Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
Mr. Carraway would never admit just how uncomfortable he felt in that house; why no, that would only fuel the rumors already circulating among townspeople. Rumors were like a fungus or some other contagion, spreading from person to person. All it took was for one to say that they had an itch before the whole town started scratching. There was simply enough oddity about the house and the tired little woman that lived there, without Mr. Carraway adding to the mess.
If Mr. Carraway was uncomfortable in the cramped countryside home, then Lilah Nettles was quite the opposite, too comfortable in fact, given the gravity of their interview. Summer was fast approaching, the days stretching longer, languid, lazy but even so Lilah snuggled into her worn armchair and wrapped her knit throw blanket more tightly around her shoulders. Her knees were drawn up to her chest and she clutched one steaming mug of tea close to her face, like the little China cup could chase the chill from her bones. It wasn’t just her who felt the chill in the house. Mr. Carraway was grateful for the small bit of warmth billowing from his own cup. Yes, summer was fast approaching. But the house was dark and damp.
“It’s the shadows,” Lilah had explained dreamily as she curled further into the mildewed couch cushions. “Don’t you see them?”
Mr. Carraway had noticed the shadows but had attributed to the dusty windowpanes and yellowing gauzy curtains upon entering the house. He wiped the rim of the mug down as inconspicuously as he could with his shirt sleeve before taking a sip. He shivered. The tea was dark like the looming shadows of the house and even more-so bitter. He set the mug down—on the floor as there was no uncluttered surface in the home—and retrieved his pen and paper from his satchel.
“Do you feel like talking today, Lilah?” he asked. Lilah was quick to invite the man inside for their weekly chats, but slow to respond once settled. More oft she would talk about the cats and the things they said to her when they emerged from their pretentious perches among the shadows.
“Did I tell you what the cat said this morning?” she pondered. She seldom looked him in the eyes when they spoke. She usually looked just over his shoulder. When Mr. Carraway turned to see what she was so fixated on, he had seen nothing but the dusty shelves of her unread bookcase.
“I don’t want to hear about the cats,” he huffed. When he had first started seeing her, Mr. Carraway had listened with great care to each of her stories, imagined or not, hoping to make sense of her fantastical ramblings. He wrote them down, drawing thick black lines between the description of the cat and its intended message. But with each passing week, Mr. Carraway grew less and less patient with her delusions. “Please Lilah, I came here to talk about Liddie.”
He expected a startled reaction, which was usually Lilah’s response to the mention of her daughter, but she nodded excitedly instead.
“Yes, yes,” she said nodding. “That’s exactly what the cat told me this morning. Why, I was sitting right here reading my book—” here she gestured to a large black volume with a coat of dust and grime so thick it was obvious it had not been touched, let alone read, in several years—“and he sauntered up to me, quite proud of himself. It was the black one, remember I told you? He’s the big one with the notch in his ear. Like he’s been in many fights. Battles really, given his age. I imagine he was involved in some of the great battles in his own realm. You know I’ve seen him get into scraps before with the tabby he travels with.” She waved her hand, as if retracting her statement.
“I’m not saying they are enemies. The contrary really, I think Bram and Scratch could have been darling friends at one point. Bram and Scratch, that’s what I call them, you know. But so much time has passed and the history between them—why I think I’ve forgotten your question again.”
Mr. Carraway frowned. He had been told numerous times by his superiors to let this go. There was simply no story here, and if there was, it was hidden by an identical layer of dust and mildew in Lilah’s fragile mind. Every time he entered the house, he felt hopeful, that today would be the day he cracked into some detail never before discovered. And every time he left, he felt more like a fool. A fool covered in dust and mold and cat hair.
“What did Bram tell you about Liddie? Has he found her?” This seemed to be Lilah’s most favorite delusion. The idea that the cat that crawled between the shadows in her house held the secret whereabouts of her missing child. Lilah’s eyes met his in a sudden turn of her head that nearly knocked the wind out of him. So steady and focused was her amber eyed gaze, it looked as though she was finally seeing him for the first time.
“That’s exactly it. He found her. He found her in the Shadow Realm.”
This wasn’t the first time Lilah had mentioned the ancient realm, of which she knew plenty of seemingly fabricated lore and legend. But it was the first time she had indicated that Liddie could be found there. Mr. Carraway wondered if that could be considered progress. An inkling of an idea about where Liddie could be found.
“What does that mean for her?” he asked openly. Perhaps it could be considered progress if the Shadow Realm meant death or finality, something concrete to Lilah, he thought. But Lilah shook her head somberly, still locked into his eyes.
