When Alice was little, she was usually rather on the merry side. She rarely cried, she considered her failures little more than plot twists and she was always looking for ways to prove herself. She needed to be the best at everything. Everything was a competition. She even made family dinners something of a race – always finishing her meal first like it was another victory in her already achievement filled day.
Her parents didn’t discourage her – her father saw this as something that would drive his daughter to do great things one day and her mother simply said ‘She’s so spirited!’.
Even though Alice couldn’t understand it at the time – and what she didn’t understand couldn’t possibly bother her or get her mood down – her drive to be better than everyone else, didn’t really sit with other children and their parents. They saw her as single minded to the point of recklessness and even dangerous. Perhaps they were just envious, or perhaps there was a darker side to Alice – a side that would do anything it takes to achieve her next goal.
Swoosh and CRACK. Alice’s sleeve had caught on the handle of her mug and she pulled it off the table when she moved. She jumped, knocking her chair over. More crashes and bangs. She couldn’t deal with all the noise anymore. Looking around her apartment, she saw shadows everywhere. What was hiding in the shadows? Were they back? Was she alone? Was she imagining it all?
Her eyes were red, face blotchy. She’d been crying again. Tired, so tired. All the time. Exhausted. Was today the day she could finally end it? She looked down at the broken pieces of the cup. They looked quite sharp. She tentatively picked one piece up. So many thoughts racing through her head. Memories of other nights like this. Of the shadows. Forever lurking, just beyond the rays of the solitary light blazing above the table.
It was unbearable. She gripped the shard and pulled decisively across her arm. She felt no pain. Nothing happened. Shadows whispered to her louder. They were angry. Alice slashed at her arm again and again, but to no avail. Not even a scratch appeared.
The shard fell from her slack fingers and she dropped to her knees. Tears were running down her face again. ‘Stop it,’ she sobbed. ‘Please, let me go. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,’ she cried feebly. There wasn’t an ounce of strength left in her to go on. She wanted to go to sleep and stay there. Even her usual questions weren’t fighting for a place on her mind. Gone. Even the desperate ‘Why me?’ had left her.
Silent tears kept falling down her face, her breathing shallow. She was letting the fear take over – anything to escape the reality of her life.
After a while, Alice crawled to the dirty couch next to the table. It was one of the very few pieces of furniture in the room. She didn’t feel like she deserved any more. Even this was too much. Nevertheless, there was the tiniest part of her that longed to curl up on this rat eaten piece of junk with springs sticking out in odd angles that prodded her through her clothes whenever she didn’t feel herself enough to resist this luxury.
Not this time though. She just lay next to the couch on the bare floor, hiding in the shadow of it. She’d succumbed. Too weak to resist the whispers, she let the shadows in.
Gleefully they seeped in through her skin, feeding the fire that would refuse to go out. Like the first time all those years ago.
How could she possibly still remember? She’d been so young, so foolish. Just a child. And yet she remembered.
She remembered how she had always wanted to be first, be the best. She remembered how hard it had been to achieve. She remembered how one night, on the verge of falling asleep in her bed, she felt the shadows talk to her. They talked to her all night.
When Alice opened her eyes in the morning, she didn’t feel like her usual self. She felt tired and her maple leaf patterned sheets were crumpled like she’d been tossing and turning all night. When she looked around in her small bedroom, nothing was out of the ordinary. Her stuffed toys were still looking up at her from the floor by her night cabinet. Her school things were still on the white wooden desk under the window. Her wardrobe doors were still ajar with jumper sleeves and trouser legs sticking out.
Yet something felt different. It felt like someone had come with a huge brush and painted everything just a slightly different shade. Or moved every piece of furniture just slightly away from where they should have been. And the shadows that every item in her room cast, felt just a bit more menacing than they used to.
It felt strange, but she didn’t have time to pay much attention to it. She got dressed in her usual jeans, t-shirt and jumper and bolted out the door.
Had she paid more attention, would she have noticed how her shadow didn’t move quite with her, but always seeming to stay just a fraction ahead of her movements? Or if he’d delved deeper in her thoughts and feelings, could she have detected a tiny fire that had started in her, telling her that she should spare no means to get to the top and trample down anyone who dared get in her way?
It was morning. Alice lifted her head an inch off the floor but fell back down almost immediately. Tired. So tired. Exhausted of being terrified of her own shadow. Drained of constantly being alert to what terrible thing was going to happen next – what terrible thing she was going to do next.
