“The Shadow’s Void” by Tony Southcotte

TWA 59 Tony-01

The crystal ball in the center of the table was a sham. The velvet red curtains, the attire that looked like it was stolen from the closet of a pirate, it all made for the ambiance Barlow wanted.

The sign on the door was marked in symbols that he found in google searches about the occult. Underneath a palm with an eye in it, the sign read, “Barlow the Magnificent,” and below that, “Psychic, Mystic, Tantric. Medium.”

He stared at the girl across the table, smiling wryly as he tried to get a read on her. Hanging around her neck was a sign for the kappa delta sorority. She jittered from the effects of her Pumpkin Spice Latte, and she, like, wanted to know her future. And stuff.

In the corner, a sage man looked over the situation. He looked incredibly bored.

“I’m sensing that you are here because your life seems uncertain. I’m picking up a loss of some kind.” Barlow said, adjusting a switch under the table to make the LEDs under the crystal ball pulse slowly.

“I did! How did you know?”

The figure in the corner came over and shouted “CAUSE HE’S A PSYCHIC YOU DOLT.”

The girl did not react.

Barlow gave a wry smile and pushed forward. “I’m getting something, some pull from beyond the grave. It’s hard to understand. Maybe if you gave me a name it would come in clearer.”

“Socks.”

Barlow shook his head. “Nicknames will work. Sometimes it works even better. Was this your grandmother?”

“No, my kitty. I had him for like, 18 years.”

With a snap of his fingers Barlow corrected himself. “Ah. That must be why she is so hard to understand.”

The older figure walked out of the room, passing through the door without opening it. Immediately a dark-haired woman with light eyes passed through the door. The six-inch heels almost made her as tall as Barlow. The dress was like a keyhole, showing from between her breasts down to her navel. She came over and sat on Barlow’s lap and he tried to ignore her.

Anima is not to be ignored. She grabbed his crotch. Barlow let out a groan, mostly out of surprise. He corrected himself, shoving his attention back to the table, looking at the doe-eyed sorority girl across from him.

“I’m terribly sorry. Sometimes when you gaze into the abyss you get lost for a moment. Pet’s mostly talk to me through feelings. All I’m getting from her is warmth and happiness.”

Anima whispered in his ear. “You could have this girl, you know how. Wouldn’t take much to psychic your way into her.” She licked her blood-red lips and bit his ear.

The old sage walked back in, newly anointed with a friar tuck haircut. “Anima, look at this girl. She’s barely 20 and obviously looking for the love of her life. Fun is one thing, this would be exploitation.”

“She looks fun to me,” Anima said.

“She looks like a clingy young naïve woman who wants more than a gypsy tricking her into his bed.”

The moral dilemma ran between the invisible parts of his mind and Barlow went through the girl’s reading. Through force of will he kept Anima at bay. When he finished, he took her credit card and sent her away smiling.

Anima made a huff noise and evaporated into the walls.

—–

Most of Barlow’s days went like that. People came and went, all wanting to know where they would meet their next love, find a windfall of money, or speak with the dead. In his bedroom were piles of books on the floor, The Art of Cold Reading, and dozens of others. The room itself was a mess of old sheets and bad clothes. He lit a candle to cover the dingy smell and climbed into bed.

On the wall hung a pair of degrees. One a Bachelors, the other a Masters. Both were in psychology.

The room seemed to go dark then. His thoughts turned toward his apartment, to the exploitation, to the work he was doing. He would never pay off his loans. Never have a real practice. Frustration bubbled.

The Shadow called to him. It whispered in the dark, never showing a face. It gave primal solutions, so many at once it could barely be understood over the cacophony of whispers.

“You’re a thief. Go further, take their money for real. Exploit. Extort. Worthless. Maim. Kill yourself. End it now. End it now. End it. Just a nick. No loans in the dark.”

Barlow rubbed his eyes then flipped off the room hoping the Shadow saw it. He focused on the flame and watched the dark recede. It was his normal bedroom, his normal life.

