You keep running even though you know you can’t escape the fifty-foot-tall Pogo. But you were built for this.
You are taller than all of the girls and most of the boys in your Covey Four class. Your legs are longer. Your steam-clock heart is stronger. Your determination is unmatched. Even against the rocks they throw. Even against the insults they hurl. Even when they entimide you and chase you home after school every day, all because your mother could not save their friends.
They have not caught you yet. And they never will. Because you will not let them.
But you are trying to do the impossible here. You are trying to outrun the Pogo, a kakadyab, an ugly, hideous entity no timoun has ever escaped. Not even your best friend, Bobby Brightsmith. And he knew the chant to send it slinking back into Lake Michigan.
Yet, you are confident. You have just rescued Bobby. You hacked his writhing, tentacled body off the Pogo’s scaly, diamond-shaped face with your machete, Tonton Macoute. You wrapped Bobby’s slimy, bloody snake-form around your torso. And then, you ran like you have never run before.
Kounye a la, your lungs burn, your legs are wobbly, and your steam-clock heart is going tanmiga tanmiga tanmiga in your chest. It has never beat this hard. It has never beat this fast. You can feel the overdrive of its tiny springs. You can feel the rotating thump of its miniscule cam.
You are worried.
You have one more block to run before you make it home. You’re almost there. When you arrive, you can ask Manmi to look at your heart. After all, she did design and build it.
But when you round the bend leading to your street, you see, through the gloaming of the half dark, a shadowed figure standing in front of your house. You stop. Or you try. But you can’t. Not at first. You have underestimated your own determination.
Your momentum continues to propel you forward. Only a meter or two. Your arms flail. Your legs give way. You skid across the hard, uneven cobblestones.
Your hands and knees press against the cold ground, bruised and skinned by your fall. It is in this position you heave—sèl fwa, de fwa, twa fwa—before you retch sticky, ropy bile that turns invisible in the weak light of the gas lamps when it hits the dark cobblestones. The gas lamps have never been this dim before. Not on your street. Not on Oglesby.
Your mother and father made sure of that when you moved to La Petite de Haïti in Chicago from La Petite de Haïti in Miami. They do not mind giving a few more pièces de monnaie to the Lamplighters Guild. They want you, Michaëlle-Isabelle, their ti fi cheri, to feel safe, especially on your walk home from school within the heavy shroud of the half dark. They want their patients to feel welcome when they visit, pandan jounen an, during the day, and a leswa, at night.
But this is not welcoming.
It is not safe.
It is not comforting.
And this is all because of the man standing in the middle of the street in front of your house.
You are certain the shadowed figure is a man. A woman would not participate in this awful game. A woman would not play jwe lago—hide-and-seek—in the darkness between the downcast lights of the gas lamps, clothed in shadows, hoping you find her. She would not even consider the notion, knowing an eleven-year-old girl would be walking home by herself in the half dark.
An plis, you have never seen a woman radiate such malevolence. It is apparent in the way this Shadow Man holds himself. It is apparent in the way he stands, hunched and menacing. You are quite certain you will never, in your lifetime, see a woman adopt this evil, wicked stance.
The Shadow Man is, as your mother would say, pa bon ki nan kò l. He ain’t no good.
Epitou, as if to confirm this, you hear the Shadow Man say, “Ah, ti chouchou, I thought you’d never come home from school.”
And he says this in your father’s voice.
You are a smart girl. You should not be surprised your father is the Shadow Man. Not if you had been nosy when you were living in La Petite de Haïti Miami. Not if you had been paying close attention. Not when it was just you and him.
You look confused. Allow me to remind you.
Your mother was called to La Petite de Haïti Chicago by the old and wizened Lord Mayor himself, John Baptiste Point du Sable. He enticed her with anpil lajan (more money than you or she had ever seen) and the title Surgeon General. He needed her to help him combat the polio outbreak in the city-state.
He wanted her to build steam-clock hearts for the children whose sweet flesh hearts had been withered by the disease. He assured your mother he had people who could implement an assembly line production to churn out the mechanical hearts faster.
He was desperate. Eighty percent of the children in his city under the age of twelve were stricken with polio. Limbs and organs, but especially the heart had no chance. He did not want one more timoun to die.