Sleep. She just wanted to sleep.
But already she saw her shadow move.
Alice knew she had to get up. Staying behind her shadow wasn’t an option. Inexplicably, as excruciating as it was, she had to keep going. Giving up was physically impossible. She’d tried. Again and again. Impossible.
She had to get on her trembling feet, resting with her hands on her bony knees half way up, and then stretch to her full height. He legs were shaking as she opened her eyes, still puffy and crusted from the tears, looking around in her tiny apartment. She saw the rickety wooden table with its paint peeled off so she could only guess what colour it had once been. The only chair in the place still lay knocked down next to it from last night. The couch she was standing next to – oh, how she longed to throw herself in its waiting embrace and forget about everything that was happening. Forget about the things lurking just behind her vision. Ever present. Whispering. Shouting. Feeding the flames in her.
Suddenly rage burned in her. Rage at how unjust it was. The ‘Why me?!’ was back. If she couldn’t give up, she had to keep fighting. She had to find a way out. She had to! She couldn’t going on hurting everyone around her, hurting herself. Although, after everything she had done she felt that she deserved this and everything else that hell could rain upon her. Such remorse, she felt like it was pulling her apart. She gave in to it, hoping that it would tear her to millions of pieces.
She did her best to keep up her shield of rage. It lit another fire next to the strange one that, once so familiar, now felt alien to her. The desire to be the best no matter the cost was no longer her own. She could not embrace it, she could not give in to it. She had to be strong and fight it. Because ‘no matter the cost’ was a high price to pay indeed.
So she had been the best in class throughout her school years – but what of Penelope Woods? She had been the truly clever one with a brilliantly bright future ahead of her. Until it was taken from her. Alice’s threats had made sure she was too scared to ever speak up. She knew what happened if she defied Alice. She had seen it happening. She had seen it again and again throughout the years. So she stayed silent. She lost any interest in her studies. She lost interest in life. The last news Alice had of her said that Penelope had been caught in a firefight between two drug gangs whilst waitressing at a 24/7 diner. It didn’t say whether she survived.
Marissa Bollard had broken a leg when she was about to beat Alice in an inter school race. She’d been in a wheelchair ever since. Billy Clifford had fallen down the stairs when he applied for the same job as Alice and for which he was better suited. He’d broken his neck and died. The list went on. She remembered them all. She repeated their names in her lowest moments, willing herself to sink even deeper. Punishing herself.
It hadn’t been like this in the beginning. She had been a bright and athletic child, naturally excelling in everything she did. It’s when she started to see that there are others better than her, that it started. Not able to stand the idea of being the first loser – coming second – she’d maliciously wished ill upon her competition. It worked, and the fire – the desperate feverish desire – grew ever stronger. Alice became ruthless. Marissa was tripped. Billy was pushed. Her own sister had been slapped, kicked, beaten and humiliated until she was a shadow of her former bubbly self. Until she took her own life.
The rage was gone. All that was left was remorse. Alice screamed. It sounded inhuman, blood curdling. She lurched forward, throwing herself on the splintered chair leg that was sticking up in the air.
Once again the shadows laughed at her. They were not going to release their hold. Even though she no longer thrived on their power and was growing increasingly cumbersome, they still found her somewhat amusing. Puny human. Pathetic. Worthless. Something to be toyed with.
Wailing, snot and spit dribbling down her hollow face, Alice screamed until she could scream no more. Her voice was reduced to little more than a feeble rasp. Nobody heard. Nobody cared. She was alone. Unable to let go. She had tried. Again and again.
Her shadow was moving once again. More urgently this time. She knew there was no escape. It had allowed her to despair as it found it entertaining every now and again. Now it was time to go.
Not seeing or caring where she was going, she let the fire inside her lead her forward to whatever lay ahead.
Forcing herself to put one foot in front of the other she made her way to the door. It was mind numbingly slow going. It was the only way Alice knew. Being made to leave her sanctuary – the only place where she couldn’t hurt anyone – was not something she was going to speed along. She had all the time in the world. It was her last means of showing any defiance. Her last way of showing the shadows that they hadn’t won the war yet.
Reaching the door, she hesitated. She saw the shadow of her hand grab the handle and knew what she had to do. In slow motion she raised her hand and touched the door handle with the tips of her fingers. It felt cold. Icy. She grabbed it and pushed it down. It wasn’t locked. It never was these days. Oh how she longed for someone to simply break in. To discover her. To punish her. Perhaps to end it, if she was lucky.
