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White Shadows

by Julie Wornan

The dull brass sign said, “Henry Sellers, Psychiatrist.” Impulsively, Ellen rang the bell.

The waiting room was austere, dusty, and empty. Then the psychiatrist came out, escorting the last patient. When he noticed Ellen his eyebrows went up. “Do you have an appointment?” he asked, somewhere between irked and hopeful.

“No,” said Ellen. “Excuse me. It’s urgent.” It was hard to persevere against the quizzical stare, but she made herself go on. “It’s about the man upstairs from me.”

“I’ll pay you,” she added, seeing him frown. That helped. “He’s going to kill himself.”

“How do you know?” asked the doctor. It was a reasonable question. Ellen had no reasonable answer. She just knew.

“Please,” she begged. “Come with me. I’ll take you to him.”

There was frost on the ground and the sky threatened snow as Ellen led Sellers through chill dreary streets, quickening her steps to force him to follow her without attempting conversation. When they came to the building she pulled him up the stairs. She knocked and they waited, Ellen praying that Sellers wouldn’t just turn and leave. Finally the door edged open and an unshaven face peered out. The room smelled of garbage and unwashed dishes.

“Hello, Aaron!” Ellen tried to make her voice ring out cheerfully. “This is my friend Henry, we’re going to the park, want to come?”

“No,” he murmured, “I’m busy.” But Ellen kept smiling, and Henry saw — professionally — that he must smile too. And just when it seemed that Aaron would slam the door on them, he relented. “Well... haven’t been out in ages... Guess I can find the time. Wait. I’ll put on my coat.”

The park was not far. Ellen led the way, leaving the two men a few steps behind. Henry Sellers was used to breaking silences. “Well, Aaron,” he asked cheerily, “how’re you doing?”

“Can’t complain,” Aaron mumbled. Wife gone, days and nights all alike, can’t stand my face, he said in his mind. Out loud, he translated that: “Can’t complain.”

“She’s a great girl, isn’t she?” Henry suggested, suddenly realizing he didn’t even know her name.

“Ellen? Yeah,” said Aaron, without changing his expression.

Somehow they made it to the park. The lake was half frozen. Ellen threw some peanuts onto the ice and the ducks scrambled for them, slipping comically. She threw peanuts to the men and they ate them and laughed. Some children were flying kites.

“Ever see a kite like an octopus before?” Ellen pointed. They hadn’t, and agreed it was a wonderful kite. Two dogs at the water’s edge were trying to grip a large branch; for a moment it looked as though they would manage, together, to lift a weight too heavy for either alone.

The people watched to see if this miracle of mute cooperation was going to actually occur. But the dogs changed their minds and went off to bark at some ducks instead. “Smart dogs,” said Henry. “Smart as people.”

“Smarter,” said Aaron.

Ellen pointed out some trees that were casting white shadows where the cool of their real shadows had preserved the frost on the ground. “White shadows — how about that!” said Aaron. “I should have brought my camera. I have a camera. Somewhere. I’ll look for it.”

“I have an old one I don’t use. I’ll lend it to you,” said Henry.

“Well,” said Aaron, “I’ll take your portrait then. I used to be a photographer, did you know that?”

They stopped for hot chocolate on the way back. Three friends warming themselves and laughing.

When they’d walked Aaron home, Henry turned to Ellen. “Who is Aaron to you, anyway? He’s not just ‘the man upstairs’, is he?”

“He’s my stepfather. I hated him. He killed my cat. Just had her ‘put down’ while I was in school — said she made too much noise. Tormented my mother. Sarcasm and sneers non-stop. I was nineteen when she left. I got one letter from her and then nothing. I don’t know if she’s still alive.”

Ellen hesitated. “I said I’d pay you. But look... if I pay you, then you’re not his friend, right? It’s not that I don’t want to pay you. Tell me a charity, I’ll give the money.”

Ellen sighed. “He’s not so bad, really. He just needed a friend.”

Copyright © 2010 by Julie Wornan

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