Present – Short Story

A dark shape moved with the heavy sheets of rain. I counted the vague swirls marching down the sidewalk, reveling in the flood. The huge oak trees across from our building sat in pools, completely immersed to their roots. The shadows paraded down west 142nd street in a show of force against Manhattan.

I don’t remember when everyone else started seeing them too, but it couldn’t have been long ago. Probably about the same time it started to rain all over New York, and neither nuisance had left yet. The sky had been drizzling nonstop ever since, maybe a few weeks.

At first, it wasn’t so bad. Society kept going. Sure, life was bothersome when walking everywhere in the rain, tall rainboots mandatory, but it was doable. Then the storm drains got backed up, and the drainage lakes started to creep up. The creatures shrouded in shadows didn’t help much, to be honest. At least to the few who could clearly see them, and the more common people who saw shadows. They gloated in their newfound homes, their nation. They soaked in the water, swelling in size. They didn’t seem to do much else, but pranced proudly over every inch the rain claimed.

Then the mandatory evacuation orders came through, a week after the rain started and the forecasters determined it wouldn’t stop anytime soon. It was a lot like the hurricane drills, but the alarms kept blaring for days. Then there was those of us still in the city, who didn’t listen to the evacuation warnings. There were at least a few families on each floor still, but plenty of space to move up to escape the flood waters. The evacuation mandate didn’t give people much time to collect their belongings, so most empty apartments had plenty of food to scavenge.

“Kael,” someone barked from behind me. I stepped back from the metal door, and turned to face my accuser. Nikolai lived a few doors down the hall from my family’s apartment, and was a narrow-faced boy who often wore a scowl. He stood with his hands on his hips and talked down to me. “You shouldn’t waste time standing around. The first floor is going to flood soon, and you should be helping your family.”

I huffed at the haughty look on his face. He was thirteen, three years younger than me, but was always trying to lecture me. So, what? Water climbed up the walls, big whoop. I turned to the glass square covering the top of our apartment’s entrance, and spoke to the rain.

“You’re always so focused on the future, you should pay attention to what’s actually happening now,” I mocked.

“Whatever!” he started. “Don’t cry to me when all your shit is ruined.” I listened as he stomped down the hallway, trying to make his soft footsteps sound important. What a brat. And that’s the kid Mom called the angel next door. Nik’s mother came over every week to drink tea, to complain about being a single mother in a new country, and to swear at Nik’s absent father in low Russian. Our moms were always trying to set us up, to both of our frustrations. I couldn’t remember a time his play-by-the-rules attitude didn’t grate against me.

I leaned my forehead against the glass to see the once-busy streets of Manhattan, looking at the huge hall surrounded by a fenced off grassy field with old oak trees, directly across from our brick apartment. The building climbed over twenty stories, out of view from any of the tall, rectangular windows in our bedrooms. On the sidewalk in front of me, small trees were each confined to a single square of dirt, and expected to grow. A black, metal staircase starting at a locked gate led up to our front door, squeezed between the EZ Wireless and Steve Express Watch & Shoe Repair’s storefronts on the street level. The sidewalks seemed more like moats now, connected to the submerged street.

I’d never seen our street so still before; back-to-back traffic was a never-ending feature of my home. Without the constant honking of speeding taxi cabs, the early night was just so quiet. A bitter frown took over my face. I preferred the obnoxious noise to the haunting silence. The streetlamps were all out, too. And almost every window was dark, save for the warm glow of candlelight, and the occasional round flashlight on the higher floors I could spot through the thick oak canopies across the street. For the first time in my life, I could actually see a few dimmer stars beginning to peak through the rapidly darkening sky. The flashing neon lights? Those I didn’t miss, to be honest.

Eying the waterline licking the top of our shaky staircase, I had to admit Nik might have had a point. The power was out, and had been for at least a week. All our air vents were tightly closed in anticipation of flooding water, and still the sky poured. Us residents of the first floor were making bets on when the door and window seals would be breeched, and we’d join the outdoors in wet abandon.

I turned from the black front door to face the empty, out-of-order elevator shaft, and walked past it toward the hallway. The hallways stretched in long white lines. I took slow, steady steps down the white tile, enjoying the cold tap on my bare feet. White walls were bare, but for the cracks fanning from the corners of black doorframes I passed.

I spied a gold A stuck just under the peephole of the first door on the right, a single gleam on the dark front door to a cramped two-bedroom apartment. I could hear Nik’s mom shuffling around inside, kitchenware clanging as she tried to pack their life up.

