The voices in the woman’s head were so loud that Jakob couldn’t hear himself think. Three of them, maybe four, badgered her with an endless stream of insults. Dumb cow. Ugly. Useless. Oh so fat, fat, fat!
Eyes bruised with sleeplessness, hair frayed and face pallid, the woman sagged into her commuter-train seat like a marionette with no one at the strings. Her red coat and black pants were designer-made, expensive, but also badly wrinkled and speckled with discoloration, simultaneously hinting at money and a fall from grace.
Jakob resisted the impulse to cross the aisle and hug her. She was worse off than anyone he’d ever encountered. One voice was common, sometimes two, but three or four? He’d never heard anything like it. It was too early to make his approach, though. If he frightened her off, he’d never be able to help her, and he’d certainly been scaring people away rather quickly ever since he’d run out of money. The inability to shower or wash his clothes had done a number on his appearance and aroma. One look at the empty seats surrounding him on an otherwise crowded train said all that needed to be said about the matter.
Still, he couldn’t resist psychically projecting a warning to the creatures berating the woman. “Enjoy your fun now, worms,” he thought. “Your fun is about to come to a very definitive end.”
The voices went silent. Jakob smirked to himself as he imagined the Shadows conferring amongst themselves fearfully in the dark, trans-dimensional space that they occupied.
The woman blinked and looked around in relief, left alone for probably the first time in months, maybe years. Out of the silence, the name “Megan” entered Jakob’s mind. It was fitting, he decided. She looked like a Megan.
The train stopped in downtown Seattle. Megan picked up her purse, weakened body bending to the side with its weight, and shuffled off the train into the drizzling city.
Jakob followed from a distance. It was always best to wait for a heavily traveled area before approaching potential clients. People usually feel safer conversing with strangers in public places.
He made his move as they reached a section of Pioneer Square brimming with tourists and shoppers. At the corner gathered a crowd of people listening intently to a tour guide talk about the underground city beneath their feet.
Jakob saw his opportunity and walked up alongside her. “Excuse me, ma’am?” His Czech accent often intrigued Americans, so he laid it on thick.
Megan turned to him, looking too exhausted to be afraid, as if she wouldn’t even care if he did try to rob her.
“My name is Jakob Rezek.”
“Okay.” She kept walking.
“There’s really no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to come out with it. What would you say if I told you I can get rid of the voices in your head?”
Megan stopped. Pedestrians flowed around them as they faced each other. “Was I talking to myself again?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Then why do you think I hear voices?”
“Because I hear them, too.”
Megan widened her eyes and laughed wildly, though not unkindly. The bizarre conversation seemed to have brought her personality to the fore for a moment, revealing the strong, confident woman hiding underneath all the fatigue and misery. It must have taken the Shadows one hell of a long time to beat someone like her down, Jakob thought.
She looked up and down his dirty trench coat, slacks, and sooty sneakers. Her humor changed to a look of pity. “Good luck with whatever issues you’re dealing with, Jakob. I have to go.” She continued on her way.
Jakob knew he was about to lose her, and desperation forced boldness. “I can hear them because they aren’t your thoughts. They just pretend to be.”
She quickened her pace.
The name stopped her in her tracks. She turned, looking a little frightened. The Shadows sensed their opportunity to undermine the situation and dove in. He wants to hurt you. Why else would a good-looking young man talk to an ugly old cow like you, forty-five and jiggling with cellulite?
“She doesn’t look like a cow to me,” Jakob said, “and I am talking to her because it is my job to help people get rid of worms like you.”
The Shadows fell silent. Megan still seemed frightened, a heartbeat away from fleeing. Normally Jakob wouldn’t show his hand so quickly, but he had no choice. The situation was slipping out of control.
“Megan, I have helped people like you many times before. I was once in the same situation myself, in fact. I’m the only chance you’ve got. Walk away now and you will live with those things eating at you for the rest of your life.”
