Dr. Maxwell was right. Charlie found himself feeling better and better as the day wore on. Despite the medication, he began thinking more clearly and seeing and hearing more and more like his usual self. It was only occasionally that he heard the whispering and saw the shadows flirting in the distant hallways. His shoulder was bruised and sore, but with all the bumps and spills he had taken in years past, he was used to feeling bruised. His cast on his left arm only covered him from his hand to almost his elbow, which allowed him most of the use of that arm. He looked forward to getting out of the hospital and home, and then back to school.
Lu stayed with him for a couple of hours that afternoon, then excused himself. He said that he would talk to Emily about coming to visit Charlie at his home to following day after school. Charlie was torn between knowing that telling Emily was the right thing to do, and being afraid to address the rift that had grown between them over the past year. He also was worried about how she would react to his description of what was going on. When Emily had gotten to high school, she realized an aptitude for science, and had embraced it with everything she was. Now she was skeptical of anything that couldn’t be proven in a laboratory. Charlie could see her laughing in his face when he told her that he was hearing voices, or worse, telling him he needed to see a psychiatrist.
But Charlie couldn’t think of any other solution. He knew that Bud and his muscular cronies would dismiss him before he opened his mouth. And despite all the bad history they had had since their falling out, he still cared about Bud. Charlie had never been good about relationships, or talking about problems or disagreements. He couldn’t see him talking his way out of this one, either.
Charlie thought long and hard about the situation as the afternoon wore into evening and then into night. The nurses had disconnected him from all the wires and tubes that had made him feel like something out of a Frankenstein movie. They actually suggested that he try to get up and walk around, but only when one of them was with him. That evening, they brought him his dinner, which turned out to be the hospital’s version of turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy. Even though it looked as if it had been saved in a can for a decade, then simply plopped onto the tray, Charlie ate it with gusto. He knew that the more he ate and exercised, the sooner he would be back to normal.
Charlie’s mom and his two-year-old sister came to visit him that evening. Now that Charlie was on the mend, Mom looked a lot more rested too. She apologized time and again that she wasn’t there all the time to be with Charlie, but he dismissed her, knowing that she had Lisa to take care of. He wanted to talk to her about the visit the night before when Dad—or whoever it was—had held onto his hand while he was blindfolded. But Charlie put it into the same category as the shadows and the whispered voices. Those were things Mom would worry about, but surely didn’t have answers for. Charlie would have to find his own answers.
“I have a surprise for you,” Mom finally said to Charlie. Charlie pulled himself up straighter in his bed and looked expectantly at Mom. Lisa smiled at mom, then at Charlie.
“It’s a big wheel!” Lisa said, which Charlie knew was what Lisa called a unicycle. Mom went into the hallway and returned with a brand new unicycle with a red bow on it.
“The one stipulation,” Mom said to Charlie, suddenly becoming serious, “Is that you stay off of buildings and scaffolding with this. I can’t afford to have you in the hospital again.”
“I promise,” Charlie said, grinning. “Can I try it out?”
“I’m afraid not,” Mom said, shaking her head. “Not for a while. But when you get healed, you can.”
Charlie slumped in his bed, disappointed. “What does my old unicycle look like?”
“The fire department threw it in the dumpster next to the Courthouse, but Lu made sure he took a picture of it for you.” Mom fished in her purse and pulled out a photograph, handing it to Charlie. Charlie looked at it, and whistled.
The unicycle was twisted and bent, the wheel folded in half, and the shaft leading to the seat bent at a 45 degree angle.
“Good thing I wasn’t on this thing,” Charlie said.
“But you were, silly,” Mom said.
“Well, I mean, when it got all bent up. I kinda got separated from it on the way to the ground.” He grinned at Mom, who simply shook her head.
Mom stayed with Charlie until 10 o’clock, when visiting hours were over. Charlie promised her that he would go right to sleep so he would be well rested for the next day. But promising to sleep and doing so were not the same thing. Charlie’s mind continued to bounce from thought to thought. Who was it that held his hand last night? Why did he survive the fall? What were the things he continued to see and hear? What would Bud say when he told him what he had heard?
As the hospital quieted down, the whispering began to increase in volume, which gave Charlie another reason to stay awake. He lay in the darkened room and listened quietly. He came to the conclusion that he could hear six distinct voices. Two were louder than the others, although he still make out what they were saying. Finally one of them grew louder. Then, to his horror, he realized that the voice sounded like it was coming his direction.
Goosebumps raised on his arms as the voice grew louder, and sounded like it was right outside his door. He lay quietly, his eyes glued to the doorway, watching and waiting. Nothing happened for a long while. Finally he realized that the shadow was coming right through the wall.
Since he had starting seeing the shadows, he had only seen them at a distance. This was his first opportunity to see one up close. He hoped to never see one again.
A regular shadow is where something solid comes between a light source and the space where the shadow is visible. Charlie could see this was different than that. This was not only the absence of light; what he saw almost seemed to absorb light. There was no light source in the darkened room, and nothing to block it, yet as dark as the room was, the object—or being—was even darker. Charlie looked closely at the being as it came slowly into the room. Light from various electronic equipment in the room seemed to bend and draw toward the center of the being. And as Charlie looked at the center of the being, he saw a blackness that was purer than anything he had ever seen. It seemed infinite, as if light could never reach the bottom of a deep well.
Charlie not only could see a difference; he could feel one. The being brought with it a feeling of hopelessness and despair. Charlie felt the energy that he had felt that afternoon draining from him. A wave of nausea hit him and he felt suddenly sick. And with the sick feeling he also felt terror. This was no optical illusion.
He continued to hear the whispering, this time in another language. It sounded like Spanish, he thought. The black being switched directions and stopped coming toward Charlie. Instead, it started moving toward the older man who was hooked up to a heart machine on the other side of the room. The man had not been awake the whole time that Charlie had been in the room, and so he had forgotten him for the most part. But the beeping of his heart machine had become a regular part of the sounds that Charlie heard around him. The man lay sleeping flat on his back, his mouth open and a slight snore coming from him.
Charlie watched the black shape move slowly toward the older man, and somehow realized that it meant to do him harm. The man lay their helpless, hooked to a machine that beeped, either helping his stay alive or monitoring his life signs. Either way, Charlie didn’t like what he thought was going to happen.
The terror still gripped him. At the same time, he knew that he couldn’t just sit there and watch this black being attack and possibly kill this old man. For all he knew, this man could have been his grandfather. The swarm of darkness hovered over the old man’s bed for a long moment, then all of a sudden Charlie heard the equipment next to his bed go silent. The lights that lit up the machine went black, as if the very power that ran them was sucked out by the invading creature.
Charlie shook himself, the spoke up.
“Hey, leave him alone,” he croaked at the creature. He had intended to yell at him, but his fear kept him from shouting. His second try was more successful.
“Leave him alone!” he shouted. “Leave him alone!”
The black creature turned and paused, as if realizing that Charlie could indeed see it. Then it turned and started coming toward Charlie.
Charlie’s face turned white. He reached the buzzer for the nurse and pushed it several times.
“Nurse! Nurse! I need help!”
But there was no response from the intercom.
Meanwhile, the dark creature approached.