The screams of kids rang in the air, drilling their way into the skulls of the tired parents. They made small talk as they watched their children play together on the playground.
“Does your one still have imaginary friends? Because mine is fascinated with his one, but I don’t think it is a good fascination.”
“Oh, they all have imaginary friends; it is natural at their age. My little Michael has a couch that talks to him and lets him sleep on him. It means he can take naps anywhere, he says. Who is Heath’s imaginary friend?”
The mum winced a little as she watched her child play tag with the other kids, taking the time to stop and to wave to her. The other mother looked concerned as Heath’s mother seemed to breath heavier.
“He described him as a shadow man, with little gremlins and shadow dogs.”
The other mother was left a little taken back; she used for a moment before speaking.
“Well, you know what they say, kids have an active imagination. One likes a couch, another likes shadows. I guess it just depends on what they like, Susan. Does he often stay up late?”
“He didn’t; he used to talk about how he was afraid of the dark. But now…” Susan said as she watched Heath run around. “Now he seems to prefer it to daytime. He is always trying to nap in the day.”
“My god, if only I could be so lucky. I wish my one wanted to nap during the day. Maybe then I could get some time to myself; between this and working, it can be a nightmare.” The other mother panicked a little before correcting herself. “Don’t get me wrong, I love my little buddy, but working from home can be hard when he is running around, a little energizer.”
Susan sighed and nodded. “Yea, I know what you mean.”
The two parents looked up when they heard crying on the playground. Heath was lying on the bark at the bottom of the fireman’s pole; above him, Michael stood looking scared.
“I didn’t mean to.” He whispered under tears welling up in his own eyes. The mother ran over quickly, Susan picking up Heath as Michael was helped down by his mother.
“Is Heath okay?” The other mother asked.
Susan smiled as she cradled her child.
“Oh, he is fine; we will head home, though. A little too much excitement for this one.” Susan looked down at Michael, who was still choking back tears. “It is okay, Michael, just a little game. No need to worry.” Susan smiled as Michael started to cry; Susan looked back to his mother. “We will leave you two to this; I am going to take Heath back for some well-needed care.”
The other mother smiled and waved, and Susan left with Heath in her arms.
“Come on, my little champion, let’s get you an ice cream.”
Susan took Heath home, stopping by the dairy, she got his favorite ice cream. Heath eventually slowed his heart, and his tears dried up as he made his way through his sugary treat.
“What happened on the playground today, sweetie?” Susan asked, looking back at Heath through the rear-view mirror.
Heath slurped up his ice block and spoke between mouthfuls.
“Well, we were playing tag, and I got tagged when I was on the pole, but let go to tag Michael. So I fell. I am okay now.” Finishing off his ice block, he grinned. “Much better, actually.” He smiled and licked his fingers for the last remaining drops of his treat.
“That is good; next time, be a little more careful; you gave me such a big freight.”
“I am okay, mum. Shadow says that I am stronger than I look, and I am pretty tough looking” Heath raised his arms to try and flex, oblivious to the lack of muscles.
Susan smiled and reached an arm back to grab Heath’s leg.
“Of course, you are my strong man.” She paused for a moment before retracting her hand. “What else does shadow tell you?”
“Hmm, not much. He likes to show me his dogs and his little gremlins. They are kind of like kids, but they are weird looking. They like to hop around my room. They are the ones that make it messy.”
“Hmm, I am sure if they make it messy, they can make it tidy again. Maybe next time, ask them to tidy up.”
“Okay, I will try. But they don’t listen to me. But they listen to shadow man, so maybe I ask him to help me.”
“That is right; I am sure he would love to help you.”
Heath swung his legs around, thinking about the time he would have with his new friend. When they got home, he played in the backyard as Susan worked in the lounge. As evening rolled around, Susan made dinner, and Heath enjoyed his meal before going to bed. He was tucked in by his mum, who kissed him on the cheek and turned off the main light. Leaving a night light on.
“No, that has to be off.” Heath said, pointing to the night light.
“But you always sleep with the night light on. Why don’t you want it now?”
“Mr shadow does not like it.”
“Well, if Mr Shadow does not like it, then I should get rid of it. Wouldn’t want to be rude to our guests. Just know that guests have to leave sometime, okay, my strong man?”
Heath nodded as he yawned and rolled over in his little bed. Susan closed the door and walked back to the lounge. Heath waited until he felt a cold chill; then, he knew that he could roll over. He watched as the light under the door faded, turning from a dull yellow to a pale blue. He grinned as he watched the shadows shift from the corner of his room. They coalesced into a hunched, robed figure. He slowly stood until his head touched the top frame of the window. His robes flowed endlessly as if they were cloth in water. The ends faded like smoke but never seemed to get any shorter. His robes flourished at the base until, eventually, two small hands clawed their way to freedom. A child-sized creature crawled around on the ground. Its tight wings slowly unfurled. They extended like small little bat wings. They, too, seemed to evaporate into smoke at the end, despite the fact they never get any shorter. The gremlin jumped around the room wildly, like an over-excited puppy, until it noticed Heath sitting up in his bed. The gremlin leaped onto the bed and looked at the top of the covers. They could see a second transparent version of Heath.
“So why is there a second me when you come around?” Heath asked as he looked at Mr Shadow.