You were sad to see your mother go, but you are more your father’s ti chouchou than your mother’s ti fi cheri. An plis, you and he would join your mother in Chicago as soon as she stemmed the tide of the polio epidemic there.
Those were fond times for you, despite your mother tending suffering, faceless children one thousand three hundred miles away. Your father laughed a lot. He let you do anything you wanted. He had no rules.
Save two: Go to school every day, and don’t leave your room until daybreak after he tucked you in for bed.
Ah. You remember now. It has been three years past, but you remember. I see it. M ka wè recall in those big, beautiful brown eyes of yours. But you don’t know.
You take three steps forward. You are hesitant. You are tentative. You are wary.
You refuse to believe the Shadow Man is your father.
And yet, your father’s rich, melodic baritone has just slipped across the cobblestones and through the half dark from him over to you. This was the same comforting voice that wished you fè bon rèv—beautiful dreams—after he pulled the covers up to your chin each night in La Petite de Haïti Miami.
You do not think about how he did not do this often for you in Chicago. Soon after you two arrived, he disappeared.
In La Petite de Haïti Miami, you told yourself it was the coziness of your father’s voice that made you stay in bed until the sun painted the horizon with soft strokes of morning warmth and fun, and not the dark shadow that skittered across his face before he turned, left your bedroom, and closed the door behind him. But you cannot lie to yourself in La Petite de Haïti Chicago.
“Do you see what he is holding?”
Bobby’s husky voice startles you. The last time you heard it he was screaming as you cleaved him off the Pogo’s face when the Pogo crouched down to eat you.
You squint into the half dark, but you cannot make out any details. You believe the Shadow Man to be tall, trè wo, but the half dark plays with your eyes and the light from the gas lamps. The half dark is a tricky thing. It is a dangerous thing.
But you already know this.
You realize Bobby’s eyes, as small and black and beady as they are, can see far better than yours in the half dark now that he is one of the Pogo’s face tentacles. Was one of the Pogo’s face tentacles.
“I can’t tell,” you whisper to Bobby, hoping the Shadow Man does not hear you. “What is he holding?”
Bobby slithers around your ribs, across your chest, and up to your neck, leaving a trail of coagulated black blood, but not as much as before. He wraps himself around your throat, like a scarf, and tugs you forward, another step or two. His touch is cold and slimy, but gentle.
Enpi, you see it. The Shadow Man is holding a gunny sack.
Once, and only once, did you leave your room after your father had tucked you in for the night.
You were a bit of an odd child then. The dark did not scare you. But you were more of a curious child. An intrepid child.
When you think back upon that night, time has dulled your memory. You are no longer sure if you truly saw a shadow flit across your father’s face. The thought of it does not bring you unease. Not much unease, manyè, since the more you think about that night the less defined that memory is.
It does not make sense for such a malevolent cast to have been upon your father’s face. That comforting voice you know so well is also playful, always hinting at an oncoming laugh. An infectious laugh. A belly laugh. A laugh you associate with your father more than anything else.
An plis, as you play that night through your mind over and again, for what seems to be the thousandth time, you only remember being eksite. You only remember the flip-flop thrill in your stomach as you disobeyed your father and got out of bed.
The house had been dark. It felt empty. It felt lifeless. You and your father had said so the night your mother left for Chicago. But the night you sneaked out of bed something was different.
You knew where you were going: to your father’s side of the house. You knew the route to his office by heart. It was forbidden to you, one of only two such areas in the house. The other was your mother’s office.
Your parents barred you from their professional space because they thought you might play with the sharp, stainless steel instruments. They were concerned you might open the dark bottles of medicine or uncap the flat tins of unguent, and smell and drink and taste.
You were curious, but you were not foolhardy. Except for this one time.
You made walking through the darkness a game. If you bumped into something, you lost a point. If you stubbed your toe and cried out, you lost five points.
That did not happen, though. You knew that house like you know the lines on your palm—every turn, every corner, every hallway. You arrived at your father’s office with all of your points intact. Your glee did not last long, though.
The gunny sack was in the middle of the floor, knotted tight. Something was in it. It bulged. It moved. It seemed to be stained dark and wet in places.
You could not tell by the sputtering light of the kerosene lamp, but the dark and wet looked like blood. And that’s when you heard it: the whimpering, the crying.