I wouldn’t need any dishes. Mom had packed everything in our apartment into boxes, then unpacked everything after a fight with Brian. They had different opinions on essentials, apparently. As much as I hated my mom’s boyfriend, I had to admit that he was right about this one thing, even though he was being a prick about it, as usual. Mom rearranged everything that same night, going from twenty-something boxes to two overstuffed suitcases, and three backpacks. I’d left the apartment immediately this morning, slamming the heavy, black door to the sound of arguments starting, and was happy I didn’t look back. I distantly wondered what arrangements I would come home to. Brian seemed to want to go as lightweight as possible, and I didn’t think the luggage would survive his assessment. I could hear Mom calling for Brian from their bedroom. I guessed they hadn’t settled the argument.

“It’ll be like when we moved to Manhattan, when you were still a toddler,” Mom wheedled worriedly at the blue blanket bundled in her hands. “I had to move the mattress to the fifth floor alone.”

“Yeah, sure,” I agreed distantly, “I remember that.”

“And your dad showed up with the movers, and fixed all the picture frames.”

“Just like that, except there’s also shadow creatures living in the eternal flood that’s now New York City,” I sniped. Mum tutted in disapproval, but motioned me to follow her out of the apartment and down the hall.

“I don’t know what you’re on about, you and those conspiracy theorist so convinced there’s creatures in the water.”

“Plenty of people see them, Mom,” I countered.

“It’s an unprecedented amount of rain and flooding, nothing more,” she spoke over me.

I heard Brian’s answering mumbles from the kitchen, where he was grabbing the last of the approved, and repacked bags. I held a stack of three scrapbooks, each one older and more weathered than the last. I’d only ever gone through the top one before, childish It’s A Boy! stickers and rattles stuck to the front on its brown leather case. I didn’t hate the prominent blue, boyish themes, but they reminded me how disappointed Mom was, in her words, to lose her son to a question of nonbinary confusion.

“Come on, I don’t want to miss Nik and his mom moving up,” Mom said. I hummed, and moved to follow her down the hallway, still listening to Brian shuffling around behind me.

We passed the square window on the front door, one that normally let the sun into the lobby. Now, the waterline was just teasing the window edge. I felt like the dirty window made the storm water seem murkier. The water couldn’t possibly be that gray.

As we approached the stairwell, I passed in front of Mom to open the door. I reached out for the silver push bar, swung the beige door into the stairwell, and held the door open for her to walk through.

She stopped for a moment, then got a serious look on her face. “And don’t go talking nonsense about shadows, either. It’s just wreckage in the flood waters, okay?” She held my eyes, and waited for me to agree.

A clatter rang out from behind us and interrupted our staring contest. I looked to see Nik with several gray grocery bags hanging from his arms with a heavy case of water in his hands, while his mom picked up silverware scattered by his feet.

“Oh!” Mom started, shoving the thick, blue comforter she was holding on top of my stack of scrapbooks. “I’m so happy to see you! Let me help.” She left me standing with my back against the door and moved back into the white hallway to greet her longtime friend.

“Thank you,” Nik’s mom panted. “It has been such a busy week of packing, and I still feel like I’m missing something!” Mom got on her knees to help collect the silver spoons, placing them back into Nik’s bags. They made small talk, mostly bad jokes about the weather, as they worked. Nik’s mom grabbed the last one, then sighed as Mom stood, reaching down to help her up. Mom kept her arms around the other woman’s shoulders as they walked, passing into the stairway before Nik as they moved on to gossiping.

I could hear them laughing as they started up the first flight, but begrudgingly waited for Nik to slowly make his way in. He breathed heavily as he shuffled into the stairwell, then stopped and groaned as he saw the first steep step. I didn’t envy his load, and in fact felt better about the blanket Mom had pawned off to me. I was closing the door behind me when I heard small feet thundering down the stairs, and Mom brightly greeted a younger grade schoolgirl at the second floor’s landing. Mom started fussing over the girl, who introduced herself as Cass, so I decided to treat myself by watching Nik’s spindly leg struggle up the first step. A smile took over my face, and I didn’t bother to hide my amusement.

“You could,” Nik struggled to say, “at least offer to help.” I laughed from behind him, lagging a few stairs behind him to get a better view.

“That doesn’t sound like something I’d do,” I cheesed. I almost wanted to pat Brian on the back for lightening our load. Mom was too sentimental to leave even my baby clothes to the flooding waters. We continued up the stairs, and I heard the heavy door slam as Mom entered the second floor. The young girl with blonde pigtails stayed behind to greet us.

We continued like that, making it halfway up the staircase when Cass poked her head over the silver handrail.

“I’m Cas.” She looked with hopeful eyes. “Are you moving up to the third floor?”

