A Host Of Shadows

This happened over three years ago, in the early spring of 2008. I am reminded of it every time I turn onto the freeway. PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Sleepy driving is deadly. If you are tired, pull over. Better a ticket than killing yourself or others. Do not assume what saved my ass will save yours.

Two weeks of heavy work. Including weekends. Bossman said he only wanted us there a few hours. Four at the most. It wound up being a 10 hour Saturday and an 8 hour Sunday. Early morning starts, and late arrival at home. Home was no sanctuary, either. My family didn’t understand how a 95 mile commute could take 4 hours. There were things waiting for me at home. Emails from the boss and from the clients. My daughter. My parent’s expectations. I needed sleep.

I was averaging 4 hours of sleep at night. Often broken into chunks because I was emergency technician for one week. What sleep I did get, was of very poor quality. Starbucks was my dealer of choice to get me through. I started skipping lunch and sleeping instead. No place at work where I could chill. The boss even walked the parking lot looking for snoozing employees. If we were on the property, we were supposed to be working. So I went a few blocks away to the shopping mall, set my alarm, and slept in the car.

It was a Thursday. Because Thursdays involved a lot of driving about, I had to come in to the office early to make up the hours. Boss charged the client for our drive time, but only paid us half-rate. The only way to make up the difference was to come into the office early, work the hours required, then not file for driving against him. We still had to document it for the client’s bill. I had finally fallen asleep sometime after two in the morning. I slept through the first alarm at 4:30am, but did hear and wake at the 5:00am alarm.

I was functional in the office. Downed a medium coffee some-kind-of-thing with a shot of extra grit and a shot of extra sugar when I arrived. The receptionist took pity on me and brought me another coffee an hour later. The boss came and said many words to me. Most of them were bullshit. As usual. He appreciated how I was working so hard for the team, etc. Bullshit.

The drive to the client was smooth. I remember very little of it. My morning driving music of choice at the time was Metallica’s S&M Album. Good raging & screaming music. Good for keeping me awake and psyching myself up.

Client kept me busy. Many systems down for stupid reasons. I had to take apart a smashed cabinet to save the computer inside. Someone thought it would be fun to pour metallic glitter in the power supply fan. Someone thought emailing a 450MB file using MS Outlook would be safer than walking 10 feet to the recipient’s desk and handing the thumbdrive directly to him. The few times I had to myself were spent on the toilet or filled with phone calls from the boss.

He wanted to know why I wasn’t logged into my terminal. The terminal that he had a keylogger installed on. The terminal that auto-locked after 2 minutes and logged off after 5 minutes. What was I doing that kept me away from the terminal? Didn’t I get his email, that he had just sent? The one telling me to stay three hours after the client’s closing time to perform an unscheduled (read: emergency) backup?

Went to the factory floor and asked the foreman if he could sneak a cup of coffee to me. I wasn’t allowed to use the managerial break room, and no drinks were allowed on the floor for safety reasons. By this time, I had earned the respect of many of the workers, so within the hour I not only had fresh coffee but a sandwich from the lunch-truck and a thermos of coffee with my name freshly written on it. It helped.

As I went from terminal to terminal, making my rounds, the workers kept me engaged in conversation. It was clear to them that I was about to fall asleep on my feet, and they were doing their best to help me out. What I needed was to give in and nap, but the constant checks by managers prevented me from hiding out somewhere.

The night janitor was informed I would be staying behind for three hours. When he found the technician was a woman, he was not happy. I heard him complaining to his manager how much trouble leaving a woman behind would be. He was worried I would accuse him of harassment to collect a nice paycheck from the company. I lied to the janitor, telling him that my boss had access to all of the security cameras in the building and they were always recording. My boss was a stingy miser, if I filed a claim, he would also be on the hook for setting me here by myself. He would make sure such charges were refuted immediately. The janitor relaxed, and an uneventful three hours began.

It’s now eight o’clock. The emergency backup is completed. Excuse me. Unscheduled backup. The backup program threw so many errors, I had to babysit it for the entire time. No wonder I’m doing this, the hard drives are about to die. I call the janitor and let him know I’m leaving. He apologized for his earlier words. No problem.

What I should have done, was drive to the hospital a few miles away, park in the lot, and get some sleep before heading on home. But I’m more on autopilot than cognitive thinking now. Car. Engine. Drive. Coffee. Restroom. More coffee. Music. Freeway.