Alice stepped out into a well-lit hallway. Directly opposite her was a beautiful door – with its intricate carvings painted white with the rest of it, a golden handle gleaming in the light from the elaborate chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling. It looked exactly like every other door she could see. Exactly like the one she had just opened.
She didn’t bother closing the door behind her – there was always someone who was offended by what was visible through it who would close it -, but dragged her feet on the soft red carpet that ran along the marble floor, towards the golden elevator at the end of the hallway.
Pressing the up button, she waited. She could hear the gentle whirring of the lift and then a soft clang when it came to a stop on her floor. The golden doors parted and Alice was greeted by more marble and large mirrors.
Keeping her head down she pressed the button to the top floor. The lift started to move with an almost unnoticeable lurch. Seconds passed. Another gentle vibration ran through the elevator when it came to a stop. The doors opened and she looked out to a hallway that looked exactly like the one she had just left. Without lifting her eyes off the floor she made her way to the stairs just right of her and started to climb them, one at a time. The elevator didn’t go that high.
When she reached the top, her way was blocked by a heavy door. She pushed it open, knowing that it would not be locked. Her shadow had taken care of that. She had seen it move just a fraction ahead of her own.
She stepped outside and looked up properly for the first time since leaving her apartment. The sky was nearly black with clouds and it was raining. Big heavy drops landing rapidly one after another. She was outside. She had been defeated by the shadows again. They had won this battle.
Quickening her step a little, Alice headed towards the edge of the building. She broke into a run, nearing the edge. Her heart skipped a beat when he reached the end of the roof and pushed off it into nothingness.
In the beginning she had enjoyed this moment the most. Then she had hoped it would be her end. Now she loathed that piece of herself. The part that made everything so real. The part that was solid proof of the shadows who owned her, and their powers.
She closed her eyes as she soared towards the ground, and feeling for the right moment, she stretched out her arms – and the wings followed. They looked like they were made of shadows themselves – their span huge, their colour darker than the most solid black, yet looking like a gust of wind could blow through them. Her certain plummet to death now turned into an elegant arch, avoiding the other buildings around her. Looking for her next victim like a bird of prey or Death herself.
It was time to hunt.
Her powerful wings beat slowly, enough to keep her airborne and moving forward at a steady pace. Where was he?
Alice’s head was throbbing and spinning, her lungs seemed to be unable to fill, her whole body was aching – her subconscious trying to pull her out of it, but failing. The shadows around her enjoyed this part too much.
She spotted her quarry. Pulling her enormous wings together, she dived – a maneouvre she had practised to near perfection over time. When she was mere feet away from plunging to her death, – she wished – she pushed her wings out to slow her fall and land elegantly behind a man in a light grey suit holding a black umbrella above his head. He was of medium build, dark blonde hair, somewhat handsome but not remarkably so.
He was on the phone.
‘Yes… Yes… I know… Would you stop it already?! I told you, I’ll get it done,’ he growled through gritted teeth before angrily pressing the red button on his phone to end the call. He turned around, his expensive looking briefcase flinging in the air.
Everything stopped. The suitcase was still hovering beside the man in an unnatural angle. A mild surprise had begun to manifest on the man’s face. His legs were awkwardly half way through the step to turn around. Even the raindrops seemed to have stopped to witness what was happening.
Alice wrapped her wings around him, looking straight into his eyes. She could see a fire in them. Burning desire to prove himself. Not caring who got in his way. ‘How familiar,’ she thought with disgust.
Alice plucked a feather from her wings – more of a thought than an actual tangible piece – and put it in the inside pocket of the man’s jacket. He’d find it there, she was certain of it.
Sighing deeply she searched the man’s face once more. Looking for any clues that would prove her wrong. Desperate to find something there that could still save him. She found nothing.
He was doomed and Alice had been the one to make sure of it. There was no going back for him once he found what she had left for him.
Spreading her wings once more she took off, flying away. Away, anywhere but here. She didn’t care where she ended up. Away.
Buildings flew by in a blur, she was going so fast, faster than she’d gone ever before. Soon the tall city buildings were gone, replaced by smaller houses and trees, driveways full of family cars. Alice didn’t notice any of it.
She also didn’t notice the shadow ahead – the shadow cast by nothing. She flew straight at it, but instead of passing through it, she slammed into it with a monstrous force.
She had just enough time to realise she was hurting like she hadn’t done in a very long time before everything went dark and quiet.