The girl Cash was Oona’s husband’s daughter. Oona could barely even stand to look at her, that thing that sat there drooling, that writhed on the floor and did nothing but play games on a stupid Game Boy Color all day—the one Maurice, Oona’s husband, had spent a whole twenty dollars on at a yard sale, even though he knew he wasn’t working right now and so money was tight. The girl was dangerous, too. She bit when you got too close. Hissed like an animal. Oona had been frightened of her from the moment she met her, after deciding she would marry Maurice no matter what—Maurice, of all people, this balding man with a thick torso out of proportion with his spindly legs. She found it touching, how he took care of the girl after his wife’s death. The girl herself was a different matter. Oona had tried, tried so desperately, to fall in love with her the way she had fallen in love with Maurice, but when Oona had first seen her the girl had drool sliding down her chin and glared up with these murderously fierce green eyes, and Oona had felt nothing but terror.
When she and Maurice had their daughter Sadie, Oona had insisted that the girl Cash be moved to a different location, somewhere safe from the baby. So Maurice, who at that time had some savings left over from his wife, had a small one-and-a-half room house built in the backyard for the girl. It had a bathroom, a bed/living room, a small pantry, heat and air conditioning, and Oona even helped to make the place homey—decorated the walls, put a few nice throw pillows on the bed. Oona and Maurice kept Cash there, in the backyard. Safe and sound, out of sight and out of mind, and Oona for the first time since she’d seen the girl and fallen in love with Maurice felt truly content, as if she could breathe again after a long time being underwater.
Then, she started hearing the stories circulating around the neighborhood.
The stories about the shadow.
It took people, usually at night—always in the quiet lulls when there was no one around, nothing going on, nothing really to do. The people of the neighborhood were frightened by it—by the stories of people who had seen it and been taken by it—but since it only caused problems at night the whole situation felt unreal and insignificant during the day. During the days, the shadow seemed to spice up their quiet neighborhood, seemed to grant them some uniqueness when before they’d only been able to point to the strange girl Cash who lived down the street when they wanted to prove how inclusive and interesting they were. Still, the shadow frightened them, and the arguments and speculations around it would heighten every now and again, especially after someone else had gotten taken.
A little boy down the street got taken while trying to do his homework after his parents had gone to bed. In the darkness of his bedroom he’d turned on his computer, started to type out the first few sentences of an essay, and didn’t even notice—at first—when the shadow appeared behind him. It was a small shadow, the shadow of a girl, but it stretched dark across the boy’s wall, his football and basketball posters, and stood there as if catching its breath.
Then, slowly, the shadow’s arm rose and stretched across the floor, gliding across the boy’s back, the shadow’s fingers resting on his shoulder.
He noticed, then, and turned to see who was standing there, but by the time he realized that there was a shadow in his room that didn’t belong to him, the shadow was pressing its fingers into his mouth, slinking down his esophagus and flooding through his body, turning his eyes obsidian black and his skin a dull gray. After a silent moment of this, the shadow retreated, smoking out from the boy’s mouth, nostrils, and ears, and disappearing back through the edges of his computer screen. The boy’s parents found him there the next morning—staring at the wall, unresponsive, a living zombie.
On the document on his computer screen, “z’s” rippled through the pages—thousands of “z’s” as if the button was being pressed down by an unseen hand.
Oona didn’t know at first that the shadow belonged to Cash. In fact, if you would have told her that it belonged to Cash, Oona would have probably laughed in your face.
The girl could barely even feed herself. Maurice or Oona would have to bring her food every mealtime, making the trek from the kitchen through the backyard whether it was icy out or a hundred degrees in the middle of July. Cash had some snack food in the pantry inside her house, but on her own she would either not eat enough and make herself sick from malnutrition, or she would eat too much—empty potato chip bags and the sleeves of Ritz crackers and empty cans of Vienna sausages scattered across her bedroom. So she had to eat on a schedule, supervised by either Oona or Maurice. It was usually Maurice, especially since he’d been let go from his job as shift manager at the local supermarket. But every now and then, when he was tired or depressed because he’d been turned down at another job interview, Oona would offer to take the food out herself.