“That is you, but you are you too. When you sleep, you can leave your body, and we can talk. That is why we can talk, and your mum can’t hear us. No one can unless, of course, they were to astral project too.”
“Is that why lights go blue?”
Mr shadow nodded, and his little gremlin bounced around.
“What did you do today, Heath?” It shouted as it jumped around the room, clawing into the wall to stay stuck above the bed.
“Well, I played on the playground, Michael went to tag me, and I ended up falling on the ground. I cried a little, but Mum got me my favorite ice block. So it was okay.” Heath said as he smiled from ear to ear.
The Gremlin dropped to the floor and scurried quickly into the base of the cloak. It disappeared with a soft whimper.
“Why did the Gremlin go?”
The shadow person slowly shifted forward, his face obscured by a continuously shifting black smoke. His voice crackled as if his vocal cords were struggling to stay together.
“They know what is to come. They know I want you alone for this.”
Heath looked concerned, retreating back into the corner of his bed. The door slowly creaked open at the end of the room. Heath’s mum stared in. She watched as Heath lay in his bed asleep, the room dim, but she could clearly see everything from the light in the hall. Satisfied, she closed the door and headed down the hall to her own bedroom.
“she is the problem.” Mr Shadow said calmly. “She is going to ruin you.”
“What do you mean ruin me?”
“You were hurt today; you should not have cried; you should have hurt that child back. What if he thinks it is okay to hurt you again because he knows nothing will happen?”
“Michael wouldn’t do that; we are friends.”
“Am I your friend?”
Heath paused for a moment, then eased up.
“Do friends lie to each other?”
“So, you clearly can’t be lying to me.”
“I would never lie to you, Heath; we are friends. I want you to grow up strong; I want you to grow up to be a conqueror. You have the heart of a warrior in you, and if you use it right, no one will be able to stand in your way once you are big and strong.”
“I am big and strong!” Heath protested, raising his arms to flex.
Mr. Shadow leaned down, lowering himself to eye level.
“I mean when you get even bigger and even stronger. But it all starts with stopping those who want to hurt you. For now, sleep. Tomorrow you know what you need to do.”
Heath suddenly found himself overcome with tiredness. He leaned back into the exact position his translucent self laid, occupying the same space he fell asleep instantly. The next day he arrived back at the playground; his mother returned to her usual seat as she let Heath play with the other children. Michaels’s mother barely got time to sit down before there was crying on the playground. All the parents in the area turned to see who was in trouble. Once again, it was Michael and Heath; this time, Michael was lying on the bark crying.
“What happened?” Michaels’s mum asked.
Michael was inhaling between each word as he wiped away his tears.
“Heath pushed me off the playground.”
Heath’s mother looked at Heath, who was standing there with his arms crossed, looking at the ground.
“We were just playing tag.”
Heath’s mother was visibly upset.
“I am so sorry; I will take him home. I hope Michael is okay.”
Michaels’s mum picked him up, brushing off the bark.
“He will be okay, just needs some love.”
Heath’s mother grabbed Heath by the hand and walked him away from the other kids.
“Am I in trouble?”
“What do you think?”
Heath started to pout as he was put in the back of the car.
“Why did you push Michael off the playground? Was it because of yesterday?”
“Because I want to grow up to be even bigger and even stronger.”
“Why do you think that you have to do that to be big and strong?”
“Mr Shadow said it is what I had to do. You said I should listen to him.”
Susan sighed in frustration as she tried to focus on the driving.
“I understand that, but… not that. Look, Mr Shadow does not exist. You don’t listen to him; just listen to me. I say you should never hit anyone, ever. Yesterday you even said that you did not care, so why today?”
Heath buried his head into his chest and pouted his lips.
“Well?” Susan added as she looked back to Heath, as he shrugged.
“I am not mad at you, Heath, but I need you not to do that again, okay?”
“I love you, Heath; I trust you not to do this again.”
Heath cheered up a little, raising his head.
“I love you too, mum.”
Later that night, Heath fell back asleep, he was lifted out of his body, and he was in the soft blue light of the astral plane where Mr Shadow was waiting for him.
“Did you do what I said?”
“Yes!” Heath said with annoyance in his voice. “And mum told me off; she also said I should not listen to you.”
“What did you do?”
“I pushed him over.”
There was a long, drawn-out pause before Mr Shadow spoke again.
“Is that it?”
“Was that wrong?”
“No wonder your mother yelled at you. You don’t stop once they are on the ground. You kick and hit and bite. Trust me, it will make you feel good. It will make you feel so good that you won’t even feel bad if you get told off.”
“So I did not do enough?”
“Exactly; next time, you need to keep going. The more blood and broken bones, the better you will feel.”
“Okay, now I get it.”
Over the next week, Heath’s mother stayed away from the park. It wasn’t until she was sure enough time had passed that she took Heath back to their favorite spot. As soon as they arrived, Susan sat Heath down and talked to him as she put on his jacket.
“Now, do you remember what we talked about?”
“Yes, mum, I understand perfectly.”
“That is my little man.” She added as she shooed him towards the playground.
She turned her back on him as she locked the car and got her own jacket, but before she could get wrapped up, there were horrified screams from an older voice on the playground.
“Oh god, please don’t be Heath.” Susan pleaded as she turned around with absolute horror at the sight of her son holding a bloodied rock in one hand. Susan shook and screamed.
Heath turned with a big smile on his face.
“Is there enough blood, mum?”