I’m so tired. So fucking tired. “Rush hour”. Hurrying up at 15mph. So tired. Turn music up louder. Realize I can’t hear anything. Look around in wonder. I really can’t hear anything. Fumble coffee. It spills on my lap. I can’t feel anything either. Shit. Traffic at complete stop. People are turning off the engines because we’ve been stuck for several minutes now. So tired. I just want to close my eyes forever. So tired.

So …

The hand reached through the window and snatched me forward. The motion jerked me awake and I stomped on the brake pedal in reflex. I came to a full stop a few inches from the car in front of me. Tasting the fullness of sleep on my tongue, I realized something was very wrong. How could a hand reach through the window, when the window was rolled completely up?

I felt someone standing beside the car. After looking around to make sure I hadn’t hit anything, I slowly turned to my left. Peering into my window was a masked face. All black with no marks. Smooth except for the crown of horns.  The eyes behind the mask were a darker black.

“Good. You see me.” I just nodded. “Ah. You hear me now, also.” I nodded more. I looked around, and saw strange wisps of what appeared to be smoke weaving between the stopped cars. “We don’t have time for explanations. I talk. You listen.” Again I nodded.

“You’re sleeping. And you’re awake. Not fully asleep, and not fully awake. If we leave you on your own, you’ll be dead in less than a mile. But we can’t take you where you are, or you’ll be dead in less than a mile. We’re going to help you get home. Alive. But you have to trust us and do as I say.”

A sudden wave of sleepiness pulls my head forward. Before I sound off the car’s horn, a hand gloved in shadow reaches through the glass and pulls me upright. “You’re more sleep than awake if I can touch you. I will not force you to accept our help. And our help does come with a price. But if you survive the trip to your home, I promise you, the price will not be hard to bear.”

“I have no choice. I’m so tired. Very well then. I accept.” It took all of my concentration to say those words to the shadow-man standing outside my window.

“How well can you see your world? By the way, take your foot off the brake and let the car start coasting.” I complied with his command, and started inching forward. But I couldn’t see the car in front of me. Everything was dark getting darker now that the sun was long set. I peered and peered, moving forward in the inky blackness, but I was effectively blind. As the car crept on, the cloaked man walked beside my window.

Another person cloaked in shadow appeared in front of me. Mounted on a steed made of screams and darkness with hollow eyes. I shrieked at the sight and slammed on the brake. Only then, did I see the car just behind the shadow steed. I was so tired, my vision wasn’t working. I would have slammed into the car.

“The obstruction is going to clear soon. You are in great danger. But, you can see us clearly. Do not try to see your world. Watch for us. I will pace beside you, go no faster than me, go no slower than me. I will signal you when a lane change is necessary. My brethren will surround you. As long as you stay in the middle of our ride, you will be safe. Do you understand?”

I swallowed my fear and quietly said I did. I was very afraid. I was sure that I was dead already and this was my escort into the next life.

The speaker mounted his own shadow steed and lifted a great horn from the saddle. He called out a note that shook my bones. The wandering wisps of darkness and smoke coalesced into a mass of mounted shadowmen. “Prepare. We move.”

There were four steeds in front of me, two car lengths ahead. On my right were a line of four steeds. Behind me were four steeds. On my immediate left was the shadow lord of this host. On the other side of him were a line of four steeds. I was completely surrounded by the shadow men. I could not see anything of my world outside of my car. Asphalt, light post, other vehicles, clouds, all was removed from my sight.

The drive home only took two hours, by the reckoning of my watch. It felt like I was driving from California to Texas. True to his word, he and his host kept me safe. When the road was clear, he sped up to the speed limit. When congestion was up ahead, he slowed me down. I could see other cars trying to take advantage of the large buffer zone occupied by the shadowmen. But as soon as one moved into the space, he would quickly leave that space. I knew other people could not see the shadowmen, but they could feel them.

I knew I was close to my turnoff, but I could not see beyond the steeds. I was so tired, I was driving with my eyes closed, relying only on the mental sight of the shadowmen. The shadow lord blew a command on his horn again, the first since his starting command 90 miles ago. All the steeds suddenly raced forward, leaving me unprotected. They formed a line about a mile ahead of me, slanting towards the right. They turned their steeds to face off to the right. It was time for me to leave the freeway, and this was my exit to take.