An obsession with mushrooms, mescaline, and large doses of ketamine during his days in college led to an enhanced obsession with Carl Jung and the architypes. Through heavy hypnosis and drugs he gave life to the characters of his own mind. They were impulses, actions, deep thoughts and sometimes an aggressive burden on his thoughts. He felt like compartmentalizing his mental faculties into personas helped him with reading people, as they seemed to pull facts and thoughts from the ether. What had started out as party tricks turned into a business. One that he was ashamed to be a part of.

The odd powers he seemed to have uncovered were starting to manifest in new ways. He pointed a finger at the candle and with an intense thought, snuffed it out. A small wedge formed in the wax.

He put on a sleep mask to cover his eyes, ear plugs, and gave Anima the cold shoulder before fading off to sleep.

—–

The rain pelted the window outside as he tried to politely help an old man out of his shop. The man had been stalling, trying for free minutes to get out of the rain. Worse than that he kept asking questions about the tantric aspect of his sign and Barlow was in no mood to share those particular trade secrets.

In the waiting room, a couple waited. They were young and well-kept. The girl carried a purse with flowers stuck in it and smelled of not-so-cheap perfume. The man feigned a smile that seemed a little too genuine for someone who had been waiting so long.

The girl stood up, introduced herself as Maddy. The man shook Barlow’s hand with both of his. He nodded and made eye contact a little too long. The fake smile on his face lingered though his eyes never showed emotion.

In the corner, the old sage stared at the man, who neatly took off his scarf and black leather driving gloves. He folded them neatly on his lap and put a hand on Maddy’s knee. His coat and tie seemed immune to ruffling or to the slightest particle that could dander them.

Barlow sat behind the table. Theo seemed sharp, attentive. The skeptics were easy to spot by posture alone. Maddy was here for entertainment though, and Barlow desperately hoped that would be enough for the man to keep his mouth shut.

“So where do we start?” Barlow asked. “Palm reading, future telling, scotch and a rousing chat about football?”

The man’s eyebrow lifted. “Maybe you do see a little more than I gave you credit for,” Theo said. “We’ll take a drink.”

“Just don’t tell the health inspector. I don’t have a liquor license.” Barlow excused himself to make the drinks.

When Barlow opened the cabinet, it was pitch black. The Shadow whispered as he reached in, fumbling for the bottle, “Something wrong. We know his kind. His kind is shadow. He is false.”

Back at the table, Maddy was getting more aggressive with her hands, running them along Theo’s chest. He shifted uncomfortably, resetting his tie when she creased it even slightly. She then slid her hand along the table, waiting for Barlow to read it.

The old sage came over from the shadows and pressed his hand to hers. He placed the other hand on Barlow’s head. The real channeling took focus.

Immediately dark lines segmented the lines of her hand. Every single line looked to have severed marks approximately a third in. Her life line looked like an artery about to burst, red and putrid with a thick line choking it off.

Barlow was sweating, he made eye contact with the sage, and the others saw him looking toward empty space. He dropped her hand and took a deep drink.

“It’s so close,” Barlow whispered.

“What is?” Maddy asked.

“Uhh…,” he stalled, “Career success. You’re a painter, right? An artist?”

“That’s amazing! How did you know?”

“That’s my job,” he said, not letting her know her hand was covered in oily old paint.

It went on like this for a short while as he read Maddy’s fortune and told her what she wanted to hear. When Theo reached across the table Barlow stared at it like he had flopped a dead fish on the table.

Slowly, he took the man’s hand. The old sage stared, slowly edging his way toward Theo’s forehead. Shadow bled from the liquor cabinet and sucked the light from the room, curious about the new entity.

When Barlow touched the calloused hand, he felt a void. There was nothing else, just the cold of the deepest nothing in the forgotten corners of the cosmos.

The hand itself told more than the lines ever could. Small nicks from blade edges, the scabbed outline of two teeth, either punched in or biting in desperate self-defense.

