Joe Avery and the Foster Shadow
Charles C Cole
Calendula, my half-rosebush receptionist, was perturbed. Even a non-detective could conclude this by the obsessive way she sharpened pencils longer than was necessary. Many of our preindustrial clients had a distrust of computers (digital technology in general) so we wrote our interview notes longhand.
Our small, two-person office had a wall-mounted electric sharpener, and the relentless grinding was a tad abrasive on my tender ears. We’d worked a grueling day and now was the appointed time to go home and unwind, but Calendula was lingering, which meant I was also lingering, whether I wanted to or not.
“Got something to say, junior detective? I’m listening, but you’re gonna have to stop whittling our poor little pencils down to golf tees.”
“Joe, I know you care for our folktale clients. You can’t fake that. You’re the kind of guy who wakes up still tired from the day before, starving but unable to force himself to eat any meaningful breakfast, but who gets supernaturally energized fighting for the underdog. And I don’t think I’ve met a single client who didn’t see themselves as swimming upstream without a paddle.”
I suppressed a paternal smile at Calendula’s mangled euphemism.
Was I rude to someone? Did I miss an opportunity to compliment her in front of our clients? Was I acting ‘too human’ again? “If you think I need a course correction, by all means, have at it. I’d hate for you to lose sleep from worry.”
“I’m sure you didn’t mean to, but this afternoon, when you thought you were helping me, you positioned a feral dog-like beast next to a gentle shrub-like creature.”
“I did? When?” I looked around the waiting room as I replayed the day’s events. Something was conspicuously missing that had been there earlier. “Wait, where’s our ficus?”
“We don’t have a ficus! That was a client. And she left quite upset. Because the were-coy, who had the manners of a drunken faun, kept looking at her as a convenient place to…lift his leg!”
“I had no idea! I’m so sorry! What else did I do? I assume there’s more.”
“You ignored the front of the line again.”
“I wouldn’t. I learned my lesson the last time. I certainly didn’t mean to.”
“Peter Pan’s shadow was first at the door, and he’s still waiting!” I looked about the room. Sure enough: a shadow where there shouldn’t be one, sulking (I’m guessing) in the furthest corner.
“My deepest apologies, Mr. Shadow!” At my attention, he slid up the wall to nearly my height with the proud, familiar hands-on-hips and legs apart PP profile.
“He goes by Gwil,” said Calendula.
“Is he speaking? Do you hear him?”
“I don’t hear a word so maybe, if you don’t mind, you could translate for me.”
“I would love to! Then we’re still open?”
“For him, yes. What seems to be the problem?” I asked.
“Peter’s gone back to Neverland without him, and Gwil doesn’t know the way.”
“Oh my! I don’t know the way either. Do you?” Calendula shook her head. “Will Peter be coming back?” I asked. “Will anyone else be going?”
Calendula “listened” to answers I was unable to hear, then shook her head once more. “He says you reunited a genie with a lamp. This should be easy.”
“The lamp was practically walking distance away. The genie knew right where it was. I just had to get the two together.”
“Exactly,” said Calendula.
“Is Peter walking distance away?”
“Then what are our options?” I was getting a little frustrated.
“If he could be sewed to your socks, just for the time being, until Peter comes back, then he wouldn’t feel so lost.”
A foster shadow? That’s a new one. “Does he mind that I already have a shadow?”
“Not at all. It would help him out, proportionately. He wouldn’t want to be the wrong size in public. That’s quite a faux pas for his kind.”
“Does it matter that I can’t hear him? I’m just thinking about after you leave.”
“He’ll be fine.”
“I’ve needle and thread in my desk. Let’s do this!” Calendula beamed. “Did he say something?”
“No, I just knew there had to be some sort of misunderstanding.” One day I was going to fall off the pedestal Calendula put me on, and I didn’t want to be there when it happened.
What’s it like having a sentient shadow? Being plagued by the irrational fear that you’ll trip. Or, when you’re sprinting along a pedestrian crossway at an intersection, to beat the changing light, worrying that somehow you’ll outrun your shadow and have to double-back so it can catch up. That people can tell your shadow is different from theirs. Or wondering which other shadows were not so different.
Being a shadow in the urban jungle is like mimicking every splotch on every page in a rapidly fanned “coffee table” book of Rorschach inkblot images. With moving headlights from passing vehicles and towering streetlights from multiple angles all at once, our new friend was constantly adjusting to his hyperactive cityscape. I was very impressed.
The biggest challenge among the two of us, to be honest, was forcing me to look where I was going, when it was much more entertaining to glance behind me or at my feet or at the 2D animation playing out on the otherwise barren wall I was passing.
Honestly, Gwil was like an overearnest new friend who tries hard to be quickly accepted by making bad jokes, some successful and some not. At times, my “shadow” exhibited pointed, floppy elf ears, or two heads or a fancy whip of a tail! I didn’t have to feed him or talk to him, just let him into my clubhouse. I laughed hard and felt bad at the same time.
Ironically, Peter showed up at the office a few days later, as a client, hoping we could help him reunite with his shadow. It was the easiest “missing persons” case I ever had.