“Yeah,” I offered lamely.

“Oh,” she started, “That’s where I live, with my aunt. There’s no other kids, yet.” Nik slowly shambles around the corner, and Cas’ eyes light up when she sees him. “Another one!”

Nik struggled upward, then stepped up to join her on the landing, where he set his load down, taking a break to catch his heaving breath. He looked at Cas, then at me with a confused look.

“Cas, this is Nik.” I introduced him with a lazy wave.

“Come on! I’ll show you to our floor, you can have the first room because it’s empty anyway!” she excitedly chattered. She led me through the heavy, beige push door, down the hall to a black door marked with a gold, cursive A, and away from my brief reprieve of mean-spirited joy. I looked further down the hallway to see Mom holding a different apartment’s open for Nik’s mom.

“You get set up,” Mom called when she spotted me. “I’m going to help move stuff in.” She walked into the apartment, and as the door closed, I heard her thanking the lord that the previously evacuated owners were so tidy. The waiting list was first-come first-serve for the empty apartments.

Cass led me through the apartment, one with the same layout as our own, with considerable enthusiasm. But once Brian knocked on the door, she left to bother him with the same introduction. I heard his voice lower in frustration when he asked where Mom was, but he entertained Cass all the same. I dropped my scrapbooks on the white kitchen counter, and left the big, blue blanket bundled by the front door.

The big difference between our two apartments was the emergency exit ladders, the black scaffolding. A rectangular window taller than me let the gray cloud covered sky in. The window had white, vertical blinds missing multiple panels, and bunched off to the left.

I slid up the bottom glass pane, and was hit with a wave of humid air. Brian interrupted Cass to yell for me to close the damn window, so I crawled onto the thin metal frame and sat in the single plastic lawn chair placed in the center, just before the black railing. I could only fit my fingers through the narrow slats, but I felt the soft tinkling of rain shift to hit my face with the cold wind. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes as my body relaxed. Only the wind howled out there, and the huge building across the street cast a long shadow across upper Manhattan. On the emergency exit, the day seemed dark as night, though I knew we were in the afternoon.

I opened my eyes with a sigh. Life was so boring. Everything was boring. The same white walls and black doors, gray skies, and never-ending rain. I stood from the hard, white chair, and leaned over the raining, letting the hard metal press against my stomach. Heavy drops hit my messy brown hair, soaking through the long, tangled locks to run down my scalp. Through the tall waters, I saw dark shapes moving in the depths. The muffled sound of the front door slamming closed came through the glass window. I could hear Mom happily sending Nik’s mom off as she entered, only to stop dead at Brian’s cold hello, who interrupted Cass’ monologuing.

I almost felt like, when I stretched my arms down, and splayed my finger wide, I could touch the water. A black circle floated to the top of the murky water, vibrating with excitement. I was so close. If only I were a few feet lower. Raised voices started behind me, and small footsteps retreated quickly in the direction of the hallway, Cass must have made her retreat. The shadow flirted with me, dancing circles below my outstretched hands.

Water ran from the top of my head to the tip of my nose, and slowly began to drip. I was almost touching, almost there. The shadow enticed me, invited me. I could make my way there.

Nik, Cass, and I’s heavy steps echoed in the cramped flight of stairs. I held a stuffed blue backpack, the same one that used to hold my Clifford picture books, by the straps on my chest.

“This should be,” Nik wheezed, “the second to last trip… to the third floor.” He held a square box towering over him, and I had never been happier to own so few things.

“I’m kind of nervous,” Cass admitted, fiddling with her thumbs. I pushed my hands into the warm pocket of my white hoodie, and looked down at her.

“Just don’t be,” I offered. She looked up from her hands with a grumpy frown at my sense of humor.

“That’s not very helpful,” Cass complained. “I would be upset if someone else took my room suddenly. Wait, not like you two did!”

Nik cackled tiredly as we reached the halfway point up the stairs. I turned my eyes away and decided to ignore him before an older couple moving up behind us stepped in to reassure Cass.

“There’s mostly empty rooms upstairs anyways, we’re the ones who refused to leave after the flood warnings after all,” she comforted Cass. “And it won’t be for too much longer, the state police have to come back for us. They’ll be coming through with boats and helicopters soon.”

“Not that it matters,” the old man grumbles, “with those black creatures lurking in the flood.”

“There’s no creatures, dear. It’s just your eyes playing tricks on you and some shapes in the water,” the graying woman comforts her husband.

“I know what I saw! They’re out there!” he wheezed with passion, still slowly making his way up the stairs with his wife’s steadying hand. He heaved with all his breath, clutching a black duffle bag containing all of his things, with all the strength he had left.