“It means we must help her. Travel to the Shadow Realm. Bind the beasts that hold her hostage. And bring her home.” Her words were laced with drama. Her voice trembled. Then just as abrupt as her sudden focus, came the sudden withdrawal to self. She settled back against the couch and sipped delicately at her tea. Her eyes wandered briefly before landing hazily at the bookshelf behind Mr. Carraway.
“Should we have tea?” she asked softly. Mr. Carraway sighed, looking down at his empty notebook. She was gone again.
“We had tea,” he said wearily, bending at the waist to retrieve his discarded cup. His hand came back empty. Where he had once placed a teacup was now just a blank space on the floor. When Mr. Carraway mentioned to her that he had misplaced his cup, Lilah waved her hand airily.
“Oh, my dear, I’m sure it’s just been lost to the shadows again.”
And the visit was over.
The following week, Mr. Carraway approached the small house with the familiar feeling of dread he often had before these chats. He expected to find her lounging in her favorite spot on the couch: mousy, drab, and muttering something about fetching the kettle for tea. But on this particular day, she met him at the door. She bounced up to him with a jubilant squeal, nearly knocking him down, and grabbed his hand. She pulled him into the shadowy house without preamble. “Oh, Mr. Carraway,” she said. Mr. Carraway immediately noticed her change in appearance. There had been an attempt made on her tragically unruly dishwater blonde hair, and there had seemed to be a flushed pink to her cheeks and lips where last week there had been none. He thought he might smile, but there was something behind braided hair and blush that smacked of something sinister. Something like fear, Mr. Carraway thought.
“He came to me! Mr. Carraway, he came to me last night in a vision as vivid as I have ever had. He materialized from the shadow and stood here, just where you are standing now. He held me in his arms, and he told me that Liddie was safe!”
Mr. Carraway blinked back surprise. So different already was this encounter, he was having difficulty tracking the conversation. He could have been a number of people. As far as Mr. Carraway knew, Lilah had never had a husband. Surely, there must have been a father to Liddie, but if he was still in the picture, Lilah never mentioned him.
Lilah beamed, gushing with an amorous swell.
“Why the King of course. The King of the Shadow Realm.”
When Mr. Carraway was silent, she continued. Her arms gestured about the room wildly as she spoke. Mr. Carraway noted the pale blue sleeves of her gown fluttering as she moved. The color of the sky at dawn, the blue fabric was easily the most colorful thing in the room. She had dressed up for him, Mr. Carraway thought. Not for himself, but for the King.
“I was sitting here. Bram was curled in my lap. His hair was standing straight up! I thought he was cold; cold from wandering so long in the realm. But when he let out a hideous hiss, I realized he was afraid. There, right there! From the shadows he came. He was dressed in a long black coat, black as night. He spoke and the whole house shook.
He said he had found Liddie. She was small and scared, cradled in the arms of the monster who had found her. See, she had wandered into the Shadows, she hadn’t meant to at all! He took her to his castle, and she is there now, living like a princess! She has silky gowns and tiaras and the most beautiful dolls. Even the dolls have silk dresses. She’s so happy there, Mr. Carraway. She tells him she never wants to come home! So, he came here to me.”
Her head dipped demure, and she flushed further reddening her already pink cheeks.
“He invited me to stay with them. As his Queen. Oh, Mr. Carraway, isn’t it wonderful?”
It didn’t sound wonderful. It sounded terrifyingly like the danger of her delusions was worsening. She didn’t understand, didn’t have the capacity to understand just how horrible this was for her.
“His face was bone white,” she said softly. “His eyes were pools of fire. ‘Sign my book,’ he said in a gravely voice. ‘Sign your name in your book and I will take your soul to the realm I have created for you and your child.’ The house grew colder when he spoke. The cats ran, scurrying in fear from their dark master. I did sign, I have his book here.”
She turned and picked up the giant black bound volume, opening it and thrusting the book into Mr. Carraway’s face. She had opened it to a random page. The word at the top was “Fallacy.” He could have laughed. She had scrawled her name in blotched ink at the bottom of the page. He flipped through the pages, finding her name hastily etched on each page.
Lilah and Liddie Nettles.
Mr. Carraway felt a sickening chill crawl up his spine. The same sort of chill he had experienced during his first visit when Lilah had first mentioned the shadows in her house and her strange obsession with them. This is a family home, she had explained. Her great grandmother used to read tarot here, for the ladies of the town. Tarot and tea leaves. Women walked for miles to find their fortunes in the bottom of one of Mrs. Nettles teacups. She had finished a reading one sunny day when men from the town bust down her door. Alive one day, basking in the morning sunny. Hung, swinging from the tree by the river behind her house by nightfall. That’s when the shadows came, Lilah had said. The shadows slipped inside like mourners. And they never left.
