Mary wiggled her toes and massaged her calves to wake them up. She wanted to stand up and walk around, but that would’ve ruined the stakeout. She’d been hiding in the cramped closet for about three hours now. Through slats in the door, she could watch the room. Gran and Mr. White were asleep or at least pretending to be. The room was dark except for a light over Mr. White’s bed. He still refused to participate in the trap. She couldn’t fault him for saying no to the idea. She didn’t like this plan much either.
Gran was in complete darkness on the far side of the room. She couldn’t tell if she were asleep. She had to have her eyes closed to fool the Shadowman, but Mary was watching for it. When the thing showed up, she was to hit it with a large flashlight. Hopefully the flashlight would be enough to scare it away. Turning on the room lights might attract the staff. When the Shadowman fled, she was to set Chowder after it and follow him to wherever he led. The more she thought about it; the less she liked the plan. It all hinged on too much. What if the Shadowman didn’t show? What if the flashlight didn’t scare him off? What if Chowder wouldn’t follow him? What if she couldn’t follow them? It was a little after midnight. The night nurse had just done a check. Mary had been startled to see it was Mrs. Pillar. She’d have to be extra careful to avoid her.
She’d gone into the closet around nine o’clock when visiting hours finished. Gran and Mr. White had kept the television on for the first couple of hours, and Gran kindly put it on Animal Planet for her instead of the History Channel like Mr. White kept grumping for.
Now that the television had been turned off, and they’d settled in to sleep, Mary had been sitting quietly in the closet for over an hour. She was bored and getting a little sleepy. She had a cup of coffee with her, but it had long gone cold. The coffee was from the hospitality cart. Mabel had been pushing it. She’d looked askance at the room Gran had been put in. Mary had heard her mutter something about the cure being worse than the disease.
She cradled Chowder’s body in her lap while the ghost dog slept inside it. She hadn’t known ghosts slept, but she was getting an earful now of soft snoring sounds. She thought maybe ghosts even dreamed. Chowder would occasionally make little snuffling sounds. She didn’t know if all ghosts retreated to their anchors to sleep or if it was just a quirk of Chowder’s. At least she could just shake his body to wake him when the Shadowman appeared.
Listening to the ghost dog’s gentle snoring was really weighing her eyes down. She took a sip of the cold coffee with a grimace. If she fell asleep and the Shadowman did appear, he could hurt Gran. She wasn’t going to let that happen, but she wouldn’t let herself hope that he showed up soon. She tried to review what she knew about Shadowmen, but it wasn’t much. Mr. White had impressed upon her their alieness. They weren’t human and never were. Of that he was sure. What they were was a mystery. They fed off humans. That was sure. What they took from their victims though wasn’t clear. Victims of Shadowmen grew irritable and sickly. He said that he knew of no reports of them killing someone. What was left unsaid was how would they know if a Shadowman had killed someone if they had? Mary wondered how Vicky was doing. She hoped someone was with her. She also wondered about the coma patient they had saved. She hadn’t had a chance to ask anyone if he had family or friends. If he was alone, he was in danger.
She couldn’t worry about him right then. She couldn’t do anything to help him. She had to watch out for Gran. She was pretty sure she’d fallen asleep now. She had a flashlight too. A smaller one tucked into bed with her, but if she were asleep when the Shadowman came, she might not wake up to use it. She might not wake up at all. Mary pushed that thought away. Gran knew what she was doing. Everything might seem up to chance, but she often had things all figured out.
She let out a long silent sigh. The waiting was killing her. She settled back into the closet and tried to relax. She wished she had something to do. Chowder continued to gently snore.
It was dark. Too dark. Mary jerked and realized her eyes had been closed for more than a blink. She’d dozed off. Heart pounding, she looked through the slats of the closet. Everything looked the same. She was about to push the folding doors open to check Gran when there was a soft chittering sound. She froze and listened harder.
