“Hello Father,” Alex said. “What are you going to do about your monster?”
Adam Godwinson squinted up at the solid deck of grey clouds that covered the sky that morning and tried to think about how to answer such a question. He reflected that he should have become used to fielding odd queries from Alex Sloan over the years, first as a curious-minded child at Adam’s parish of St. Michael’s, and then on through the years as they both left the church, following different paths but connected by shared friends and, Adam hoped, still-shared affections.
Despite all the years, Adam had never gotten entirely used to the strange twists and turns that Alex’s mind could sometimes take, and the unusual things that might lead him to say. Long-ago doctors had indicated that some of this was the result of the mental disorder Alex experienced, but even before the doctors and the pills, Alex’s imagination had always been vivid, intense, and strange. Perhaps the two were related, and perhaps they weren’t.
None of this helped Adam understand the question before him. “Good morning, Mr. Sloan,” he replied gravely. “I wasn’t expecting a visit, but it’s good to see you. Would you like to come in?” Perhaps this would, if nothing else, be a chance to persuade Alex into a proper meal. He had never responded well to any kind of supervised care or group living situations, and inevitably drifted back into Ottawa’s streets and parks, making his own restless way in the world.
“No,” Alex responded shortly. “It’s not important. But what are you going to do about your monster?”
Adam sighed. Sometimes it was possible to deflect Alex away from the ideas he seized on, or created. Sometimes it wasn’t. “I don’t know what you mean, Alex,” he said gently. “I don’t have a monster.”
Alex’s head rocked back, almost as if he had been struck. For one painfully slow moment, Adam thought he would simply turn and go, and scrabbled for some way to keep him from leaving.
“Of course you do,” Alex replied instead. “Everyone knows.”
“Do they?”, Adam said. “Well, they haven’t told me. Why don’t you come in and tell me all about it? Then we’ll decide what to do.” Perhaps this would turn out to be one of Alex’s stories, which tended to be long, intricately-woven with fine details, and very hard to understand.
Many times, when Adam had been a young priest, presented with the fruits of Alex’s creativity, he had been able to muster no better response than ‘Good for you, Alex. Good for you.’ As praise he had always felt it was rather hollow, but Alex had a particular sensitivity to counterfeit cheer and approval, so Adam never offered more than he could feel genuine about. Good for you. I appreciate the effort, even if I do not understand the results.
“There’s no time, Father,” Alex said, making one quick shake of his head. “I know where it is now. We have to go. You have to do something.”
Adam sighed again, suppressed an upwelling of impatience with an effort. He had planned a peaceful morning of coffee and crosswords, and then perhaps a walk in the fragile warmth of an autumn day. Instead there was this. And yet a friend was friend, Alex was evidently in earnest, and it was also true that his curious intuitions had sometimes turned out to see things more clearly than anyone.
“Just let me fetch my keys, then.”
A few minutes later they were making their way, at Alex’s brisk pace, through the heart of the city’s downtown. Adam tried to fish for information as they walked.
“What is this monster, anyway?”
“You know, Father,” Alex replied impatiently.
“How did you hear about it?”
“Everyone knows, Father. Everyone knows you have a monster,” this said in the way most people would observe that it was cold out in January, or that the traffic would be bad in rush hour. Adam tried to make sense of it. Had Alex been talking to some of the other young people from his old parish? He couldn’t imagine anything that they might have said that would have created this idea of a monster in Alex’s mind. It might perhaps be some spiteful bit of rumour spawned by Matilda Damory, or another member of the Sunrise Foundation whose ire Adam had earned, but it seemed a singularly useless thing to have done.
“I’m afraid I still don’t understand,” Adam said finally.
“You’ll see,” Alex predicted. He was, Adam considered, unusually reserved. Usually Alex bubbled over with frothy torrents of words, and the challenge was drawing some shape out of the great mass of expression. Today his attention seemed to be mostly elsewhere, and conversation with Adam seemed a distraction that he was trying to avoid.
They had made their way down the path by the Rideau Canal locks and the Bytown Museum, and along the gentle curves of the pathway by the river, behind Parliament Hill. It had formerly been one of Adam’s favourite walks in the city; since the events of a few years ago he had far more mixed feelings about the place and went there only seldom.
“Where are we going, Alex?”, he asked. “I would have come for a walk by the river, if you had asked.
“No, Father,” Alex insisted. “Your monster is here.”
Finally they reached a little tributary of path that curled out and around the gold sun and stone slab of the Royal Canadian Navy Monument, and then under the Portage Bridge. And it was there, from a patch of dark and gloomy concrete, that Adam heard a soft skittering sound that he had trusted and believed he would never encounter again.
It sounded like the rustle of leaves over hard ground, or perhaps fingernails trailed playfully over a table top. But there was neither wind nor leaves, only stillness, and shadow, and although Adam tried very hard to insist that it was not happening, he could see now that the shadow moved, or that something black as the worst part of the night moved within it.