Barlow looked into the man’s eyes, trying to read something, anything. There were no tells, only a poker face and dark eyes that betrayed nothing.

“If you’re psychic, tell me what I am thinking now.” A flash of chains, of bonds, of blood circling a tiled floor, a limp and red covered hand. The sound of drops in an echo chamber, handcuffs too tight.

Barlow stared at Theo. “You’re thinking about Maddy. Chains. Whips. What you want to do tonight.”

Theo’s hand twitched, his eyes narrowed, and his eerie smile flattened for just a moment before everything reset.

“Kinky,” Maddy said, the drink now causing her to slur. She leaned in and bit at Theo’s neck.

He just smiled. “This guy is good.”

“Maddy, I think you should take a cab home tonight. I can call one.”

“Mind your business, prude,” she said with only a hint of venom.

“How about now?” Theo asked. A new flash of images rolled in. It was Barlow, folded in half and stuck in a plastic barrel. His features were quickly fading in bubbling acid. It ran through his head like a time-lapse video. In some deep woods he saw the barrel rolled into a trench and covered in dirt.

“It must be your job,” Barlow choked out. “Are you a chemist?”

Theo withdrew his hand. “She is right, you are impressive. You heard the man, we have business to attend to.” He pulled out an expensive wallet, the type meant for suit pockets instead of pants. He handed the card to Barlow.

“I need to see an ID. Company policy.”

“Of course,” Theo said. He handed Barlow the driver’s license. Barlow quickly scanned it, as did the old sage. They committed the address to memory.

—–

The couple left. Barlow paced back and forth, staring at the arcs for guidance. A small boy in armor phased through the wall. He said nothing, but pointed his sword at the telephone.

“He hasn’t done anything wrong yet. What am I supposed to tell them? A customer on a date was creepy and needs to be taken down? That they should look at his house because a psychic has a bad feeling about him?”

The small hero shrugged, then turned the sword and pointed it at Barlow. It wasn’t menacing, but a clear enough gesture. It was Barlow’s responsibility to help. The man swatted the child’s sword away, but was surprised to find a slight cut on his hand. He put the bleeding digit in his mouth for a second and side-stepped the extended sword, which slowly faded with the boy.

The old man wandered over. “The boy is right, this is your responsibility. Get some sort of proof, then call the cops. You saw her life line. She will be hung up like a hog at a luau if we don’t do anything.”

Barlow looked to the liquor cabinet. The Shadow had withdrawn to a metal box behind the liquor bottles. It gently caressed the box and whispered inaudible thoughts, jibberings of excitement. Inside the box was a .38 Special. He took the box and walked to his car.

—–

The home couldn’t quite be described as an estate, but it was remote and deep in the woods outside of town. In Theo’s threat Barlow and the girl would be buried in these woods, slowly turning into a sort of soilent green slurry. He tried to shake the thought.

His heart pounded as they sat at the beginning of the driveway with his car’s lights off. In the next seat, the short knight bounced up and down in his seat, excited and charged up for the night to come.

The old sage stuck his head between the two front seats. “Remember, proof and get out.”

The little knight turned his helmed head and drew his sword, swinging the ethereal blade forward, phasing through the window. Barlow sighed. “I don’t think that is how this works old man.”

He got out of the car and walked into the night.

At the house Barlow was surprised to see the garage door open. The sage paused and put a hand on his shoulder. “This is too easy,” the sage said. “Something’s wrong.”

“Probably,” Barlow said, watching the little knight charge into the darkness. He followed the figment into the dark. Several full-sized plastic barrels lined the far wall of the garage.

On the floor of the house he saw a trail of carnal activity. A dress on the floor. Suit pants on the stairs going to a bedroom. Soft jazz only barely covered the couple’s activities.

Barlow thought back to the vision. The room he had seen the woman hanging in had no windows. He thought it must be a basement. He tried many doors, finding only one locked. He remembered the pants and slowly ascended the stairs, gun in hand.