The chittering sounded like insects or electronics. It was hard to decide which one. It made her ears feel itchy. Her eyes scanned the room back and forth, but she couldn’t see any change. The chittering grew louder. She gave Chowder a little shake. He snuffled a bit. She began petting his head and sides hoping it would coax him awake and not startle him into barking.
She caught her breath when a dark form rose up between the beds. It shied away from Mr. White’s bed and leaned over Gran’s. “Chowder, wake up!” Mary hissed. Goosebumps erupted up her arms as what she could only describe metaphorically as a shiver dropped from the dog body. A low growl sounded at her feet. Chowder was awake.
The Shadowman was rising over Gran’s bed. Mary cradled Chowder’s body as she hefted the flashlight. She could do this. She could do this. She grabbed the edge of the closet door and wrenched it open. She clicked on the flashlight and aimed it at the Shadowman. The light showed wispy tendrils like steam rising from Gran. The Shadowman jerked when the flashlight beam hit him. His red eyes met hers.
“Get away from her!” she harshly whispered, feeling stupid for having to keep quiet and afraid someone would hear her.
Chowder began barking harsh and loud like dogs do when they know something was in their territory or something wasn’t right. She’d never heard him bark like that. He sounded twice his size. It was a good thing only she could hear him.
The Shadowman swooped up the wall and across the ceiling. She flinched and almost fell back into the closet. Her beam shot wildly around the room as she tried to keep up with him, but he was moving fast.
She felt panic start to creep up on her. They’d expected the Shadowman to instantly flee like before, but he was only dodging her and going around the room. He was swooping from ceiling to walls. He was coming closer and closer as she had trouble keeping up with his erratic movements. His weird chittering sound was getting louder and deeper. It was setting her teeth on edge. She had the suspicion he was trying to get behind her. She did not want that. Neither Gran nor Mr. White had stirred. The room was ringing with sounds to her, but it was silent to everyone else.
“Gran!” she cried hoarsely. Maybe if they hit him with two flashlights, he’d finally go. Chowder was snarling and barking still. His small vicious presence was comforting, but she didn’t know if the Shadowman did get within range if he could do anything to him.
“Gran!” She took a chance and flashed the light across her face, hoping it might rouse her. She was scared to move from the closet’s entrance. The Shadowman moved too quickly.
Mr. White roused with a snuffle. “What’s going on?” he said, blearily looking around.
“It’s here. Can you wake, Gran?”
The old man stiffened, and his eyes shot to the ceiling where Mary’s flashlight beam was streaking back and forth after the Shadowman. “Helena!” he shouted. Mary winced. He was going to draw the nurses.
Gran jerked upright and then winced as her foot shifted in the sling. “Get your flashlight out and zap that thing!” Mr. White ordered. Gran snatched back the covers and whipped the flashlight out. She aimed it at the Shadowman, and two beams of light were darting around the ceiling. That seemed to do it. The Shadowman slid down the wall with the duct.
“Chowder, go get him. Get him!” Gran said sweeping the light toward the grate. The ghost dog ran, and Mary heard the tapping of paws in the vent.
“Well, go after him!” Gran said, pointing with her flashlight at the wall.
Mary froze. “What?”
Mr. White’s eyebrows shot up, and his jaw dropped. “Helena, be reasonable!”
“How else are you going to follow them?”
“I thought Chowder would come find me when he tracked the Shadowman to his hiding place.”
“And how were you going to get there? If any hospital staff sees you, they’ll stop you.”
“But, but…” Mary’s eyes darted back and forth from Gran to the vent. Go in there? After the Shadowman? Seriously?
“Is it even big enough for her to get through?” Mr. White asked.
“Yes, I looked. She should be able to squeeze in. She’s small enough.”
Mary went between the beds and crouched down to look at the vent. It was smallish, but she could probably squeeze through. Gran couldn’t have though. When had she been looking at the vents and judging who could fit?
“I need a screwdriver to open it,” she said. She didn’t say it to sound like she was willing to do it. She said it because she knew they didn’t have one, and she wouldn’t have to go through.
