeah, he was our driver,” Anita responded.
The girl then pointed at the bald Theo with circular scars where the signature horns on his temples should have been. The man turned their way and squint his eyes. From afar, the girls saw him wave at them.
“Oh, he remembers me! HI, MARIO!” Anita shouted from the fence before quickly realizing from the worker’s expression, “Oops, that wasn’t his name… SORRY, DUDE!”
“An old street lamp? Must be one of the last of its kind!” Julie said following the workers as they loaded the metallic lamp onto their truck.
“What happened to his head?” Anita asked, noticing the scars again.
“Yeah, what happened to him? Looks like they cut his horns off,” Julie placed her hand on her chin.
“They mental? Why are they taking down the lamp? Isn’t that like… illegal?” Anita inquired.
“Not if the city authorized it, duh!” Julie pointed at the gray truck, from where the workers unloaded the tall replacement: a Lucifer flower tree, also known as organic street lamp.
“Oh, why are they doing that?” Anita turned to Julie and quickly gave her another look of disgust.
“Light pollution… because of the stuff that happened in 2024, now the United Republic of Anthos government wants anything that pollutes the environment to be changed for the greener alternative,” Julie responded.
“Laaame!” Anita sang.
Annoyed, Julie turned to look at Yuki who sat quietly on the swings. Tsk. Forget it! She thought and went her own way. Given her team leader’s lack of cooperation, she now had a free period.
There was a walnut tree Julie loved to sit under. What she loved most about it was how many spotted squirrels it attracted. She would always be reminded of when she was three years old and her father took her to visit El Chamizal forest at the border of his birth place, Frontier City. It usually happened when they visited her grandmother in the summer. They would all go enjoy a picnic and feed the squirrels or collect buckets of cicada shells off trees. Her Aunt Esme, the orthodontist, and her other Aunt Lucinda, a bio-chemist, would also come with them at times. Lucinda would use her power to speak with animals to politely ask the critters to do tricks for them.
Unfortunately, it all ended with the 2024 global catastrophe. Afterwards, her father took her one last time to recount the wreckage. Julie remembered he sobbed. The childhood home he grew up in was gone, so was El Chamizal and everything he knew. Even worse, Julie would never see her grandmother again, the storm had claimed her too. The spreading of her ashes she remembered well, she was five when it happened, not long ago.
“Hello, old tree!” Julie looked up, caressing the fissures on the bark. Though silent, the tree seemed to look at her.
“How’s life?” She sat down, still looking up. Usually a leaf would fall and kiss her nose, but the season was still young, so the bare tree could not reciprocate her kindness.
“Good… I guess! My life sucks!” Julie leaned against the bark, “Yeah, I know I say a lot!”
“Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for the things I have. It’s just…” she sighed and looked up again. She had a look of disillusionment.
“I wish I could really talk to you,” she whispered, “Know what you see for once. I know you are alive, all plants are, but… talking to you is like talking to Yuki! Too quiet!”
Julie looked up again. Her eyes narrowed on the countless small buds growing in the tree branches.
“Even the Mossytots from Planet Mossland can carry the conversation! But they live light years away!”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to whine…” she soon added.
She sat up, her eyes on the tree’s shadow. Nothing unusual about it. No squirrels were near, only an insect minding its business as it walked up the walnut root. Unlike ordinary beetles, this one drew the girl in because of the shape of its rocky exoskeleton. It had a face carved onto it.
“You seem familiar… I saw your picture somewhere!” Julie leaned over the grass and slowly followed the beetle on its journey up the tree bark.
She closed her eyes and focused. Her father had showed her a beetle like this, except instead of a face it had small crystals on its back. Her father carefully held the insect from the sides and held it between his fingers. She saw in awe as he licked the crystals, which according to him were made out of sugar.
“Gargoqua! I remember now, you are a gargoqua beetle!” she cupped the animal in her hands.
The gargoqua quickly made its way up her arm and stood still. Julie noticed the gargoqua had a single straw-like horn in the center of its face. She came closer. Maybe she could talk to it like her Aunt Lucinda.
“Hi, I’m Julie. Can I lick you?” she reached for the rock face carving with her tongue.
The gargoqua drew back and squirted a thin stream of water in between the girl’s eyes.
“I guess that’s a no?” she placed the beetle back on the tree and wiped her face with her sleeve.
“Maybe I’m not so special after all… and Dad only told me I was so I wouldn’t worry,” she frowned.
“Oh, yer special,” a deep voice made Julie jump.
“Most marvelous child ever lived!” Julie followed the voice.
She saw the tree’s shadow had bent sideways in an L-shape and the cadaver man now stood beside her, leaning against the tree with his arms crossed.
“Who are you? Why do you keep following me?” Julie backed away.
“Where yer manner’s, shorty?” the man said.
“You answer me first!” she demanded.
“Fine! I’m… God!” the man hesitated.
“Uh… Which one?” Julie cocked her head.
“What do ya mean which one?” the man snapped.
“My grandma told me there were two Gods, Deox Logos and Mother Lux. And that kids should to pray to Lux since Logos was busy,” she divulged.
