From the Malafarina Files, ‘Ghost Shadow’ a short story by the master of horror Thomas M. Malafarina

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 by Thomas M. Malafarina

“Thank God this day’s finally over,” Jill Christopher said as she raised herself from her desk chair, stretching. It was 5:05 on Wednesday afternoon on December 12, 2012. The day had been hectic, as they often tended to be, but this one had been a bit stranger than most. Between trying to phone clients and correcting billing errors, she was barraged with emails and visits from coworkers, the subject being that the day was 12/12/2012.

There seemed to be a great enthusiasm in the world about the end of the Mayan calendar coming on December 21, and supposedly many people believed this meant the world would end on that date as well. As a result, some people assumed the coincidence of the triple-twelve occurrence in the date had to have some significant meaning. But as far as Jill was concerned, it meant nothing but one more day she had to try to do the work of three people on her own.

She shut off her computer and turned to leave the office when she noticed something on the window behind her. Jill had no idea why she hadn’t seen it before. Her workday ended at the same time every day, and she followed the same routine, yet she had never seen the sight. On her window was the image of what appeared to be a bird. The thing was perfectly formed and looked like someone had sketched a picture of a bird on the outside of her second-floor window. But this was not a sketch: it was an actual image of a bird on the glass. She was amazed by the clarity of the shadow. A thought immediately ran through her mind. “Ghost shadow,” she heard a small voice say inside her. But she knew there were no such things and that no matter how perfectly the image appeared, its formation based on science rather than the supernatural.

She took three steps to the left, and the image disappeared. Only a barely recognizable remnant remained. Then she took two steps to the right of her original position with similar results. Only when she stood at that spot could she see the entire image. She reached over to her desk and pulled off two long strips of tape. She found the optimal viewing position and made an ‘X’ on the floor with the tape.

Next, using her smartphone, Jill snapped several pictures of the image she saw on the window. She checked the photos on her phone and was thrilled with the quality. She immediately emailed one of the best shots to her husband, Todd, a horror fiction writer. She knew he would enjoy seeing the picture and was confident it would stimulate his creative juices. Jill could hear movement in the cubicle next to hers and realized her coworker, Marie, had not yet left for the day.

“Marie? Are you still here?” Jill asked.

Marie hesitated for a moment, then replied with a bit of hesitation. “Um … yeah … I’m still here. So is Josie. I hope you don’t have something urgent for me to do. I was hoping to get out of here on time tonight.”

“No. Nothing like that,” Jill replied. “I just wanted to show you something over here. Bring Josie with you. This is too cool to miss.”

When Marie and Josie rounded the corner of Jill’s cubical wearing curious expressions, they found Jill standing on the tape ‘X’ on the floor and staring at the window. Without looking at them, she gestured for them to come closer and said, “Quick, stand on this ‘X’ and look at the back window.”

Marie looked strangely at Jill but did as instructed, and her face illuminated with an expression of complete amazement. “Oh, my word!” Marie exclaimed. “Just look at that. It’s… it’s incredible!” Marie was a large woman of about sixty-three with curly gray hair and perpetually smiling eyes. Those eyes were now staring at the window with astonishment. She said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this before.”

“What is it?” Josie asked, standing off to the side and unable to see the image. “What are you looking at?”

“A bird, I think,” Marie said. “I think it’s some sort of image of a bird on the window. I wonder how it got there.”

Jill explained, “I think what may have happened is a bird must have flown into the window sometime and most likely broke its neck and died. Bird feathers are oily and collect dust and dirt particles. I bet the image results from that oily dust residue sticking to the window at the time of impact. It probably has been there for months, but for some reason, the sun must be at just the right position for us to see it today.”

“But it’s so perfect, so complete!” Marie said. “It’s as if the bird’s soul was imprinted on the glass.”

“I want to see it!” Josie exclaimed. Josie was a young woman in her mid-twenties. She had divorced her alcoholic and abusive husband a year earlier. Since becoming single, Josie had embarked on a mission to find spiritual enlightenment. She had experimented with numerology, Hinduism, Buddhism, and most recently, Christianity. She was currently a member of a storefront fundamentalist Christian church and had become “born again” just a month earlier.