“The Piece of Shadows,” he said. “But it can’t be.”
Alex was silent beside him.
The Piece of Shadows had been, as far as Adam had understood it, a swatch of living darkness, conjured into the world somehow by Matilda Damory, as a weapon to set against her enemies. Its slightest touch withered and killed, and Adam and his friends had only barely escaped the thing. He had believed the thing had been destroyed, swept into nothingness, or back into it, by a fortunately passing set of headlights. And yet here again the darkness rustled, and Adam knew what it was, although he wanted very much to deny it.
“How is it here?”, he asked. “How did you find it?” As far as he had understood, the Piece of Shadows had been Damory’s creation, did not and could not exist in this world without her will behind it.
“They told me where it was,” Alex replied quietly. “I had to ask, but they told me.”
“How is it here?”, Adam asked again. Had Damory created another, called another into being? Had someone else learned whatever bizarre rite or skill or formula was necessary to draw these things into, or out of, the darkness? Was this the unfolding of some new or renewed machination that would have to be uncovered, understood, and undermined?
“Father,” Alex said firmly, “it’s yours.”
“Alex,” Adam shot back, “you know it isn’t. I’m not the one who makes these things. I don’t even know how.”
“Maybe,” Alex said, “but this one is yours. You know it is, everyone knows it is.”
There was at least enough light in the day to keep the thing restricted to a fairly small shadowed area under the bridge, Adam considered. As far as he had been able to learn, light was fatal to the things, which were therefore free to move and strike only at night or in dark places. And yet it was surely far too dangerous to simply leave it here. The path was not an especially busy one, but the consequences for any passer by that did come this way today were all too likely to be fatal.
Adam stepped a touch closer to the border between daylight and shadow, turning Alex’s words over in his mind. The gentle skittering responded. From what he could see in the gloom, this Piece of Shadows was considerably smaller than the last one he had seen. That one had been large enough to envelop several people at once, this one was a scrap of darkness only a few feet across.
Or was it, some part of his mind suggested, not a different Piece at all, but all that was left of the first one? What if Damory’s tool had only been damaged by the light, with this remnant left to lurk reduced in shadows, cut free of its purpose? As soon as the idea formed, Adam knew that it was true, apprehended it on some undefined and unspoken level.
“Alex,” he said softly, “we have to get rid of it.” Perhaps if he brought a powerful flashlight, or the flares from his road safety kit, it could be destroyed. But would the thing still be here after the time it would take to fetch these things, and return? Was it sufficiently trapped by the day, or would it melt away somehow? It had evidently survived a long time already. Even if it was no longer directed to kill by Matilda Damory, it was still a lethal threat, an utterly unanticipated accident waiting to happen.
“Yes, you do,” Alex agreed.
“You keep saying that it’s mine,” Adam replied. “You know that it isn’t.”
“No, Father,” Alex replied, sounding more than a little impatient. “I know that it is.”
What did he mean? Adam’s experiences told him it was probably important, Alex’s insights had been in the past, but how could he believe the Piece of Shadows somehow belonged to him? Adam had been attacked by it, had thought he had destroyed it, turned Damory’s nihilism against her circle of followers and tore it into scraps. He had not created this, did not control it, and did not truly even understand it.
And yet, was it not true that every since, in moment when he had felt alone, or sad, or doubted himself, had he not seen, in his mind at least, the Piece of Shadows? Whenever he had wondered whether he knew what he was doing, or if there was any right thing to do, had he not heard the skittering and felt the patch of dark creeping up on him, or through him? This dreadful thing had prowled the background of every bleak moment and flickered through every grim thought that Adam had lived in the years since their encounter. Perhaps that meant, or created, some manner of connection. Perhaps it had made the monster his.
“What do I do?”, Adam asked.
Alex was silent beside him.
Connections can be made, sometimes without us noticing them. They can also be broken, and at times that is for the best, and perhaps that was the answer. “It’s all right,” Adam said to the darkness. “You can go, now. I’m going to let go of you. I’m letting you go.”
Nothing and no-one spoke. The skittering died away, and Adam did not see the Piece of Shadows in that place any longer.
Alex crouched down beside him, looked over at Adam with a lopsided and somewhat brittle smile, and then for the first time in many years, threw his arms around Adam in a tight embrace. “Good for you, Father. Good for you.”
That night, after Alex had eaten some supper and gone off on his path into the darkness, Adam had looked out into the darkness and seen nothing but the night, and heard nothing but leaves in the wind. He left the kitchen, walked down the short hallway to his bedroom, and smiled as a tiny patch of shadow unfolded itself and followed him. He sat on the bed, opened his book to read, and a black shape jumped up into his lap, curled into a little pool of midnight, and commenced to purr loudly.
“There,” Adam said, “you little monster.”