Someone was in the gunny sack.
You gasped. You heard the sloshing of water in next room. In your father’s bathroom. He was in the bathtub. He was washing off the blood. He was the Sack Man. He snuck into houses at night and carried naughty children away. You were sure of it.
You heard sloshing again. Louder, this time. Your father was finished bathing. He was getting out of the bathtub.
His bathwater would be pink. Its warmth would have dissipated. He would be cold. He would want to warm up. He would want to eat. He would want a full belly. He would walk back into his office any moment now. He would eat the child in the gunny sack. And if you were still here when he stepped again into this room, he would eat you, too.
His daughter. His only child. His ti chouchou.
So you turned and ran back to your bedroom. You did not lose your way. You did not make a wrong turn. You did not run into a wall. You did not stub your toe.
You jumped into your bed. You pulled the covers over your head. And you never got out of your bed again after dark.
“I’m not a naughty child, Papa.”
You say this to your father from quite a distance away. You still cannot see his face. You do not want to see his face. It may not be the face you remember.
“Ah, ti chouchou, I know you got out of bed.”
Your father’s voice has its familiar playful tone, as if he’s admonishing you with a smile. You believe, if he is smiling, his teeth are long and sharp and dripping with saliva. Not like the teeth you remember.
“Papa, you cannot eat me. It would not be right.”
You do not want to cry. You refuse to cry. But you have never been so scared in your life. Not when your father went missing after you came to Chicago. Not when you liberated Bobby Brightsmith from the Pogo. Not even when you saw the gunny sack in your father’s office three years ago.
“Come here, ti chouchou. Come closer.”
Bobby’s whisper is close to your ear. He uncoils from around your neck, glides down your left shoulder, and twines himself around your left arm. His severed end rests in your palm, and his mouth latches onto your bicep. He bites down, hard, with his many small, needle-sharp teeth. You cry out.
“Don’t worry,” Bobby whispers. “If your father eats you, my poison will kill him soon after.”
You do not have much time, so you move forward and halve the distance between you and your father. You can see his face now. It is lean. It is gaunt. He looks as if he has not eaten in days. Weeks. This is not the hale, handsome father you know.
“Pa kriye,” your father says. “Wipe your tears.”
“I’m not crying!”
You have never screamed at your father before. Not in anger. But it is true; you are not crying. Yet, you are close. Your eyes burn with tears. You refuse to let them fall. You do not want to show your father or Bobby or the half dark just how afraid you are right now.
Instead, you reach behind your head, between your shoulder blades, and slide Tonton Macoute from the sheath you sewed into your knapsack. Your father gave you this machete. Your father taught you how to use this machete. And if he tries to eat you, your father will die by this machete.
“Pitit fi, eske ou sonje—”
Your father switches to English. You have always thought he sounded unlike himself in that language.
“My beautiful little daughter, do you remember when I gave you Tonton Macoute?” You nod. “Do you remember what I told you?” You nod again. “‘I give this to you so you will always remember and I will never forget.’ Do you know why I said that?”
He does not wait for you to answer. Your father bares his teeth, and in two quick strides he is standing over you. He is as tall as the street lamps. His empty gunny sack is slung over his shoulder. His teeth are as long and sharp as you imagined.
“Well, it’s time for you to remember, pitit fi, because now I am the Sack Man, and I have forgotten my daughter.”
The Sack Man lunges at you, his hands wide, holding the gunny sack open to swallow you whole with it. But your father taught you well. You are faster. You unleash three swift Rising Butterfly strikes with Tonton Macoute and rend the gunny sack to shreds.
The Sack Man is surprised by your ferocity. But you do not pause.
You sidestep the Sack Man as he tries to snatch you up with his thin, gnarled hands. You let him go by you. As he does, you step into Form of Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, whirling to gather momentum. Your footwork is precise. As you complete your turn, facing the Sack Man again, you disembowel him with one vicious slice.
Your father falls to the cobblestones. He holds his intestines in his hands. He looks small. He looks frail. He is dying.
And so are you.
Your legs give way. You collapse next to your father. Bobby’s venom is swift and powerful. The cobblestones are cool against your cheek.
