's 2016 Horror Write-off:

Shadow on the Wall

Submitted by Joseph Hartman

In the suburbs where I used to live, there was always an alley that I used to pass, on my way to and from school, or to a friend's house. It didn't go anywhere useful, or work as a shortcut, and it was too narrow to really hang out in. 

The only thing notable about it were the shadows in the shape of people. Not real shadows, but like soot, burned into the east wall. I could touch it, and feel the powdery surface, but nothing ever came off.

The shadows were recognizably human silhouettes, but the same sort that you see on street signs. No real identifying features. Even their poses were vague, standing or crouching or oddly tilted compared to the others, as if burned from a different angle.

When I first wandered into the alley, curious and explorative in my young age, I was terrified. It was like I had interrupted a silent meeting of monsters, who had ceased their hissing and plotting to stare at the vulnerable intruder. I ran home, still feeling their blackened gaze on my back.

It became my 'special place', in a sense. A symbol of my fear. I could always glance in its general direction, and feel my pace quicken. It was mine.

Of course, it wasn't as if no one else could see it. I asked the kids at school about it, and yeah, they knew about it. But it wasn't a source of urban legends, or some haunted part of the neighborhood. 

They just didn't really care about it, not like I did. I was the only one intensely curious about it, and for some reason I didn't find that odd.

In stories, the hero needs a fear, so they can get brave enough to face it. The shadows were a gap in that logic, a question to its answer: what was there to face? I returned to that alley many times as I grew older. It became an obsession.

I learned about World War II, and the phenomenon of nuclear shadows. When a nuke explodes, its radioactive light chars whatever it can't vaporize, and bleaches whatever it can't char. When something stands in the way, in that crucial moment when so many megatons of sunlight shine at once, it leaves a shadow behind. 'Shadow' being a misnomer, of course, since it's actually the original color showing through.

Or something like it.

Except I was fairly sure that a nuke had never gone off in these sleepy suburbs. Nor had someone painted their house a sooty black.

My parents thought it was avant-garde street art. And over time, I guess I believed them. How else could I explain it to myself?

I feel like I want to look back on those days with a strange nostalgia, fond of the uneasiness it gave me. Laugh at the childlike fear of shadow monsters.

Except, the fear remains. If anything, it's gotten stronger with time. I see that alley in every shadow. In flashes out of the corner of my eye, a black mirror of my own hand moving. Street signs.

I don't have bad dreams of it. Instead, the terror comes to me during the day, invading my mind no matter how much I try to block it out. My greatest nightmare, in perfect clarity.

I'm back in the alley, the alley that I've avoided like the plague since my childhood. The still images, standing vigil forever, staring back at me.

And at the far end of the alley's, I see it. A charred hand rises, and waves. I'm here, it seems to say. Do you remember me?

I remember you. I won't come back, and I won't see you wave. But I'll remember you forever.

The image is burned into my brain, like a shadow on the wall.