It only appears at times like this – once a day, after the humans begin to retreat from the darkening sky overhead. The alleys waft the warm stink of waste along the Loud Roads – the colourful ones that speak at night, crooked against windows.
The cat doesn’t realize the arrival of its company right away. Most often at this time it is preoccupied with fat birds strutting over manhole covers. Any striding, human legs have (at least for the moment) coalesced to create their cacophonies of sound behind doors. The birds sit in relative peace bundled together, unperturbed.
The trouble is, the shadow makes no sound but to speak – it chooses when to announce its presence. It has no claws to tap along the ground, no hair to pronounce flicking ears. The shadow is all movement.
Today, it chooses to arrive against the waterspout. The cat is lapping from the slow, shifting puddle of water below. The grey stink of metal is all but absent from the water today, sent to the dark clouds overhead.
“You should be careful.”
The cat startles, turning as it leaps. It lands on the other side of the cramped alley. It abandons the water and begins to walk.
The shadow speaks again. “You haven’t figured it out yet, but water can make you sick. We don’t want that.”
“Scram,” says the cat.
“Can’t,” says the shadow. It’s keeping up easily, sliding against the rough throat of brick. The cat sees the shadow’s tail flick once, as if it’s annoyed too.
The cat leaps on top of a nearby dumpster. One of two lids is open mid-yawn. Behind them, a suspended sign the cat will never read promises vacancy, proud in its light. All the cat sees is noise.
It turns to face the brick of the building and sits. The shadow does too.
“Get out,” says the cat. Its ears push flat against its head. The shadow’s disappear. “Run back to wherever you came from. And stay there.”
The shadow’s ears reappear and flick once: an acknowledgement that it has heard the threat and judged it to be weightless.
“Or what?” laughs the shadow. “Even if you still had your claws, you would only manage to hurt yourself. So unless there comes a day you learn to keep your paws off the ground, you’re mine. Get used to it.”
The cat leaps to the ground, not waiting to see if the shadow will follow. (It will.) The wind laughs for the shadow, combing through the cat’s fur. The cat follows its nose back to the water, the fur along its shoulder blades twitching.
Instead of taking another drink, the cat continues down the alley.
“Nowhere to go,” says the shadow.
Invisible towers lean above the noise, revealed only by their cutout windows.
Tail raised, the cat walks almost pressed against the building walls to avoid human legs and feet. It’s nearly claustrophobic, how close the cat is now to the shadow. The cat feels as if the shadow need not even speak aloud.
But the shadow doesn’t know where the cat is going. Doesn’t know what it has planned. There are, after all, two ways to get rid of a shadow.
The cat stops. A couple of humans sit limp against the building. They smell almost as bad as the ever-empty, stained alley corners.
A hand reaches down and pulls itself across the cat’s back and tail. The cat dashes forward between two thin boards of wood. It stops in the middle of a room, breathing hard. The room is noiseless. Lightless.
One way to vanish a shadow is to envelop yourself in darkness.
This place, closed off from humans, will now be where the cat will abandon its shadow.
The cat waits.
Its eyes come back to life in the dark, and the cat can now see a sloping floor ahead of it, covered by a crowd of chairs standing in rows, waiting at attention, staring blindly ahead.
“This is new.”
The cat turns. It can’t see the shadow, but it doesn’t have to. It knows. The shadow’s voice seems to find purchase on every inch of darkness. “You know,” it says, “I’m not sure if you’re getting smarter… or dumber.”
The cat hisses before charging at the shadow blocking the entrance.
The other way to vanish a shadow is by surrounding yourself with light.
Rotting carpet turns to untamed pavement, then to smooth road.
Confident yellow lines of noise stitch grey together. True noise barbed in spotlights of white and red become waves, and the cat, too late, realizes that it will drown.
Inside a silver car sits a lone occupant. Curved glass and steel cocoon it from its foils, which travel down sidewalks, or fill a bar to the brim. The cocoon offers soft florescent scales of data, should its occupant decide to pay it attention.
Angry noise chokes the cat’s ears. Its eyes are suns; its tail is a forest fire.
After a moment, it is dowsed. There is nothing left.
The silver bullet pulls ahead and stops in front of a neon hotel. The occupant breathes, looking straight ahead, hands still on the wheel. They contemplate breaking the seal of metal to get out. To look.
A horn shouts impatience. Behind is a bus, its occupants many.
Guilt overpowers conscience. They keep driving.
The hotel sign flickers, stepping back from pride to add “NO” to “VACANCY”. The red light spills across the sidewalk, reaching for the edge of the road. The shadow stands, shaking itself from the mangled body. It looks at the body for a moment, still for the first time in a while. Then, wordlessly, it slinks off into the alley like a river flowing back into the sea.
Moments later, it begins to rain.