“Cash,” she said, opening the door. “It’s me.” Oona always said that slightly as a warning—as if easing the way so Cash wouldn’t lash out because she was expecting her father. But Cash had never been especially violent, even to Oona, except for the biting.
No answer, of course, but there was Cash, laying sideways on her bed, playing the Game Boy Color.
“Cash,” said Oona again. “I’ve brought you some food.”
Oona hated saying the name. Cash, Cash, Cash. It wasn’t even a girl’s name. “Like Johnny,” Maurice always said, but still Oona didn’t understand it.
She put the tray of food on the desk by the bed, beside Cash’s beat-up old laptop. Cash made no move toward the food, but she never did—she would either eat it or not, but never ate in front of anyone. In an hour or so, Oona would have to come back out here and pick up either the empty tray or scold the girl for not eating.
When Oona straightened after leaving the food on the desk, she stood there for a moment with her hands on her hips in front of Cash. Maurice was inside, watching TV. He had had an unsuccessful interview with a supermarket a few towns over, an interview that he’d gotten his hopes up for only to have them dashed by the head honcho saying outright that they were looking for a younger man. Oona looked at Cash. The girl was still a girl, even though Sadie was nearing sixteen, and so Cash should be in her early twenties. She never seemed to age, always seemed perpetually the “girl,” gawky and wild with stringy hair she never brushed, baby fat on her cheeks, those murderous green eyes.
“What is wrong with you?” Oona said. She said it suddenly, a rage rising inside her and instantly going away as soon as the words left her mouth. She felt awful. The child couldn’t help how she was. But still, Oona had said it, and it was what Oona truly felt. She couldn’t stop now. Cash pretended not to hear.
“Really,” said Oona. “I want to know what is wrong with you. Don’t you want to have some kind of life?”
Cash didn’t answer. She pressed the buttons of her video game.
“You know if you started acting like an actual person, actually try to communicate with people, responding when they go to the trouble to bring you food, then maybe you could start going out more. Maybe you wouldn’t have to be banished here your whole life. Maybe you could have an actual life, actually on your own and out and about in the world. Don’t you want that?”
Cash didn’t answer. She pressed the buttons of her video game.
When more started being taken, the people of the neighborhood started to speculate, and then started to panic. They thought that it was a virus, attacking some part of the nervous system and making the victim’s skin turn gray, their eyes turn black. No one had died from these incidents, and in a few weeks the obsidian color would fade into a slight discoloration around the whites of the taken person’s eyes, and the gray would fade back into the person’s original skin color. Out of the blue, the person would blink awake, as if nothing had happened. But still they seemed a little off, a little different from the person they had been before. “Shell-shocked,” was how some described it. The people of the neighborhood called the incidents being “taken” because it was like for those few lost weeks the victim’s mind had been taken from their body and had gone on a long and winding journey and so was slightly changed once it returned.
The taken people glared harder and harsher at the world around them. It was as if for a while they had been disconnected from whatever thread of energy ran through the universe, connecting human beings to one another—and after experiencing the loneliness and freedom of that experience, they could never see the real world the same way again.
For instance, the little boy down the street who had been taken came back and tore down his football and basketball posters. He picked up piano, practicing for hours on an old keyboard, and memorized every piece by Beethoven, though he played them at a faster, more furious tempo than written. The boy, noticed his parents, had become more pensive, more sullen, more withdrawn. It was not necessarily bad, just different, and it was the sudden difference that unsettled them—and unsettled the rest of the people in the neighborhood, whether someone in their family had been taken or not.
When something was wrong, Cash would scream. She would scream like someone had just poured kerosene all over her and lit her on fire. She would scream even though half the time Oona and Sadie and even Maurice couldn’t figure out what in God’s name was wrong. This was another reason Oona was a little frightened of her—she would scream, then sink down to the ground and writhe there, drool pouring from her mouth, her face covered in whatever dust or dirt or who knew what was on the ground.