Each step groaned under Barlow. He hated old houses. They always complained under foot. Other than the jazz, the noises seemed to have stopped. Barlow held his breath as he reached the landing and dug through the pockets. His hands wrapped around keys and they rattled as he pulled them out.

He felt something on his shoulder.

He looked up, seeing Theo fully nude, staring him in the face, his arms about to push. He gave a broad smile and shoved.

Off balance, Barlow fell backward, feeling the steps slap against his body as he rolled down the stairs.

When he stopped rolling he couldn’t breathe. His ribs screamed at him. Theo walked down the steps and grabbed Barlow by the collar. “Tell me psychic, what do you see now?” Theo asked.

A flash of fire lit up inside Barlow’s mind. He felt the cold presence of Theo despite the blaze. His entire world was consumed by the vision. His jacket was melting into his skin, his hair turning to cinders. The vision went blank and he was once again staring at Theo. That vision was replaced by a quick fist and darkness.

—–

He woke up swaying, feeling heat on his face. For a moment he thought that the bastard had set him on fire, but it was just the blood settling in his head from being held upside down.  His knuckles dragged on the cold tile. The grog of unconsciousness still loomed heavy, but not enough to hide the reality of his situation.

To his left, Maddy hung next to him in a similar position. She looked serene, breathing shallowly. From the drool he saw dripping from her mouth he thought she might be drugged. Behind him, he heard the sound of metal scraping. It was like the sound he heard at hibachi restaurants, the sound of sharpening.

In the far corner of the room, the sage sat on the floor, hands rubbing his temples, deep in thought. Behind him the Shadow clung to the walls, making a deep and unpleasant void of color. Upon seeing him wake up, the Shadow slithered across the floor, up his arms, and latched itself around Barlow’s neck.

“We think you are going to die. We do. It’s what you’ve wanted. We don’t want it. Not like this. We cease when you cease. We decide when you go, not some preppie playboy. We are your end, not him,” The Shadow said. It frantically ran through a chorus of agreements and angry dissent. Barlow felt the anger rising in him.

The little knight pounded his chest plate in agreement. The sage nodded and said, “There is no wisdom in savagery. They are your best allies here. All I know from looking into his mind is that he starts with the eyes.”

Barlow swung upward, grabbing at the binds on his feet. They were incredibly tight, knotted over and again. The rope cut the circulation. He realized he couldn’t feel his toes.

A muffled voice came from behind. “Oh good. You’re awake,” Theo said. The voice was heavily muffled. He was wearing some sort of gasmask, his body covered in a plastic poncho. No skin was showing. His hands we’re covered in thin vinyl gloves.

He knelt to get eye to eye with Barlow and pulled the mask off. They locked eyes for a moment. The Shadow leapt from Barlow to Theo. It seeped into his orifices, dug deep. It searched his mind. Theo didn’t seem to notice.

The Shadow seethed as it wrapped back around Barlow’s neck. “He cares not for life. He is perfect. Pure. He fears nothing we have. Nothing we can own. He feels almost nothing. He fears almost nothing.”

“Almost?” Barlow said out loud.

He felt the butt of Theo’s knife smash his nose. “Focus for a moment, will you? The only reason you haven’t been gutted yet is because I’m curious. You’ve seen them. The beings.”

“Is that what you call them? Close enough.”

The Shadow around Barlow’s neck whispered, “His shadow killed the others. He is only shadow. He only fears us. He keeps it at bay by appeasement. Blood. We like him. He is what you never could be. We are sad that you must kill him for us to make you like him.”

The sage stood and walked over. “He’s afraid of his own Shadow. That’s why he goes for the eyes. He is taking their light away. He’s afraid of being left alone with them.”

The Shadow spoke to Barlow again, “He should be,” it tittered.

“I can help you control it,” Barlow said, his voice nasally and choked from the blood in his crushed nose.

Theo thought for a moment, staring up at the ceiling. He took the gasmask off to speak more clearly.