From how Josie spoke of her church, both Jill and Marie felt this church was more of a cult than an aboveboard religious organization. Plus, both knew in the modern workplace that negative discussions about someone’s race, religion, or such were grounds for disciplinary action, up to including termination. They tried to warn her about such groups but had to tread softly not to hurt her feelings or risk alienating their coworker with her fragile and needy psyche.

Josie stood on the ‘X’ and stared at the window transfixed. “Oh, my sweet Lord!” Josie said. She had been using that expression a lot since her conversion. “It’s… it’s… incredible!”

“It’s simply a collection of dust on the surface of the glass.” “Yes, it is very interesting, Josie, but it’s just bird dust,” Jill said, trying to keep Josie’s growing enthusiasm under control. She knew her coworker too well and could tell she was getting overzealous at seeing the image.

Marie interjected, “Looks like the bird left his soul on the window to me.” She was not helping matters.

“You’re both wrong!” Josie said. “It’s not a bird or a bird’s soul. Look at it closely. It’s the image of an angel. It’s a sign! It’s a true miracle!”

“Don’t be silly,” Jill said, trying to dampen Josie’s enthusiasm somewhat. She wanted to say “don’t be ridiculous” or, more accurately, “don’t be such an idiot.”

Josie said even louder, “I’m telling you … it’s a message from God! Today is 12-12-12; that’s significant. It means something. Can’t you feel it?” She pulled out her smartphone and snapped several pictures.

Jill realized Josie was mixing her study of numerology with her Christianity and putting extreme significance on the date. Things were starting to get out of hand very quickly. She had to do something.

“Josie. Relax.” Jill pleaded. “It’s just a bird. Nothing more. The bird is long dead, and it’s just a dust shadow.”

Josie asked, “Well, if it’s a dead bird, where’s the body? If I go downstairs and look out on the back patio, I’ll bet there won’t be any signs of a bird.”

Jill was beginning to lose patience with Josie, “Look, Josie. In the first place, I have no idea how long ago this happened. We’ve only been in the building for two months. It could have happened anytime. Maybe one of the construction workers disposed of the bird’s body. Who knows? There’s a forest no more than one hundred feet behind us; maybe scavengers drug its body into the woods and picked it clean. We’ll probably never know what happened to it.”

“That’s because nothing happened to it.” Jill insisted. “There was no body because there was no bird. This miracle was an angelic imprint on the window that I was meant to see. I am to be the deliverer of the message. God has spoken to me through this sign.”

Just when Jill was about to lose her temper and call Josie an out-of-control whacko completely, they heard a booming voice from behind them. “What’s going on over here?” It was their general manager, Sid Emerich. “I’m trying to run a business here. What’s all this crazy talk about angels and miracles?” Sid walked over to the small group of women, and as he did, Jill saw several others enter her work area. Amy Jamison from accounts payable, Cindy Smith from HR, and that strange new Goth-looking girl Sandy or Sarah from the IT department.

Jill didn’t care much for her dark clothing, heavy makeup, and various facial piercings, not to mention her prominent tattoos. She didn’t feel this was proper office attire and couldn’t begin to imagine how this young woman made it through the interview process and somehow managed to get hired.

“Mr. Emerich! It’s a miracle!” The overly excited Josie shouted while waving her left arm high in the air and clutching her cross necklace with the right. “God has sent us a sign, an angelic symbol on the window!”

Jill stepped forward in a final attempt to smooth over the escalating confrontation. “Sorry about all this commotion, Mr. Emerich. It’s nothing at all, just a dust shadow from some bird that must have flown into the glass.”

“Let me see this!” Emerich said, shoving Josie aside. Emerich stood directly on the ‘X’ and looked at the window like the others had done. Emerich turned to the group without emotion and said, “Jill is correct. It’s just a dusty shadow. Nothing more.”