Megan stared at him through her bleary eyes before shrugging in surrender. “You know what? At this point I’ll try anything.” She flashed a debonair smile. “Do you take plastic?”
The rain became heavier as they walked through the city. Jakob offered Megan his coat to cover her head. She just laughed.
“I’m a Seattleite, sweetie. Rain is our version of sunshine.”
She offered to buy him a sandwich from a deli. He waved her off. “I’ll take a coffee, though,” he said, counting change in his hand and sliding it over the counter. “A small one.”
“You look hungry,” Megan said, “and I really don’t mind giving you an advance on services rendered.”
“Well, I mind taking it.” He smiled to take the edge out of the anger in his voice. There was no reason to talk that way, of course, but the bitterness of those born into poverty does not die easy.
Megan ordered a latte and they continued on their way, ducking a short while later into Pike’s Market where a crowd applauded longshoremen flinging enormous fish at each other and catching them theatrically in white paper.
Megan watched Jakob’s dirty fingernails as he raised his cup to his mouth, apparently thinking he wouldn’t notice her doing so. “Are you a psychologist?”
Jakob shook his head. “I don’t know what to call what I am.”
She looked up and down his ragged clothes. “Does it pay well?”
“It pays whatever clients are willing to donate, which isn’t much sometimes. Sometimes it isn’t anything.”
“You’re like a starving artist, then. All talent and no business sense.”
“No, not like that. I just have a code.”
They walked down stairs to the lower levels of the market.
“Well, what’s the code?”
Jakob sipped. “Never take anything I haven’t earned.”
The bitterness had crept back into his voice. Seeming to sense it, Megan changed the subject. “So, how did you come to do this job that you have no name for?”
Jakob felt the eyes of the shoppers and tourists on him, their suspicion and disgust. The words homeless scum broke psychically through the background chatter.
“Five years ago,” he said, “I was worse off than you are. I walked right to the edge of a bridge and everything.”
“I’m sure the voices were very supportive of your decision.”
“Oh, yes. It was like having a demonic Tony Robbins in my head.”
Megan squealed with laughter at the success coach’s name.
Jakob smirked. “I’m glad you find humor in my suffering.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve been living alone with this for so long, it just feels good to joke about it.”
Jakob waved her off. “No need to apologize. Gallows humor is essential in this line of work.”
They walked into a magic shop. Jakob set his coffee on the floor, took three balls out of a bin, and juggled. His form was perfect, mastered through years of performing on street corners for pocket change.
“Right before jumping I decided that, if I was just going to commit suicide anyway, I might as well figure out what was wrong with me so I could help others in the same situation. I started with Western psychology, moved to Eastern, and then to things more esoteric. I pieced parts of it all together and realized what kind of world we’re living in. That’s when I found the Shadow.”
Megan pulled the lid off her coffee and drank from the open mouth. “What did you do you then?”
“I killed it.” He caught one ball in each hand and then one on his forehead. He balanced it there for a moment and then dumped them all back in the bin.
“So you’re going to kill my Shadow, too?” Megan asked.
“No.” Jakob picked up his coffee. “You are.”
Megan’s cup trembled in her hand. “I can’t do that.”
“You have to. Everyone has to kill their own, or else new ones will just come along to replace them.”
“Is it dangerous?”
Jakob put on a pair of glasses with enormous fish eyes painted on them. “Very.”
“I really wish you wouldn’t make light of all this.”
Jakob flashed his best coy smile. “It always helps to act like a bad ass before going into battle, Megan. Always.”
She lived in the top floor of the highest apartment building in the city. Jakob kept his back to the glass wall of the elevator as they rode, hoping Megan wouldn’t notice. It wouldn’t do much good for her to know that her supposed savior was terrified of heights.
“Are you surprised to find that I’m rich?” Megan asked without a tone of arrogance or false modesty. It was an honest question, perhaps even a bit self-conscious. “I made all the money myself.”
“Not too surprised, to be honest. Lots of people try to beat the voices that way.”
“It doesn’t work?”
“Did it work for you?”