One summer day, crape myrtle blossoms floating through the air, Oona and Sadie decided to go out into the backyard and have a picnic. Maurice wasn’t there—gone to the coffee shop he liked to go to when he was bored and just wanted out of the house. Oona and Sadie made bologna sandwiches and a pitcher of sweet tea and were giggling together as Oona said later she’d bake some fresh cookies and then Sadie said, “We should let Cash come to the picnic.” And what else could Oona say but okay? She said, “Okay,” while thinking through a myriad of cruel excuses. Cash doesn’t like sunlight. Cash doesn’t like bologna. Cash won’t do anything but sit there in the grass and glare murderously at Oona. Cash Cash Cash. But Sadie was sweet. Kind and thoughtful and caring, and Oona didn’t want to dissuade that in a girl. So out Cash came, walking from her house slowly, hugging herself, glancing around at the backyard as if less than impressed. She sat down beside Sadie on the blanket they’d laid out for the picnic.
“She won’t eat in front of us,” said Oona. She hoped her tone wasn’t too critical-sounding, but it was the truth. Cash looked up at the tree branches overhead as if willing all the sun-speckled leaves to fall.
“She doesn’t have to if she doesn’t want to,” said Sadie, biting into a sandwich and smiling at Cash.
Sadie was right. Oona tried to get in the same mindset. She tried to smile, and she began to eat.
But, as she took a sip of tea, she noticed it.
Cash was casting no shadow.
They had taken a while to make the sandwiches, and it was afternoon—the sun no longer straight overhead—and Sadie’s shadow stretched short behind her, not long the way shadows are at dusk but there just enough to be natural, like a small outline on the grass behind her. Oona glanced beside herself, pretending to look back at the house absentmindedly, and she saw that she cast a shadow too.
Maybe because she’d been hearing the whispers of the strange virus going around the neighborhood, the strange shadow infected people had described, she was on edge, but the missing shadow made her heart pound, and she jumped up as if bitten by fire ants. “Cash,” she said, “stand up.” Cash looked up at her benignly, glowing green eyes narrow in the sunlight. “Stand up, Cash,” Oona said again, more forcefully. Sadie was watching, concerned, but she knew enough to keep her mouth shut. Oona thought about telling her—saying that the shadow was missing—but then Oona remembered telling people things before, especially things that were hard to believe, and being laughed at, being whispered about. She was not crazy, though. The girl Cash’s shadow was not there, not an outline of her on the grass, not where it belonged.
She reached to grab the girl’s wrist and pull her up so she could see more clearly whether or not the missing shadow was just a trick of the light, but as soon as Oona’s fingertips grazed the girl’s skin Cash let out a wild scream that set off the dogs barking across the entire neighborhood and made Oona let go, heart pounding. “Mom,” said Sadie. “She doesn’t like it.”
“I know,” said Oona, stunned. “I’m sorry.”
And for the first time, Oona looked at Cash in wonder, in awe of the mysterious creature that she was, that she might be.
After awhile, after six people had been taken since the beginning of summer, the people of the neighborhood began to realize that it had something to do with the electronics, the screens.
The little boy had his computer open. Two people had their TVs on. Three people were looking at their phones. The little boy’s computer was, like him, never the same—it wouldn’t do anything except run those “z’s” across the document, even after his parents had tried to get it repaired. All the TVs burned out the night the person watching them had been taken, singed spots around the edges of the melted and warped screens. And the three phones were shattered, though they’d fallen on soft carpeting twice, a bed once. The taken people had turned on their devices and while entranced by the glow behind them a shadow had appeared that was not theirs, that crept silently towards them, ran its fingertips along their back without their knowing and then seeped into their mouth, their body, into their very consciousness. People began to realize this was more than just a virus. This was some kind of being—some kind of monster. The religious said it was an evil spirit, a demon. Others said it was some force from the government or a foreign power, quite possibly the Russians, now out of control. The more radical of the neighborhood said it was an alien, slipping through our houses and our electronics and our people to study the human race and eventually destroy it.