“Oh give me my purse,” Gran said. She sounded irritated. Mary shot her a look. Maybe the Shadowman had affected her. She retrieved her purse and handed it over. She rummaged inside it and pulled out a small screwdriver.
“See if this will work,” she said.
She took the small screwdriver unhappily. Her eyes met Mr. White’s. He was shaking his head. “Helena, what are you doing?”
“Helping Mary track down the Shadowman. What does it look like?” she snapped. Mary ducked down and set to work on the screws. She wasn’t sure if Gran was in her right state of mind or mood or whatever, but she wasn’t willing to question it, but Mr. White was.
“Because I wonder if you’re really helping her or pushing her.”
Gran ignored his comment, though it seemed to have soured her mood more. “Mary, how much longer?”
“I’m almost done.” She could faintly hear Chowder still going in the vent. The third screw came out, and she set to work on the last.
“Hurry up. You’re taking too long.”
The last screw fell out, and she tugged the vent loose. She started to climb in.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Mary paused, her heart lifting. Maybe Gran didn’t really mean it. Maybe this was all some sort of weird test or lesson, and she’d call off the pursuit, and tell Mary that she’d never ask her to do something so dangerous and foolhardy ever again.
“You need to take Chowder’s body to let him keep up with the Shadowman and a flashlight to ward off the fiend. Really, Mary, where’s your head?”
Her face felt tight as she took the two items and set them in the vent. “Sorry,” she mumbled.
“Helena!” Mr. White shouted.
“Will you shut up! You’ll draw the nurses. Mary, get a move on.”
It was with a small sense of relief that she wiggled into the duct and away from Gran. As she set the vent back, she wasn’t sure, but she thought she heard Gran say, “Be careful.”
The caper movies always made climbing through air ducts seem easy with a humorous montage. After crawling ten feet in, Mary could sagely say that crawling through air ducts was not fun, she’d highly recommend knee pads, and there wasn’t any montage to speed things along. She was already sweaty and tired.
The vent wasn’t very tall. She wasn’t on her hands and knees crawling like a baby. She was practically lying down on her stomach and pushing and pulling herself through the duct. There wasn’t enough room for her to turn around either. If the Shadowman stopped and waited for her, what could she do? The more she thought about the whole situation the worst it seemed.
She passed vents into other rooms. Most were dark and silent: Plenty of places for the Shadowman to hide or feed, but she knew he wasn’t in any of the darkened rooms. She wondered though if he had a circuit. People could check in hoping to get better and end up staying twice as long as expected because of him or not checking out ever. Even after seeing the Shadowman feed a couple of times now, she still didn’t understand what he did. She figured Gran had been affected by the Shadowman, at least she hoped she had been. She rarely saw her so snippy and cranky. That thought made her pause. Mr. White may claim to never have been attacked by the Shadowman, but how would he know? Gran seemed to take his attitude as normal, but maybe he’d been a victim too.
A distant bark reached her. Chowder was still out there. He couldn’t be that far ahead of her. She had his body, and he couldn’t roam more than ten yards from it. She started crawling again. She eventually came to a vertical duct. She could not imagine lowering herself down. She peered down it anyway to take a look. It was pitch black. She shined the flashlight down. The beam bounced off the aluminum walls and didn’t skim over any shadows.
“Chowder!” she whispered.
There was no answer. She slithered backwards to the nearest vent and pushed on the grill. It was screwed on from the outside like Gran’s, but it looked like it to a supply closet. She pushed as hard as she could. It didn’t budge. She maneuvered herself so her boots were aligned with it and tried kicking it. The duct was too narrow to build up any sort of swing. After a few half kicks, she pressed her feet against it and pushed with her legs. With a terrible protesting shriek, the vent popped out from the wall. She scrambled out. She banged herself a few times against the vent as she slithered out. The scrapes hurt. This was such a stupid idea. She should’ve just snuck down the hallway instead. It wasn’t like Gran could’ve done anything to make her go into the vent. She kept expecting the supply closet door to open and for someone to escort her out of the hospital. She actually wanted that to happen. She was tired, she needed sleep, and she had no clue what she was doing. Being sent home would be a blessing, but she couldn’t give up and just leave. Gran would have her hide. The whole situation sucked.