Megan sighed with playful melodrama. “At least I had an amazing view while I toiled away in futility.”
Jakob laughed, but the talk of money made him feel self-conscious. He examined his unkempt himself in the metal elevator door’s reflection and smoothed back his hair. The greasy texture left on his hand only made him feel worse.
Megan hadn’t been exaggerating about her wealth. Her apartment wasn’t just situated on the top floor. Rather, it occupied the entire thing.
Jakob refused to show how impressed he was and immediately started moving the furniture away from the center of the living room and against the walls. “We need some space,” he said, keeping his eyes fixed on the task at hand and away from the windows.
Megan watched him suspiciously as they slid the couch over the floor. “Don’t like heights, do you?”
“You kidding?” Jakob chuckled. “I love them. Barely resisting the urge to hang off your balcony as we speak, in fact.”
That’s when it hit him—a clear blast of higher déjà vu. He’d experienced the sensation a few times since waking up to the real nature of the universe. Each one had turned out to be prophetic in some way, though he had not yet learned how to anticipate what they meant. He just had to wait and see.
Jakob sat cross-legged in the middle of the room and motioned for Megan to do the same. He kept his gaze fixed on hers, softly but continuously, and compelled her to relax.
“Our brains are like antennas that pick up consciousness,” he said. “The problem is that there are bad things floating around out in the ether, things that can hijack lines of psychic communication and terrorize us. That is what is happening to you.”
“Brains like antennas?” Megan squinted her eyes to see if he was joking.
“Words won’t convince you of anything. When it comes to this kind of knowledge, direct experience is the only way. Just relax.”
Megan did as he asked. As her breathing steadied, a golden light surrounded her, like a luminescent egg. After that, a blue, filamentous tube appeared, stretching from the heavens and entering the crown of her head. Within that tube, a red and green thread coiled around one another.
“Can you see the light around me?” Jakob asked.
Tears welled in Megan’s eyes. It was the only answer Jakob needed.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said.
“It is, and there will be time to explore all of this later. Right now, though, I need you to focus on expanding your light so that it touches mine.”
“Envision it. Gently. Don’t try to force it. Just softly visualize it being done.”
Jakob followed his own instructions and bent his spirit towards Megan’s. Gradually, Megan responded. An instant exchange of information occurred when the lights touched. Fragments of Megan’s life filtering through to him. She’d been born to wealthy but abusive parents, had wanted to be an astronomer, had started a business at seventeen and left her family forever.
The receipt of her past experiences was only a byproduct of the communication, not the intent. What mattered most was sharing the truth of reality with her in the only way that a person could truly comprehend.
The lesson unfolded in a mandala of fire and ice in the space between them. It expanded and morphed, a model of the universe and of themselves, fractal reflections of the same infinity. The lesson was only supposed to be an introduction to a much longer education, but just after they began, a sound like static electricity filled the air.
Megan looked around frantically. “I know that sound. I’ve heard it when I had really bad nightmares.”
“Those weren’t nightmares,” Jakob said, keeping his tone as calm as he could. “This is what happens when the Shadows manifest.”
Four creatures materialized around Megan. They were shaped like the three-dimensional shadows of human beings, no facial features, no clothes, just lightness silhouettes.
Jakob scrambled to his feet to protect Megan. Before he could take a full step, he realized that they weren’t after his client. Not this time.
We’ve heard a great deal about you, Jakob Rezek. The creatures hissed and rushed.
The whole thing caught Jakob off-guard. He’d seen them materialize into semi-physical states many times before, but this was different. They smashed into him and blasted him back through the air and crashing through the sliding glass door onto the patio.
In a daze, he pulled himself up by the railing and found himself looking down fifty stories to the city below. His head reeled with vertigo as the creatures dragged him back to the ground, biting and clawing.
The Shadows fed off of fear, and he desperately tried to contain the terror he felt at being so high, but couldn’t. They bit into his neck and he shrieked in pain.