“They say no. I just wanted to know I wasn’t… alone. They want no more of this,” Theo said. He grabbed Barlow by the hair and brought the long knife toward his left eye.

The little knight charged forward, the only noise coming from his heavy armor. Barlow’s Shadow made a noise not far from a squee as Barlow focused every ounce of his effort on the tip of the ethereal blade.

The blade bisected Theo’s eye perfectly. It split like a serpent yawning.

The Shadow leapt from Barlow and wallowed in the bleeding pit of Theo’s eye. Barlow grabbed the man’s face, digging his thumb into the other eye as fast as he could, feeling the nail breach the soft surface.

The Shadow danced across his face, swimming in the pain. “Oh, he feels fear now. He feels it. He will be alone with his dark unconscious.” Barlow’s Shadow was practically singing in its blood lust.

Theo flailed on the ground, screaming. Barlow twisted the knife from his shaking hands and cut the rope from the ceiling. He slammed onto the tile and cut the bonds from his feet. He felt the heat and fury in his heart. He wanted to end the man. He looked into his mind, saw all the bodies, all the men and women he had slain in this basement. His Shadow grew, swallowing the light of that dank basement of death. Every heartbeat strengthened the Shadow’s reach.

Standing over Theo, Barlow brought the knife to bear, ready to plunge it deep into the man’s heart.

The little knight phased between the flailing man and Theo. The Sage gripped Theo’s hand by the wrist. Anima put her hands around him from behind. She whispered in his ear. “Do not feed our Shadow. You’ve given him his own hell. He is alone in the dark.”

The Sage echoed her. “His void is permanent. Take the girl and go.”

“HE TRIED TO MURDER US,” the Shadow cried. Its influence started to shake, and the cold fluorescence of the basement lights filtered through. “You’re worthless. You can’t finish anything you start. You should drive that knife into your own throat you whimpering worm.” The voice continued, shouting, but fading into the dark corners of his mind.

Barlow looked at the girl, naked and unconscious. He found the pulley that had lifted her and slowly lowered her to the ground. She smelled of booze and something more medicinal. She didn’t waver in her unconsciousness. He picked her up and carried her from the basement, pausing only to wrap her in a blanket and to call the police from the house phone.

He locked the basement door, silencing the cries and waited.

—–

Blue and red lights screamed down the long driveway and Barlow sat in the light, standing well away from any weapons. The arcs had faded into the walls, letting him be with his thoughts. The Shadow knocked at the dark chambers in his mind, but he was numb to its voice. He would have so many questions to answer, but the girl was safe and the void of humanity that was Theo had been snuffed out.

 

 

 

 


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meTony Southcotte: Tony hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.

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6 Comments

  1. There’s some really interesting stuff happening here, but I’m not feeling it as a whole. This story is a bit of a disappointment. It’s not really bad, but it’s not as good as I know Tony is capable of.
    The idea of the psychic’s familiars was a good one, but it never really came together. There were so many voices, and not enough time to get to know all of them. I think the story might have been better served without the introductory segment with the college girl. The concept of the familiars could have just as easily been introduced with the main couple, and there would have been more time to get a grasp on their character.
    Ultimately this is the kind of thing that I would like to see as a novel where the ideas could be further explored, but it’s just a bit too much to fit in here.

  2. I’m a sucker for serial killers so I definitely enjoyed this. The moments when Theo was “read” by the main character were especially nice. There’s something creepy about a character who is all facade with nothing underneath. And when he stared down Barlow and happily shared how he planned to kill him…that was great moment and gave me definite chills.

    The following debate about playing hero and rescue were nice as well. I liked the Shadow and its insane but powerful control as well as the more human imaginings making sure it stays hobbled.

    There were definitely a few clunky transitions, and for someone who had murdered I don’t know how many people, Theo was a bit too easy to get away from. Likewise the character of the boy knight was introduced last almost as an afterthought and proved to be the key to their escape, so that was a bit soft. Why not have the sexy lady or the gangly man do something? We’ve spent so much more time with them already, it would have been a bit more poignant I think.

