by Sherry Huang
Art by Sophie Lin
Issue: Phosphene (Summer 2019)
May 24, 2019
At two in the morning, Emma jolted awake with a pounding heart and sweat-coated skin. She quickly drew the blanket around her. Her throat was dry, and although she was afraid, fatigue draped over her body like a heavy curtain. She hadn’t slept well since the nightmares had started. They woke her up twice a week and the moment she opened her eyes, the memory of the nightmare would slip away like, well, like a shadow. She drew the blanket around her tighter.
She didn’t remember what the nightmare was about, but she remembered what it felt like. There had been panic, of course, and the feeling that something was behind her, watching her, and the sudden explosion of terror when she had turned around and seen the thing, whatever it was. But underneath all the fear there had been a different set of emotions that tainted the nightmare like a bad aftertaste.
There had been jealousy, a huge, crushing sense of inadequacy, and strangely enough, admiration.
Emma shook herself violently, inducing a pounding jolt to her forehead. She winced and reached up from her bed to open the window. Midnight air blew in and around her, cooling the sweat on her face. She lay her cheek against the cold side of her pillow and tried to fall back asleep.
Outside, the orange blossoms from the backyard tree were in full bloom. They had a heavy, cloying scent. A tickle brushed the back of Emma’s throat, like the start of a sneeze, and a sudden memory came into her mind.
Two weeks ago (which coincidentally, was when her nightmares had started), Maya had come over when the orange blossoms were blooming and started sneezing violently, complaining between sneezes about allergies, and Emma had laughed and closed the window. They had snacked on potato chips, and Emma had started analyzing Vanessa Han’s instagram, and then—
Emma grasped her blanket with sudden terror and shrank under it. How had she forgotten? It was the first time she had seen the—
May 10, 2019
“—shadow! How does she get her eyeshadow so perfect?” Emma was gushing over Vanessa Han’s profile picture.
Maya looked up in exasperation, “You’ve said that three times already. And your eyeshadow looks just as good.”
“No it doesn’t. And it’s not just eyeshadow, it’s everything else as well. You know she’s super smart? She won some science award and traveled all the way to Washington. I saw her Instagram post, she was shaking hands with this important-looking guy in a suit.
“Lots of people win science awards. I even won one, and that’s saying something.”
“Shut up, you’re smart. Did you know she has this whole art account where she posts paintings and charcoal drawings? It looks frickin’ amazing. And she’s won a bunch of art awards as well.”
“How do you know that?”
“I googled her.”
Maya snorted. “Of course you did.”
Emma went on, her voice reverent. “And that’s not all! She’s popular, she’s pretty, she works part-time at a bookshop, and she even has a boyfriend. Like, come on.” Emma waved her phone in Maya’s face. “It’s not fair! It really isn’t.
Maya put her own phone down. “Can I see?”
“Go ahead. You’ll understand why I’m—”
“I’m not—okay, maybe. I just want to be like her.”
Emma chewed a potato chip solemnly as Maya scrolled through Vanessa Han’s instagram. Or pretended to scroll, because she was actually watching Emma from the corner of her eye.
There was a shadow on Emma’s face, one that Maya had been seeing more and more often. It worried her. Emma was so cheerful all the time, and sometimes it got on Maya’s nerves, but Maya loved it. Heck, she depended on it. Emma was the one to look to for laughter comfort.
But recently, there had been the shadow. And the obsession with Vanessa Han.
Maya bit her lip, trying to figure it out.
In eighth grade, the school had put on a musical for Cinderella. Maya and Emma had both auditioned, except only Maya had gotten in. She remembered Emma’s face, crumpled and crestfallen. The shadow.
Freshman year, tryouts for the volleyball team. Emma hadn’t made it, and the shadow had been in the slump of her shoulders and in the downcast lids of her eyes.
And recently, there had been the internship Emma had applied for but didn’t get in to, the one she’d been talking about for weeks. And the art contest, only of course, Vanessa had won the prize. And suddenly, Maya began to remember lots of little things. Like one lunch, where she found Emma perched on the bench like a lost bird, waiting all by herself.
Like the time she’d seen the chemistry test poking out of Emma’s binder with an angry See Me scrawled on top. Like the time she’d passed by Emma’s house and heard her parents screaming at each other inside. Like all the times she’d seen Emma try and talk to Vanessa, and Vanessa dropping her a mere sentence and a cold shoulder. The shadow hung around Emma like a shroud.
Unease stirred in Maya’s chest. “Emma?”
“You know, Vanessa’s cool, but she’s kind of toxic.”
Emma grinned. “Really? Maybe you’re just jealous.”
“Nah. Okay, a little, but still, you shouldn’t try to be like her. She’s a little… cliquey. Cliquey and toxic, not a good combo.”
“Alright, just let me admire her in peace”. Emma snatched here phone back.
And here came the part Emma would forget about until the night of May 24, until the scent of orange blossoms blew May 10 back into her mind.
On the screen, there was a picture of Vanessa standing in front of a faded mural. Behind her was a dark smear. A shadow. But not Vanessa’s shadow, because Vanessa’s arms were outstretched and this shadow was dark and shapeless.
Holes widened in the shadow like ink blots spreading in water. They formed blank eyes and hollow teeth, and slowly, the teeth stretched into a gruesome grin. It stared up at Emma and it’s smile grew wider and wider and wider—
May 24, 2017
The shadow hung over Emma now, invisible in the dark, staring down at her as she lay wrapped in a blanket and a memory. Up close, it wasn’t such a scary shadow. It was a whisper in the night, not a scream. It was a reflection, not a spirit.
Below, Emma was trying to get back to sleep. You imagined the shadow, idiot. It’s dark and it’s frickin’ three a.m., so don’t even touch that idea…
The shadow waited.
Think of something else, Emma, think of—think of
Now the shadow drew closer.
School. Oh God, it’s going to take me forever to fall asleep.
Holes poked through the shadow to form eyes and an array of teeth. It smiled down at Emma and spoke, whispering into her thoughts, creating her thoughts.
Vanessa hates me. She thinks I’m dumb and pathetic, and she’s right. I mean, look at me.
Wish I could draw like her, but who am I kidding.
The shadow drew closer to Emma’s face.
No one wants to be your friend because you’re so dumb. Maya only talks to you because she feels sorry for you.
The shadow was now an inch from Emma’s face, it’s teeth as wide and hollow as a Jack-o-lantern’s smile.
What a loser.
You’ll never be good enough.
Now, the shadow covered Emma’s body and face like a thin blanket. It’s overlapped her face, the holes aligning with her eyes like a mask. Underneath, a tear traced it’s way from the corner of Emma’s eye onto her pillow. The shadow’s smile was wider than ever.