He didn’t fear death. In a way, he welcomed it. His only concern was for Megan. He pulled himself up by the railing again and closed his eyes. If he jumped, perhaps he’d be able to take the Shadows with him.
Before he had the chance, blue light sent the Shadows scurrying to the corners of the patio and hissing in pain. Jakob looked up to see Megan standing just inside the doorway. She didn’t look tired or fearful anymore. Not at all. Instead, she looked wide awake wildly alive with energy.
One of the Shadows leapt over the railing and out of the light to cling to the building wall. It seemed to melt inside and disappear. A moment later it pounced on Megan from behind and tackled her to the floor.
The other Shadows immediately jockeyed for position. Megan’s attack had given Jakob time to recover his wits. He summoned the light within and focused it into three photons in his hand. He threw these, one by one, into the bodies of the Shadows. The illumination expanded within the darkness and vaporized the beasts.
The last Shadow left stood up from Megan’s back. The woman’s clothes were tattered and her back bloody.
Jakob stepped inside to confront the creature, but it leapt forward suddenly, knocking him aside, and squatted on the railing of the patio. This is only beginning, it said. You have no right to interfere in our way of life. We will return.
Megan got to her feet and pushed past Jakob, drawing her own light around herself. “Sounds marvelous,” she said. “Please do bring more friends.”
The creature hissed and leapt off the railing. It fell for a few yards before scattering into the wind with wisps of shadow and the sound of static.
Jakob pressed his hand over the wound in his neck and smiled at Megan. “Bring more friends, eh?”
Megan flipped her hair back dramatically. “It always helps to act like a bad ass before going into battle, right?”
Megan insisted that Jakob shower and dress his wounds. After a long protest, he finally acquiesced. The water felt good, and he turned it up just a shade lower than burning temperature. The dirt and sweat rolling off his body just kept coming, no matter how much soap he used or how hard he scrubbed.
He thought about what he’d seen just before the Shadows materialized. Strange as it seemed, he never actually believed that the rich could suffer, too. He’d always abhorred them because he’d never forgiven them for teasing him and his family when he was a child. It was strange to realize they could be haunted, too.
When he stepped out of the shower, he found that his clothes were gone from the top of the toilet where he’d left them. He wrapped a towel snugly around his waist and walked out into the hall to catch Megan on the phone. She thanked whoever was on the other line and hung up.
“You’ve got new clothes coming,” she said. “And my doctor will be here soon, too. I don’t know exactly what I’ll tell him yet, but we’ll figure something out.”
“I have to go,” Jakob said. A feeling like panic was beginning to settle in. She had his clothes. He was at the rich woman’s mercy.
Megan opened a bottle of spring water. For the first time, Jakob realized the smell of cooking food was in the air.
“I worked very hard for a long time building my business,” Megan said as she poured a glass. “But, some part of me always knew that the business was a means to some other end. I just didn’t know what it was.”
She handed him a glass. “I saw things about you while we were communicating. You were a poor kid. Very poor. You swore you’d never take handouts from anyone. Knowing this, I’m still going to offer you the resources to do your job properly. An office. A home.” She sipped her water. “A partner.”
Jakob wanted to slam his glass down and demand his clothes so he could leave. Yet, the fact was that he’d felt the higher déjà vu earlier. He also could not keep living as he’d been living. Now that he was clean, he realized how filthy he’d been before the shower.
“This is the work that my life was meant to build towards,” she said. “It isn’t about a rich bitch helping a slum kid, Jakob. It’s about two equals entering into a mutually beneficial partnership.”
Jakob drank. The water tasted good. Being clean felt good. A warm kitchen felt good. He drank again.
“You’ve got natural power,” he said. “More than me, even. That’s probably why so many of them attacked you. But you’ve still got a lot to learn.” He set his glass down and walked out to sit on the living room floor. He motioned for her to do the same. “We should meditate for a bit.”
Megan sat down. They smiled at each other across the illuminated space between them.
“Close your eyes and relax,” Jakob said. “This is the fun part.”