“I think it’s an angel; I know it is.” Josie insisted. “This is a sign from God, Hallelujah! Praise be to the Lord on high! Jesus is coming, and all you sinners better be ready!”

Emerich fumed with rage and shouted, “That’s entirely enough of that crazy cackling from you, young lady! There’ll be no more of such idiotic gibberish permitted in my office! Is that clear?” Emerich had a habit of stressing the importance of his proclamations by ending them with the phrase “Is that clear?” or “Have I made myself clear?” or another similar variation. It usually got people to snap to attention but didn’t seem to have the same effect on Josie.

“How dare you blaspheme the Lord!” Josie shouted right back at him. “And how dare you criticize me and my beliefs. You are creating a hostile work environment and discriminating against me because of my religion. And that, Mr. Emerich, is illegal.”

Josie stared directly at Cindy Smith, who looked like she would rather have been anywhere than where she was. “Cindy. You tell him. You’re our Human Resources Manager, or at least you’re supposed to be. Tell him he can’t criticize me or threaten me because of my religious choices.”

Cindy looked dumbfounded as her eyes nervously darted between Josie and Emerich. Eventually, those eyes stopped at Emerich, and she shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “She’s right, boss. Our hands are tied here.”

In the meantime, Sarah the Goth girl had taken a few more steps into the area, and following behind her was Josie’s boss, Phil Ralston.

Emerich’s face reddened with anger at the realization that he could do nothing to stop Josie’s outlandish behavior, and he shouted, “Fine! Believe whatever the Hell you want to believe. But this is a place of business, not a revival tent. And it’s the end of the workday for most of you, so I strongly suggest you all go home, and we will all start fresh tomorrow morning.”

“That’s fine with me,” Josie shouted right back at him, “But I’m warning you, Mr. Emerich, if you have anyone wash that miraculous sign off the window, I will sue you personally as well as this company for religious persecution and for creating a hostile work environment.”

Emerich looked as if his head were about to explode, and Jill thought he might reach out and wrap his hands around Josie and strangle her to death. But instead, he looked over at Cindy Smith, who slowly shook her head, warning him he had better back down and keep his cool. Emerich turned and stormed out of the area without another word, grabbing Phil Ralston by the arm and leading him away from the group.

They went into Phil’s office, and Emerich slammed the door shut, shouting with uncontrolled anger, “That little holy rolling bitch works for you, is that right, Ralston?”

“Y—ye—yes, Mr. Emerich. She does,” Ralston replied, realizing he was about to be put into a very unpleasant situation.

“Starting first thing tomorrow,” Emerich bellowed, “you have a new top priority. I want you to start collecting paper on that little bible-thumping psycho. If she forgets to dot an ‘i’—document it. If she forgets to cross a ‘t’—document it. Every time she says one word to one of her coworkers about religion, God, or miracles, I want it documented. Even if she farts, burps or sneezes, I want it down on paper. By the end of next month, I want that mouthy bitch fired! Is that clear?”

Ralston tried to stand up for Josie to the best of his ability. “But … but, Mr. Emerich. Josie’s a good worker, one of the best I have. She’s been through a lot in her personal life and still manages to do a good day’s work for the company. I think asking me to fire her just because she got a bit overzealous today is somewhat rash, don’t you think?”

“No, I most certainly do not think,” Emerich shouted. “She’s got to go. And as her supervisor, it is your job to make it happen.” Then he looked oddly at Ralston and suggested, “You don’t mean to tell me you and that Josie are playing ‘slap and tickle’ are you, Ralston? You know how I feel about my managers dipping their pens in the company ink.”

“No. Absolutely not, Mr. Emerich. I would never—I never have …” Ralston stammered. The truth was, Ralston was only about ten years older than Josie, and his wife had divorced him a year or so earlier, and he was quite attracted to Josie, despite her quirks. Although he couldn’t start a relationship with her, he did his best to take care of her and watch over her on the job.

Emerich said, “Good thing, Ralston. Because unless you want to join her among the ranks of the unemployed, you’d better find a way to get rid of her before the end of the month. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Emerich,” Ralston said, “I understand.” But Phil Ralston didn’t understand. Under normal circumstances, he disliked Sid Emerich, but today he despised the man for what he was forcing Phil to do.