By now, they had my trust completely. Not being able to see the street lights was of no concern. Again, they surrounded my car and told me when to drive and when to stop. Even the twisty side streets before my house were lined by them. I pulled up into my driveway, completely exhausted. I wanted to fall further into sleep right then.

“Not yet. Get inside. Prepare yourself with your obligations. Tonight, you will repay us for our service to you.” I nod and stumble into the house. My daughter is relieved to see me. She’s been beside herself with a strange worry all day. She tells me to go ahead and go straight to bed. My mother is accusing me of drinking. I’m stumbling like a drunk, she says. And dinner is cold. Where the hell have I been?

I forgo dinner. I hold my daughter tightly, and tell her I’m okay, just tired. I make my obligations, both to the toilet and otherwise, then enter my room.

Just walking in the door, I am greeted with a chilling sight. The shadow lord is in my room. Along with several of his… men. They remind me of Tolkien’s Nazgul, except, darker. They are all cowled, with black masks obscuring their faces. Except for the lord. He has a cowled helm and is standing by the foot of my bed. In one hand, he has a large black sword. In the other hand, the large horn from before.

“You owe us. Are you prepared to render your due?” I nodded as I closed my door. In the distance, I can hear my mother yelling for me. He flips over the corner of my covers with his sword. “Your flesh will be guarded here. But your soul will come with me.” I undress in front of them with no discomfort. There is a small knock on my door. I know it to be my daughter. I look up at the lord. He nods.

“What’s wrong?” “Mommy, I’m worried!” “What are you worried about?” “I saw moving shadows in your room all day and I’m scared!” Whoa. I look back at the shadow lord with an accusatory glance. He only bows slightly. I reassure her, and tell her she has nothing to worry about. “But Mommy is very, very tired and is going straight to sleep, okay?” She give me a kiss and a hug, and tells me she is glad I’m going to bed. She tells me she’ll see me in the morning and bounces away in a much better mood.

I close the door and whisper to the shadow lord. “I’m ready to pay my dues. Begin.” He taps my pillow with his sword. I comply and lay down, pulling the covers around me as the temperature in the room plummets. I blink once. I blink twice. I close my eyes, and see only the darkness within.

I hear the sound of his horn tearing away my lucidity. A sensation of falling. I open my eyes just in time to feel my spirit falling through my bed and floor. My body rests peacefully on the surface of the bed. As my spirit falls, I watch the room, and reality, rise higher and higher above me. A strong arm grabs my spirit and pulls me close. It is the shadow lord. He pulls his horn to his face again, and blows one last world piercing note.

I remember what happened in his world. I paid the debt that was due. The details of which, are not for here. He sent me home the same way he took me. He blew his horn and released me from the service completed.

I woke up twelve hours later. I should have been late for work. Except a unscheduled power outage affected the building I worked at early that morning. My boss called everyone to tell us we had an unscheduled, and unpaid, day off. My mother had caught the call and chose not to bother me, since it was clear how tired I was.

Later that day, I was sent on fool’s errands. As I drove onto the freeway, a fear suddenly clutched at me. But the traffic strangely parted as I came down the acceleration ramp. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a wisp of shadow, moving where no shadow should even be. Over the next couple of days, I noted other traffic related peculiarities that worked in my favor. After a few weeks, I encountered the shadow lord in my dreams. “You did more than what was required of you. We will not forget this. You have noted our favor on you, yes? Good. It will continue.”

I have not seen that shadow lord, nor any of his men again. But the favor still continues. Of course, it could all be a series of coincidences. But the favor works in my favor regardless if I’m driving or if I’m a passenger. It is amusing to hear the driver say, “Usually this stretch of road is horrible traffic, but look! It’s like the freeway itself is making room for me.”. I say nothing, only quietly chuckle.

The shadow lord and his men have been on my mind much these past weeks. I feel obligated to repay their kindness, but I have no idea what to do, what they are, or how to contact them. I know they still watch over me, and have saved my ass from my driving hubris many times. But I don’t want to take undue advantage of them. I want to show my appreciation for them, for the favoring, and for saving my ass that night. I suppose they will reveal themselves to me again if they want.

Make of that, what you may.

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