“Oh no!” Cass cried, “What if 3B was a mean old man, and it smells like old people?”

“What if the shadows knock the whole building down, and we drown in the wreckage?” I chimed in with a smile.

“Don’t be a dick, they’re not real.” Nik glared from over his box. “Don’t worry, Cass. If anything happens, you can stay with me, and my mom.” She let out a huge sigh of relief, and clutched her purple schoolbag.

“They’re probably not interested in cramped building, anyway,” I admitted.

“Stop teasing me then! I don’t believe in pretend things anymore, or shadows!” Cass stuck her tongue out at me and stomped up the rest of the stairs. I stuck behind to watch as Nik struggled up the last few steps, grin stretched wide on my face as I kept one step ahead of him.

“Grab the door, dude,” he struggled to get out. “Don’t just stand there.”

I snickered, and stepped up to the door, turning the silver handle to open the beige door with a faded, white three painted on. I propped the door open with my foot and motioned him in with an impatient hand.

“Have fun moving the rest of your mom’s shit,” I said as he passed through the door. Nik groaned at the reminder.

“I don’t even know if all this stuff will fit in the new apartment,” he bemoaned. I left him behind and took a few steps to the rectangular window just after the staircase, positioned on the back wall of our apartment building. The view was of cramped corners and the uneven alleyways of buildings built on top of each other. Drops of rain painted the glass like stars, with black storm clouds on the horizon.

I stood there for a moment and watched the drops run together, falling to the bottom frame. The smaller spots grew when joined. They grew heavy enough to stream down, painting lines on the glass. A shadow in the shape of a squiggle danced down the stream, enjoying the freedom water offered. Beautiful. I wished I could move so freely, without regard for all of the people holding me back.

I heard Brian call for me from down the hall, and I turned to see Mom standing beside him. The gusto left me as I approached the tense couple, the black apartment door looming over us all.

“Kael. This is us,” Mom started fussing immediately. This was going to be annoying.

I sat on the musky gray couch of our new fourth floor apartment, and watched Mom argue with Brian over what we’d brings with us on the next move. Brian snapped at Mom when she demanded we take the scrapbooks, yelling that we would barely have a seat on an escape raft to begin with, let alone space for personal belongings.

“Don’t yell at me,” Mom started to cry. “They’re important!”

The familiar sound of age-old fights rang out. I stood and walked to the tall window, and looked longingly at the comforting shadows in the warm waters below. The shadows didn’t argue like that.

I frowned when the yelling got louder. I had to be honest with myself, I didn’t want to keep moving up with Mom and Brian, and being rescued didn’t sound much better.

A black, lopsided square floated up the flooded stairwell to rest in the still water below my resting feet. For some reason, I didn’t mind the silence so much when I watched the shadows dance.

The squeal of the stairwell door opening sounded out behind me, and Nik entered the landing, stopping once he saw me lounging.

“You’re not trying to help with the radio?” he scoffed. “They still haven’t found any signals.” He stood behind me, and looked down at the flooded waters. “No clue how we’re supposed to get rescued, now.” I offered a grunt, but kept my eyes on the shadow before me.

Nik left me in the stairwell after a minute of awkward silence, and I thought to myself, I wasn’t going to leave the shadow creatures or join the survivors moving up and out.

I stormed up the stairs and passed Nik, who ran after me out of concern.

“Where are you going?” he asked, confused. I didn’t care to lie to him anymore.

“The shadows! They know me.”

“Bro, what?!” he screamed.

My lungs burned as I stormed up the emergency exit, shaking the scaffolding as I did. I heaved as I ran, reaching the sixth-floor windows. I turned to go up the last flight of stairs, the empty roof beyond them.

“Kael!” Nik shouted desperately as he struggled to climb out of the fourth-floor window. “They’re not real!” I hit the top level, and jumped onto the black roof in the soft rain.

The water on my skin seeped deeper every second. Puddles formed in the creases of my face. I took a cleaner breath than I’d had in months. I could breathe again. My kin watched me from all sides and waited for me to take my place.

I looked down at the murky water immersing half of the building, three floors flooded completely. The waves winked at me. I salivated at the chance to live. Arms open, I stepped forward to embrace the thoughtful present. Wind whipped past me, but the feeling was nothing compared to the frigid shock I met face first. The water was hard as concrete and cracked my old shell immediately. My skin peeled, my bones snapped, and I bloomed.

I stretched farther than I’ve ever been able to, and my form shimmered and vibrated. A whirlwind of pitch-black loosely coagulated into a rough oval. I jittered in my freedom. I took a lungful of water in and finally breathed.

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