“Now go back there and break up that mob. Send them all home, and maybe after a good night’s sleep, all of this nonsense will die down.”

Reluctantly, Phil did as instructed and unhappily made his way down the hall toward Jill’s cubicle. To his surprise, when he got back to the area, everyone was gone except for that new girl, Sarah, who was staring at the window and tucking her smartphone into her coat pocket.

“Well,” Ralston said, trying to sound as unconcerned as possible, “I suppose I should take a look at this bird shadow that is causing so much commotion.”

The girl didn’t reply. She walked silently past him, and as he took his place on the ‘X,’ just as she turned the corner, he heard her say to herself, “It’s not a bird, and not an angel either. At least not a heavenly angel.”

Ralston thought the remark to be a bit peculiar but ignored it. As he saw the image of the bird appear on the window, he said, “Remarkable! It’s almost perfect in every way.”

Sarah walked out of the building heading for her car. She held onto her smartphone tightly in her coat pocket. Sarah had gotten plenty of good shots of the image with her phone. She knew in her heart it was no bird shadow and most certainly was no angel, but it was a sign. And it was not a sign from Heaven, but Hell. Sarah recognized a signal from the Dark One, her master when she saw it. Today was 12-12-12, and Satan had chosen to make her aware of his coming. She was honored to be the chosen one, the messenger to deliver the news of his coming to his disciples.

That night the Internet was a very busy place indeed. Jill decided to send her copy of the photo to the Weather Channel, which posted it in their animal photos section. She was thrilled that it was chosen and told all her Facebook friends about it.

But she wasn’t the only one spreading the news of the image. Josie had sent a copy of the picture to her church’s website, where hundreds of parishioners viewed it. Plus, she was going to email the image to all of her friends and relatives and post it on her own Facebook page, proclaiming the coming of the Lord. Likewise, Sarah spread the word through the various forms of social media she and her group of worshipers regularly used that she was the messenger of the Dark Lord and that the seventh seal had been broken, announcing the coming of Satan. The result was that virtually everyone in the area had seen the image on the window by midnight, and each had their own interpretations of what it might mean.

Jill had all but forgotten about the ghost shadow by the next morning. It had been interesting and unique but nothing more. That’s why she was caught completely off guard when she got close to work and saw hundreds of cars parked for more than a mile along both sides of the highway leading to her office. She also noticed several news vans and trucks and saw camera crews walking around to the backside of the office building. She looked up and was surprised to see a news helicopter hovering above the back of the building. She wondered what in the world was happening.

Jill slowly navigated through the sea of pedestrians, eventually making it into her assigned parking space. She was thankful security managed to keep the cars on the highway and out of the company parking lot. As she approached the front door, she picked up snippets of conversations, and her heart thudded in her chest as she realized what was happening and the potential ramifications to her.

It was the ghost shadow, that image of the bird on the window. She had been the first one to see it. She had sent it to the Weather Channel, and they had posted it on their website. Was it possible that the picture had gone viral overnight? If so, that meant that thousands or millions of people had seen the picture. As she walked up the stairs to her second-floor cubical, she prayed that she was wrong and that all these people might not be there because of her stupid posting. She wondered if Mr. Emerich would blame this on her and maybe fire her for it. Her gut clenched when she thought about it. For her to get fired in this crappy economy would be devastating.

Things didn’t seem much better when she turned the corner to her cubical and saw Sid Emerich, Phil Ralston, and a few other senior staff members standing by the window looking down into the back area of the building. Even from her location, Jill could see hundreds of people had filled the space. She heard Emerich say, “She should be terminated immediately for this!”

Jill’s stomach sank. Her worst fear had suddenly become a reality because of that stupid picture. She had no idea what she and Todd would do once she was out of work. She took an involuntary step back around the corner so she could still hear their conversation without being seen. She heard her immediate supervisor, Phil Ralston say, “I have to agree with you on this, Sid. I suppose they both have to go.”