He tugged at his collar, more uncomfortable than ever now in the dank dark house. Lilah took a step forward, closing the gap between them. She fingered the lapels of his shirt, lightly brushing the skin of his throat. She was close enough to smell her perfume, a disorienting lilac fragrance that made his head swim. She had never worn a scent such as this before, of that he was sure.
“He said I could say goodbye,” she whispered. Her voice was low. “We sealed our deal with a kiss. He said I could kiss you too, before I left.”
There was something underneath the lilac smell. Something sweet, sultry. Vanilla, he thought.
“Would you like to kiss me, Mr. Carraway? Just a goodbye kiss?” Her eyes glowed nearly yellow under her thick, dark lashes. Cat-like.
Mr. Carraway replaced the badge, clipping it onto his belt loop with a sigh. It was something he had always taken off before visiting Lilah Nettles and her house of shadows. It was too shiny, too brazen he always decided, to bring inside the dark home. He reasoned with himself that the badge made Lilah uneasy. She had a poor relationship with the police officers of the town, after all.
He sat on the straight-backed chair of his desk, murmuring to himself about lumbar support, and opened the file. It was well-worn, nearly tattered, from overuse. Mr. Carraway had spent many long nights pouring over this file.
Witness reports, character analyzes, and of course, handwritten notes from his visits with Lilah, Mr. Carraway flipped through the pages until he found the single page he was looking forward.
A black and white photo. The edges of the photo were folded slightly from being held. This was the photo Mr. Carraway handled the most. It was blurry, a product of the times, and further marred with splotches of something that could have been teardrops. There was a creek and lying face down, the tiny body of a little girl. Her hair looked white in the photo, but Mr. Carraway remembered too vividly how the dishwater blonde locks had faded to green in the murky creek water.
There were newspaper clippings too, the photo splashed across the frontpage.
LOCAL GIRL DROWNED
DROWNED IN SPECULATION: MOTHER NAMED PERSON OF INTEREST
Mr. Carraway drew a hand over his face. He was tired. The rest of the office was waiting on his assessment. It had been nearly a year, after all. One year wasted on tea parties with Lilah and her mewling cats and he was no closer to an answer. What happened to Liddie Nettles?
Of course, the rest of the town had their answer. It was clear from the start. Sanity, Satan, and Sin. There was only one of those things lacking in that dark house.
But Mr. Carraway was slow in his investigation. The people of the town gave up following his methods. They had their answer. But still, Mr. Carraway didn’t think he had his.
He had heard a phrase tossed about in courtrooms. “Beyond a shadow of a doubt.” And Mr. Carraway had doubts. No, it wasn’t his job to proclaim innocence or condemnation on this woman. Just name her as a suspect. Let the courts sus out the rest.
Mr. Carraway thought about Lilah Nettle’s perfume. He thought about her screams, still ringing, when they found that little girl, facedown in the water. He chewed thoughtfully on the end of his pen. He should do it. Write “Suspect” and go get something to eat. There was a diner down the street from his office. He could get a cup of tea.
But Mr. Carraway sighed. He set his pen down. Beyond a shadow of a doubt.
The tipping of his satchel nearly put his own heart into arrest. He let the contents of the bag spill onto the floor before allowing his pulse to settle into something manageable and stoop over to retrieve what had fallen. His first, though ridiculous, thought was that one of Lilah’s cats had meandered inside to snooze inside his warm bag and was making its escape. Bram, he thought to himself. Or maybe Scratch. He almost chuckled to himself when he saw it was just the old volume Lilah had signed over and over. A dictionary, with the thick coating of dust on the cover smudged with her frantic fingerprints.
Mr. Carraway thumbed through the book once more, letting himself, if only for a moment, be carried away by her deluded signings. Lilah, Lilah, Lilah Nettles and Liddie, the loops of her Ls growing larger by the page.
And then the last page. Mr. Carraway paused, brought the book closer to his face. A bead of perspiration rolled down his forehead—the first of the summer—and threatened to splash onto the page.
Written there in a hand Mr. Carraway did not recognize, was the most peculiar phrase in red ink:
Lilah Nettles, you now belong to the Shadow Realm.
Mr. Carraway shut the dictionary with a snap that resounded through the entirety of the empty office. There was only the sound of that closing book, the cacophony of blood rushing through his ears, and his heart hammering in his chest. Mr. Carraway could scarce gather his own thoughts. Suddenly the phone was in his hand. Desperation was a wild animal, climbing up his throat as he dialed the operator. Did it matter? Would she answer? A second impulse grabbed him, and Mr. Carraway stowed the book back into his satchel, turning out the lights as he made the familiar route from his office to the parking lot.
There would be no tea tonight. There were far too many shadows.