“Arf! Arf!” Great, Chowder was back. At least the Shadowman hadn’t eaten him.
“Where have you been?”
The next bark she heard was from the other side of the supply door. Funny how he didn’t seem to expect her to crawl through the ducts. She peeked into the hall. It was empty. She crept out. Chowder barked again, and she heard his paws tap toward the stairwell. She followed the sound of his paws down three flights of stairs. At the bottom of the stairwell, there was a metal door with a sign that said ‘Authorized Personnel Only’, but when she tried the handle, it opened. She wasn’t sure if that was good luck or bad.
The door led into a narrow passage. It was dimly lit, and the walls here were cinderblock. Chowder barked from the end of the passage where it opened up. She walked forward and found herself among large machinery. Pipes snaked up to the ceiling and large air handling units grumbled all around. It wasn’t well lit. There were lots of shadows.
She turned on the flashlight and started aiming it into all the dark corners. “Chowder?”
Chowder began growling and the chittering began again. “Chowder, come here!”
She was supposed to just check out where the Shadowman went and see if she could find anything out about him, but Chowder seemed to have a different plan. Could Chowder bite him? By the sounds of his growls, he seemed to like to give it a try.
She crept further into the mechanical room. She really wished she could see ghosts because trying to track Chowder’s growls as they reverberated off the metal pipes was not proving easy.
She circled round a dark boiler and came to the back corner of the room. She aimed her flashlight into the corner, and red eyes flashed in the beam. She quickly dropped the beam back to the floor.
“Chowder, come here.”
The ghost dog kept growling.
“Chowder, get in your body. Get in your body now.”
She set the dog’s body down on the floor and pointed at it. It was a punishment measure at home. When he became too unruly or over hyper, she would send him to cool off in his body. It was the incorporeal version of being sent to the dog house. Chowder whined. “Body,” she repeated with her finger pointing at it.
Chowder whined one more time but went into his body. She picked it back up and tucked it under her arm. The chittering died down and was replaced with a purring type sound. If it hadn’t been coming from the dark corner, she would have confused it with the mechanical sounds.
If she didn’t shine her light directly into the corner, she couldn’t discern the Shadowman from the rest of the darkness. All right, what now? She was alone in a room with it. What was her next move? She decided to go with simple. “Hello?”
The Shadowman didn’t respond.
She didn’t know if he could understand her, but talking was all she had. “You shouldn’t be here. You need to go somewhere else. The people here are sick and weak. Feeding off them isn’t right. You’re doing them a lot of harm.” She didn’t know where else would be better. The whole feeding off people was a bad thing anywhere, but killing them was the worst.
“Do you understand me? Do you think you could go somewhere else?”
Still no response. Should she leave? She wanted to pretty badly, but what about Vicky, Gran, and everyone else in the hospital? They couldn’t leave. “You’re really hurting people here. If you don’t go away, we’ll have to stop you.” Just don’t ask her how. “I mean it. People are getting upset, and they’ll come after you.” Nothing. The purring sound hadn’t changed any while she spoke. He didn’t understand a thing she said. This was useless. It wasn’t human, had never been human; Reasoning with it like a human was futile. Since he seemed content to stay in his dark corner, she panned the flashlight around again. Everything looked normal. There were several large boilers, air handling units, water heaters, and pipes everywhere. She tried to look for small things. Maybe Shadowmen had anchors like ghosts.
Chowder growled in her arms. She turned and immediately stumbled back. The Shadowman had slipped closer to her and had his dark hand stretched out. “No!” She hit him with the flashlight beam and began backing quickly away.
The Shadowman’s hand fell, and he swooped away, but he began zigzagging back toward her. Like he was stalking her. The chittering sound began again. She had a sick suspicion about what that sound meant.
Continue to Chapter 9