“Both?” Jill wondered. “Who else were they talking about?”

“Most definitely,” Emerich said. “Both that holy-roller Josie and that devil-worshiping heathen new girl, Sarah. And the sooner, the better.”

Jill suddenly felt a surge of relief. They weren’t after her; they weren’t going to shoot the messenger. Apparently, Josie and Sarah had done something to cause the media circus, which was occurring behind the building.

“I’ve had my secretary put in a call to both the local and state police. They should be arriving shortly. In the meantime, I’m going downstairs and put a stop to this once and for all,” Emerich said. “And I want you all to come with me as a show of force and solidarity.” Jill peeked around the corner and saw the four of Emerich’s staff members look at him, then each other with uncertainty. She didn’t know what was happening outback, but it was clear that none of Emerich’s staff wanted to be part of it.

Emerich turned to head down, followed by his reluctant managers. Jill ducked into an empty office just in time not to be seen. She figured she had somehow been lucky enough this time, and there was no reason for them to see her and possibly be reminded that it was she who first saw the image. Out of sight, out of mind, she thought.

When they had all passed by and were a safe distance down the hall, she ducked around the corner and walked toward the window where the ghost shadow was faintly visible in the morning sun. True, it was not as prominent or recognizable as it had been the previous evening, but she could still make out its faint image.

As she got closer to the window, she saw a sight she could hardly believe. The entire back lot of the building from the back entrance to the forest edge was a sea of people; hundreds of them. They all appeared to be excited, if not agitated, to the point of hysteria.

When she looked closer, she could see that the crowd seemed to be divided into two groups. On the right side of the mob were people wearing crosses and dressed in bright colors. Some were even dressed in robes and vestments, resembling a church choir. They were shouting such things as Halleluiah and the like. Some were singing songs of praise. Some carried gold crosses mounted on wooden poles, and others had brought hand-made signs reading such slogans as “Jesus is Coming,” “Repent,” and “The End Is Near.”

Despite the December cold, a few were shirtless and beating their backs bloody with long knotted ropes and thin tree branches. Jill believed the practice was called self-flagellation or something like that. She had read about it once but had never seen it before. After today, she hoped never to see it again.

The members of the left side of the crowd were the antithesis of those on the right. These people wore dark clothing, primarily leather, spiked with shiny silver studs. Jill had never seen so many different types of body piercings or tattoos in her life. It was like being in the front row at a heavy metal concert. Some of these people also carried signs with slogans like “Prepare for the Coming Of Satan” and “The Dark Master Approaches.” Sarah was at the front of the crowd dressed in a much more sinister type of dark clothing than she had ever worn to work, raising her fist high in the air and angrily shouting something indiscernible through the thick glass. Jill saw to the right; Josie stood at the front angrily shouting something back at Sarah.

It appeared to Jill that both sides of the crowd closest to each other were shouting angrily back and forth. Suddenly it was clear what had happened and why Emerich wanted to fire the two women. Both had interpreted the image in a way that best served their belief system. And this flash pilgrimage of sorts was the result.

Although Jill was no scholar in the field of human behavior, she knew instinctively that no good could come of these two groups with such opposite beliefs being put into a stressful situation so close to each other. Each group was convinced that the image on the window was a sign from their chosen God and that they were right and the other group was wrong. Even though the thick insulated glass of the window, Jill could hear the constant buzz of the multitude of voices growing even louder, blending into a dull roar. She could see both sides’ angry, hateful expressions as they shouted and berated each other. Jill felt as if she were standing on the rim of a volcano, waiting for it to blow.

Behind the crowd were the members of the media with cameras and microphones watching and waiting. Jill could tell they, too, knew something bad was about to happen. But instead of trying to do something to calm people, they seemed to be studying the crowd and panting with anticipation like swarming sharks smelling blood in the water.

Suddenly she felt a vibration under her feet and realized the back double doors of the office had opened. She heard the booming baritone of Sid Emerich trying futilely to be heard over the ever-increasing din of the crowd. She couldn’t make out what Emerich was saying, but knowing Sid, he was ordering everyone to disperse immediately and leave his property.