“Nonsense! I’m THE GOD!” the man stated.
“Nah-ah!” Julie shook her head, “There are TWO Gods.”
“Enough! Stubborn as yer father!” the man snarled.
“You know my dad?” Julie quizzed.
“Course I do! See, yer dad feels the power inside ya, but he ain’t idea what ya can do!” Julie listened carefully, his voice sounded familiar. She was unaware who he was though, or that his name was Erebus.
“Are you a restless spirit, like those from TV shows who ask to help them with unfinished business? No one can see you but me!” She was not as naïve as she let on.
“I… um, NO!” Erebus said firmly, “Listen, all I want is to help, comprende?”
“Sorry… so you know what my power is?” she inquired.
“Oh, yes! Yer power is legendary and I’m gonna teach ya how to use it!” Erebus and Julie were now inches apart, looking into each other’s eyes.
“Awesome! What is it?”
Erebus then vanished from sight for a second and reappeared far away from the walnut tree, on the other side of the school yard. He waved at her and she ran to where he stood. She saw Erebus looking at his bare-skeletal feet and she did the same. They were both standing in front of a dead pigeon. Julie gasped and covered her mouth with both hands.
“I-is it dead?” she muttered. Erebus narrowed his black eyes and nodded at her.
“Yer power, it’s unique and impressive. Everyone can take a life, only a mother can create it… ya on the other hand…” Erebus extended his arachnid bony fingers and caressed the carcass. He gestured for the girl to get closer. Frightened, Julie shook her head.
“Go on, don’t be afraid,” he spoke in a softer voice that sent chills down her spine.
“W-what is going to happen if I touch it?” Julie inquired, visibly shaking.
“That’s a surprise, kid,” Erebus chuckled.
She gulped and knelt down. The pigeon’s still body lay on the grass like a homeless doll. She could sense the hollowness in it. Then she felt Erebus place his hand over her shoulder.
“Death. Life. None matter, it’s just like sleeping. Wake it up,” he whispered.
“Eh… w-wake up, birdie,” Julie trembled, her hand slowly got closer.
Her eyes looked on with sadness at the creature, whose small head rested against the earth sideways. Another chill ran down her spine.
“Still sleeping,” Erebus said.
“Coo… coo… time to fly,” Julie said, feeling heaviness on her stomach as her fingers tapped the hollow stillness.
She looked at Erebus, who signaled her to look again at the bird. Under her touch, she could feel its chest rise and the soft down grow warm once more. The pigeon blinked and shook its head.
“Surprise,” Erebus rose to his feet.
“It… it’s alive! It’s alive!!” Julie said in excitement. The pigeon cooed and flapped its sore wings.
“This is my power?” she looked at her hands in amazement.
“Ah, the gift of a second chance… it’s been in you since the moment yer mom gave you her life nine years ago… I’ve felt it. Yer Papa has too,” Erebus reassured.
“I can teach you more, but yer Papa can’t know about yer gift,” he added.
“Why not?” Julie inquired with concern.
“This… it’s too grand for him. He would never understand what yer capable of!” Erebus replied.
“He can’t know about me… about us, he would never allow it,” he added.
She looked deep into his black eyes. Could she trust him? He had just helped her discover her latent potential. She wanted to learn more from him. God didn’t seem like such a bad person. Would her father really be so intolerant of her own super power?
“Ya won’t tell, will ya?” he asked.
“I won’t… I promise, God,” she said. Had Erebus have any lips, he would have smiled.
“Ya make yer God proud, kid,” he said. In that instant, the pigeon took flight again and departed the school yard.
Meanwhile, Yuki had been absorbed into the small bow-shaped magenta flowers with white dots that sprouted on coiled vines growing over the old roundabout play pump.
“Hey, again,” Julie waved at her. Yuki nodded quietly.
“Aren’t those climbing archer roses are cute? If you look closely, the flowers look like mini bows and arrows,” Julie said.
“Oh… they do! Awesome… and what are those?” Yuki then pointed at the yellow flowers with disc-like petals and red orbs with diamond-shaped leaves that grew on the flower beds near the swings.
“Those… let me see… I think they are orbital geraniums,” Julie rubbed her chin.
“You sure seem to know a lot about stuff,” Anita remarked.
“Oh, I do… my dad has a butt load of books and I like reading them,” Julie responded.
“Tell me then… what are those?” Anita pointed at some small violet blue flowers in the grass. They had seven petals that resembled swaying tentacles.
“Semana flowers… now can you stop acting like an uptight brat? You look so ugly when you do that, it’s no wonder nobody wants to be friends with you,” Julie said with a smirk. Anita gasped and handed over the holographer at last.
As an upset Anita marched away, Yuki approached Julie, who now held the magnificent device in her hands. The two exchanged glances and smiled at each other.
“She was getting on my nerves,” Julie admitted.
“Mine too,” Yuki said.
“Girl’s such a bitch, ain’t she?” Erebus stood beside them with his arms crossed.
Julie turned to face him, knowing she was the only one who could see him. Upon noticing her grateful smile towards him, Erebus winked at her.