    But overall this was a solid entry and definitely delivered on the imaginary friend prompt.

  3. Something I always appreciate about Tony is the way in which he creates character. The jittery sorority girl, Barlow’s insidious Shadow, he sketches them out with a line or two and they’re so clear.

    I’m also a fan of Tony’s unflinching approach to violence and gore, and his turn of phrase – Barlow giving Anima the cold shoulder, and Theo being afraid of his own shadow: these things made me smile.

    As usual, Tony leaves me wanting more. Barlow and his menagerie of imaginary friends deserve another outing, or a novel. Good, entertaining stuff, sir. Best of luck.

  4. There is so, so much that I love about this tale. My biggest difficulty is that I suspect it’s really a novel-level concept that’s been shoehorned into the short story format.

    Barlow is a fun character for me. In my weeks of reading the Arena, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of Tony’s greatest strengths as a writer lies in creating morally grey characters that the reader still roots for. Definitely the case here. Crippling student loan debt. A useless college degree. Though one might not approve of Barlow’s scam, one understands how he’s been driven to that option.

    I love love love the idea that Barlow’s “imaginary friends” are the Jungian archetypes. I love the ambiguity inherent in this choice. Are the arcs “really there” — whatever that might mean? Are they manifestations of Barlow’s awakening authentic psychic abilities? Are they signs of a psychotic break from reality? The story teases us with each possibility, allows us as readers to draw our own conclusions.

    Unfortunately, it’s at the point of the arcs that I think the scaffolding of the story begins to show. I don’t know if the digression into Barlow’s psychology background is really necessary to understand the arcs. That section came across to me as very “tell-y.” In a short story, my advice would be to trust your readers to understand what’s going on in the context of the story. (Or expand the background to have greater impact on the narrative — but that way lies a novel.)

    While I found the encounter with the cat lady delightful, I’m not sure how it impacts the main thrust of the story. Similarly, charming as she is, I’m not sure how important Anima is to the narrative. Again, a greater scale might allow these characters more impact.

    Shooting for true short story length, I think you could have started the narrative where the sadist and his date walk in. That would give you a better focus. Plant details to give your readers just enough of the context and subtext, and trust them to be smart enough to connect the dots on Barlow’s backstory.

    Damn. I’ve gone into full-blown critique mode, and I’m not sure what I was going for. You’ve given us a fascinating world, Tony — and I do love the world! I understand why you’d want to put so much of it in. But I think a tighter focus would have given the tale more impact as a short story.

    Or go all-out and expand it to a novel. I’d buy it!

  5. What I love about this story is the detail – the cold reading, the degree certificates, giving Anima the cold shoulder (perfect line), Shadow around Barlow’s neck, the surprise when the blade of the boy’s sword cuts him…

    Actually, unlike Joseph, I loved the boy-knight and though his characterisation was spot on and consistent throughout.Maybe it was the fact that the ambiguous Barlow still had a core of moral beliefs, and how Tony was still able to portray them well as childish and naive.

    I think that even though this story is, in places, a lot cleverer than the other (the archetypes, some of the visually arresting descriptions and devices used, such as the life line), the overall story of boy meets evil, defeats evil, saves girl is a bit rushed and the short format only exacerbates the issue. Similarly, with the supporting characters – I know a lot about Barlow, but some of the others are sketches.

    It seems I agree with the general consensus – you’re going to have to write a book!

  6. This got me reading about Carl Jung again! The archetypes remind me of the Four Humors. I loved the play between all of them inside his head.
    Barlow was a solid character. I like that he was a reluctant pyschic and not a wing-nut true-believer. He was reluctant but still compelled. Did his imaginary friends take the shape of the archetypes because of his psychology background? I like the idea that Barlow framed the voices in his head around an academic concept and then projected that out onto Theo’s underlining motivations as well. Again, the reluctant believer. Cool stuff man!

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