As the voices grew louder and the tempers began to follow suit, Jill noticed some zealots on both sides start to push and shove each other. She didn’t know if the reason for the shoving was to try to get a closer look at the image on the window or if it was simply a result of their disdain for each other. All the while, Emerich continued to shout back at them, and the press continued photographing and filming, waiting for the imminent explosion of human emotion.

Then it happened. No one would ever know for sure which side did it or even why, but suddenly from the back center of the crowd where both sides blended reluctantly together, a large rock was thrown, striking Sid Emerich hard on the left temple. He dropped immediately to the ground—dead. Soon another rock flew and hit Phil Ralston square in the eye. He shouted in pain and anger as his hand reflexively reached up to cover the punctured orb, which oozed blood and vitreous matter, and which would never see again.

Jill watched helplessly from her window, staring through the image of the bird shadow as the two sides erupted into a storm of violence. Like ancient warriors on the field of battle, the two opposing crowds merged in a flurry of swinging fists as what seemed like gallons of blood spilled to the ground. As the madness spread through the crowd like wildfire, moans of pain and thumping of flesh against flesh were everywhere

When it was all over, thirty-two people died, including Josie and Sarah. More than one hundred and twenty people were severely injured, with seventy-five requiring hospitalization for significant injuries. Several days later, seven more would die at the hospital from complications suffered on that day. Some of the injuries and deaths directly resulted from blows received during the scuffle, and sadly, many were trampled to death by the surging crowd. The entire event was caught on film by the media, who were safely out of the zone of violence, yet the melee was so chaotic that no charges could be filed on anyone. The press had back row seats at a visage that could only be described as mankind at its worst.

Later, after the state and local police had regained control of the situation and the dead and wounded were removed, Cindy Smith from HR walked through the building, checking to see how many workers had been wise enough to stay inside and were safe. Cindy found Jill sitting on the floor, leaning against the glass window, staring up at the ghost shadow. She seemed shocked, and her lips moved as if quietly repeating something.

Cindy asked, “Jill, honey. Are you all right?” Jill didn’t respond but kept staring at the image and mumbling the exact elusive phrase. Jill said, “Sometimes a bird is just a bird.”

About Author Thomas M. Malafarina
Thomas M. Malafarina (www.ThomasMMalafarina.com) is an author of horror fiction from Berks County, Pennsylvania. He was born in Ashland, Schuylkill County where he lived until moving to Berks County in 1979. Many of Thomas’s stories take place in his native Schuylkill County as well as Berks County settings. Thomas’s books are published by Hellbender Books, an imprint of Sunbury Press of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

To date, he has published eight horror novels What Waits Beneath, Burner, From The Dark, Circle Of Blood, Dead Kill Book 1: The Ridge of Death, Dead Kill Book 2: The Ridge Of Change, Dead Kill Book 3: The Ridge Of War and Death Bringer Jones, Zombie Slayer Volume 1. He has published seven collections of horror short stories; Thirteen Deadly Endings, Ghost Shadows, Horror Classics, Undead Living, Malaformed Realities Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Vol. 4, and most recently Vol. 5. Volumes 6 and 7 are to be released in the near future. He has also published a book of often-strange single-panel cartoons called Yes I Smelled It Too; Cartoons For The Slightly Off Center and will soon publish Yes I Smelled It 2: More Cartoons For The Slightly Off Center. All of his books are published through Hellbender Books, an imprint of Sunbury Press.(www.Sunburypress.com).

In addition, many of Thomas’ stories have appeared in more than 170 anthologies and e-magazines. Some have been produced and presented for internet podcasts and radio plays as well. Thomas has shared anthology pages with some of the biggest names in horror fiction such as Jack Ketchum, Joe Lansdale, Jonathan Maberry, and Lucky McKee to name a few.

Thomas is best known for the ironic twists and surprises in his stories as well as his descriptive, often gory passages. Thomas is also an artist, musician, singer, and songwriter.

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