Enpi, the half dark gathers above you and your father, coalescing into an opaque, full dark cloud. You cannot see this, for your eyes are now closed as you lie dying, but black, wispy tendrils of the half dark rush from every part of the city-state to be here. To be here with you. To be here with your father. To be a part of this cloud.
To become one with me.
For the first time in the three years since I have arrived in Chicago, I can see the half-light of dusk. I can see the evening as it truly should be, for the half dark no longer obscures it.
La Petite de Haïti Chicago used to look this way, especially now, especially in winter. Enpi, I arrived, and I did not save the children of Chicago. I could not save the children of Chicago.
It was not my fault. The Lord Mayor’s assembly line production was flawed. It churned out defective steam-clock hearts. Those hearts—my hearts—killed Chicago’s children with their brittle springs and their wobbly cams.
And so, the half dark descended. And with it, came the Pogo. I was distraught. My despair was great.
This must be a shock to you, finding out your father is the Sack Man, and your mother is the half dark. But the Children of Night are drawn to one another.
Sometimes, the results are horrible—like the Pogo.
Other times, the results are lovely—like you.
But never did I think the repercussions would be catastrophic—like this.
But this I can fix.
Do not be alarmed; that cold you feel entering your nose and your mouth is just me. Just the half dark. Just La Sirène de la Nuit, healing you, removing the poison.
And do not worry; your father will be well. I will get him a child. A sick one. A dying one. One whose heart is flawed.
That is what the half dark does. That is what I have been doing here. Your father will heal once he has eaten. His strength will return.
You may not like this. You may hate your father for who he is. You may hate me for who I am. But you are of us. You are a Child of Night. And now, you have found your way.
The people of Chicago do not love your father and me, but they will love you. You are brave. You fight well. Their children will no longer be terrorized by the Pogo.
But you will not be able to save them all.
Do not fret. Pa enkyete w. Do not worry. Do not feel guilty. You cannot help this. You are not like me. You cannot be everywhere in this city at once. You must sleep. You must eat. You must go to school.
Tandiske, you will save enough of them. Mothers will thank you in their bedtime prayers. Fathers will commission machetes from the local blacksmith for their precious ti chouchou. Children will chant your name out on the schoolyard. You will become their champion.
So get up. Pick up Tonton Macoute. Go reclaim another tentacular child for her mother. Go fight your monster.
Malon Edwards was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, but now lives in the Greater Toronto Area, where he was lured by his beautiful Canadian wife. Many of his short stories are set in an alternate Chicago and feature people of color. Malon also serves as Managing Director and Grants Administrator for the Speculative Literature Foundation, which provides a number of grants for writers of speculative literature.
More Shadow Men:
The Half Dark Promise, by Malon Edwards – Something moves in the half dark two gas lamps ahead of me. I hold fast at the edge of a small circle of gaslight cast down from the street lamp above me. I don’t breathe. I don’t move. I just hold my breath so long that I get lightheaded as I try to drop eaves hard into the half dark around the gas lamps ahead. But all I hear is my steam-clock heart going tanmiga tanmiga tanmiga in my chest.
Cantor’s Dragon, by Craig DeLancey – Georg Cantor waits while his wife Vally pulls at the heavy door to the Nervenklinik. The crisp air smells of leaves and wood smoke, but as they pass into the white-tiled halls disinfectant envelops them. The nurse comes and introduces herself. Cantor says nothing. He has not spoken in a month. He rarely even focuses his eyes. The nurse leads them down long passages. Their shoes snap at the marble floor. After many turns, they stop at a white door that opens to his room: a narrow bed covered with taut white sheets, a comfortable chair facing a window that looks out onto a lawn edged by waving oaks, a round rug on the cherry floor.
The Seaweed and the Wormhole, by Jenn Grunigen – Three months ago, Peregrine had started sleepwalking. He said his night’s mind was always full of abandoned taxidermy shops, and tea brewed from obsidian dust and anise and silkworms. But his waking mind was full of these things, too, so they hadn’t worried Ebb. It was something else—other—that was making him anxious. After a month of the sleepwalking, he’d started to wonder what Peregrine wasn’t saying. He could tell when his lover was holding back; it was their nature to know each other. When he realized Peregrine was keeping something he couldn’t have, Ebb knew it had to be wrong. Invasive.