Despite the different speculations, the people of the neighborhood all cared less about knowing what it was than knowing what it wanted, knowing why it was doing this, why it took people and changed them.
When Oona went into Cash’s house one night to collect the empty food tray and all Cash’s electronics, in accordance with the neighborhood-wide suggestion to lock them in a closet at night, Cash was as usual lying on her bed and playing her Game Boy Color. Oona sighed. Maurice was behind her. “You’re never going to get it away from her without a huge fuss,” she said. “She’s always on that thing.”
“She’ll give it to me,” Maurice said, already talking sweetly, the tone he always used with Cash—as if the girl were still a toddler. Oona went to the desk to get the tray. Cash’s computer was open on the desk, nothing pulled up, but attached to the wifi as if Cash was about to use it. Typically she pulled up different games on it while her Game Boy charged. Oona stared at the laptop, the empty navy blue desktop screen, the worn keys, the nearly rubbed away Dell logo. She wanted to look up Cash’s search history. She wanted to know what Cash was thinking about, worrying about, wondering about, if she was thinking, worrying, wondering about anything at all. But Oona only closed the laptop and slid it underneath the food tray, held them both evenly and turned to watch Maurice try to persuade Cash to give up the Game Boy.
Then Oona dropped both the tray and the laptop—they crashed on the carpet.
On the wall before her stood a shadow. Her shadow, and also the shadow of a girl. Cash’s shadow, Oona thought, with a bizarre thrill—it had been missing, and she had found it. Or, it had found her. Maurice was staring at her. “What’s wrong?” he asked. Cash was glaring with her hands held over her ears, her Game Boy on the bed, startled by the noise of the tray and computer crashing on the floor. Oona raised her arm and pointed. Her shadow did the same, pointing at her while she pointed at it. Cash’s shadow made no move. It just stood there, a dark silhouette against the wall that Oona herself had painted lilac. Maurice stood, stared, looked at Cash still on the bed and then back at it. “I don’t understand,” he said.
“I don’t understand,” Oona remembered saying when her parents had told her they were getting a divorce. It was something to say when everything had split apart, when you had no words, when you realized that there weren’t enough words in the world to say what life was, to sort through it all.
“It’s Cash’s shadow,” she told Maurice in a whisper, as if she might frighten it away.
Cash slid off the bed, her hands still pressed to her ears, and jumped in front of the shadow. Then she bounced back onto the bed, and her shadow followed. She lay back down and picked up her Game Boy and started playing again, thumbs punching the buttons.
Families were groups of people holding each other hostage. The families of the neighborhood where people were being taken were no different, each one with different dynamics of power and values, attachment and love, all the members entangled in the lives of one another. No one could afford to be withdrawn, detached, distanced from the delicate balance of everyone else’s desires and secrets—the whole family dynamic would be ruined. This thing, whatever it was, was unnatural, stealing the people’s minds away through the screens of their cell phones, TVs, and computers, making the taken into sullen and gloomy zombies who seemed to be able to see deeper inside themselves than outside at the actual world.
The people of the neighborhood continued to speculate.
They thought, Where could this virus, this spirit, this monster be coming from?
Then they thought of the girl who lived down the street in the backyard of Oona and Maurice’s house. Strange, a girl living in a separate shack of a house in the backyard. And they had all seen the way she glared at them with the same furious yet deadened eyes as when the evening news showed a mug shot of a murderer. Still, no one said anything. What could they say? They didn’t want to seem prejudiced, and the girl was just a girl, and Oona and Maurice were nice enough with their sweet little daughter Sadie.
The people of the neighborhood told their children to stay away from the house down the street where the girl Cash lived, and at night they turned off all their electronics—even unplugged the toaster and microwave just to be safe, and locked all the computers, tablets, and cell phones in the closet.
Despite her glaring and drooling and her emancipated, slightly hungry look, Cash was a little beautiful, Oona had come to realize. The girl possessed that otherworldly beauty that was so hard to come by even with makeup, her skin always clear, though pale, and those fierce green eyes that sparkled with some kind of intelligence and willpower that Oona could almost see but could never reach. The girl’s strawberry blond hair was always healthy and full, even if perpetually wild, and she had a startling vulnerability—like a child who had just wandered into civilization after being raised by wolves in the woods. Oona had taken to watching her, after discovering the business with the shadow. Maurice had said to tell no one about it—that they would teach the girl how to control it. He didn’t want people asking questions, people treating her like a freak or even coming to take her away. But, Oona thought and would never say, the girl is a freak. Some kind of beautiful and dangerous freak.
Oona wanted to be able to understand a freak, but she’d never even been close to being one. The most unique thing about her had always been her name. Otherwise she’d always been the same as everyone else, the good girl in school who rebelled mildly and only after her parents divorce, got a degree and then a job in public relations, married a man and had a child and lived in a suburban neighborhood where people whispered among themselves but were polite overall. The kind of place where you have picnics with bologna sandwiches and sweet tea on clear and crisp summer days, crape myrtle blossoms floating in the air and plastered to the driveway after light, warm rainstorms.
Oona wanted to love the girl Cash.
She wanted to love her because she remembered telling people things before, especially things that were hard to believe, and being laughed at, being whispered about, so eventually just deciding to stay silent, to keep her true thoughts and emotions locked inside. She remembered saying, “Isn’t it funny, the way your finger sounds running down the blinds?” and no one understanding what she meant. She had once taken a boy to an empty baseball stadium deep in the night, snuck him in by climbing over the chain link fence, because she wanted to lie down in the outfield and glare up at the stars while the stars glared back, the cool grass underneath her and against her skin, the emptiness echoing around them. But no one understands, when you try to do something because you feel like doing it. When you scream just because you feel like it. When your shadow is out there slipping across suburbia while you are locked away somewhere, wandering through the eternity inside yourself.
One evening when she retrieved Cash’s tray of food after dinner, Oona left Cash’s laptop open on the desk rather than bringing it inside and locking it up with the rest of the electronics.
Later that night, when the house was dark and Maurice and Sadie were asleep, Oona took her cell phone from the closet.
She turned it on, sitting down on the couch in the dark living room, the glow from the cell phone blinding compared to the moonlight spilling in from the windows. The house was quiet. She could hear Maurice snoring. She could hear the leaves chattering together outside in the breeze, and the settling of the house around her. She turned up the phone’s brightness and knew that her shadow was on the wall behind her, but she didn’t turn around. Instead, she waited, breathed in deeply to calm her nerves. Then, all at once as if to get it over with, she turned.
Her shadow was there, and Cash’s shadow stood next to it.
Oona didn’t stand. Her heart was pounding. Cash’s shadow didn’t move, just stood there against the wall as if Oona might be mistaken—as if her mind was playing tricks on her, and the shadow wasn’t Cash’s at all but was instead just the moonlight cutting across the lamp at the end of the couch or a tree outside the window. But Oona knew deep down that there was no mistake—the shadow belonged to Cash. Somehow, in some way, the shadow was Cash, and it was standing there sure and silent in Oona’s living room.
When the shadow slipped forward across the floor, Oona didn’t move. She let herself be washed over by it. She let her eyes go black, her mind swirling further and further into herself, every noise—the snoring, the breeze, even the tumbling of crape myrtle blossoms against the concrete—soaring through her, amplified. The world rearranged itself in her mind the way codes rearranged computer screens, pixels rearranged on a TV. Her mind felt real. More real than her body. She felt like every thought was a breath and she was intoxicated with the oxygen, with the thoughts, with the reality of herself. Is this how Cash felt all the time? she wondered. And the last thing she thought that could be spoken with words was: They will find me here in the morning. They will find me here and say, “She has been taken. She has been changed.”
Cass Francis is from Waxahachie, Texas and attend the Arkansas Writers MFA Program at the University of Central Arkansas. Her fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in From Sac, Drunk Monkeys, L’Éphémère Review, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter @WriterCFrancis.