The clouds take shape
He walked along the train tracks with his person casting a shadow that reached high into the trees. The image was an odd and out of place shape because of the guitar strung around the man's neck. To people with pareidolia, it was a picture of a creature tall and ominous lurking in the trees ready to pounce. The mind can play strange tricks In truth, it was Simon, a man with a single possession who now walked alone in the night. He had visited with the shadows in his lifetime. It was not a return destination of his choosing. Greed had taught the life lesson, so he walked alone avoiding the creature that stalked.
Simon had a voice as smooth as silk. His guitar, he strummed sweet and fine. Talent for music vibrated through his soul. It was a golden gift and had once profited him well. Simon had spent his career playing local venues and had developed a following for his music. He laid claim to three record albums and had been signed to Royola Records. Until five years ago, Simon owned a house, a car, and a bank account. His name had been plastered on billboards across the region. The area bars and honky-tonks vied for his concerts. It was greed that caused the fall but the shadows that held him accountable.
Simon plopped down on the tracks, weary from his travels. The life of a roadster, the term Simon preferred to hobo, was hard and had taken a toll. He gazed blankly into the trees wary of the shadows, before pulling out the bottle tucked in his knapsack. Drinking in moderation and singing a song or two was allowed by his stalkers. The danger came when others joined his party. Simon ate his dinner of drink at the railway cafe alone, confident that the lurking shadows would eventually recede. At night in his dreams, the memories of the hell he had endured would parade in his mind but he had grown accustomed to the imagery. Simon knew the reality of terror and the nuances of a dream. He avoided reality like the plague.
Pulling the guitar in front of him, he strummed a short chord to test the waters. He felt no signs of retaliation so he cleared his throat to give warning of the song to come. It was a vigorous routine the man had worked through years ago. He thought of it as offering homage to the tree Gods. By making no quick movements, he could inform the Gods of his plans to mellow them with a song. All thoughts of his previous greed were pushed violently from his mind in order to deter the wrath of the shadows.
The first few words he sang into the night air croaked out like a frog transitioned to the smooth velvet crooning of his previous days. Simon replayed the glory of his stage life as the song fell from his lips. He had sold his soul for a brief stint of fame and was left with the sinister shapes in the clouds and trees that plagued him.
"Hey, man do you mind if I join you?" called an unfamiliar voice.
Simon's first inclination was to look towards the sky to find the owner of the voice. His body quivered at the possibility. He warily looked to his right to find a man standing twenty feet from him. He didn't know whether to keep his guard up or lower it for the unknown mortal nearing him. His fear of the man was not as great.
"Don't have much to offer but you're welcome."
"I thank you greatly. Not crazy about being out here alone at night," said the man as he took a seat near Simon on the tracks.
Simon took a closer look at the man, marking him as a hobo. His clothes were torn and dirty. His shoes were worn with the sole's leather thin. There was a foul smell to his person, a pungent aroma Simon recognized from personal experience. He guessed the man's age to be about fifty with his unkempt beard and brows. His wrinkles were the roadmap of a difficult life. The right eye was completely closed, matted in green dried gunk, the residue of some unknown ailment. He smiled a jack-o-lantern's grin.
"My name's Parker. Heard you strumming and croaking. You're pretty good."
"Thanks, been doing it a while," he said wanting to keep conversation to a minimum. He was starting to fear the presence of the shadows and not wanting them to know he was no longer alone.
"Well, you'll have a humble audience if you want to kick it again. Didn't mean to interrupt."
"No problem, just how I put my night to bed. I'm probably done for the night. Where you heading?" Simon said as he passed the can of opened beans toward the stranger.
Parker tried not to greedily snap up the beans in his hunger but failed. He almost lost his balance on the metal railroad seat. Simon could see the hunger in the man's one good eye. It momentarily shook him that the pupil appeared to take an odd shape, that of a scavenging wolf. He dismissed the thought, having only caught a glimpse.
"Nowhere or anywhere. No set place. I go where the shapes chase me."
"What?" Simon queried, fearful of the last remark.
"Never mind me. Been hanging out in the woods too long. I see monsters everywhere. Taking the drink without the food seems to bring that on. I was staring at the clouds today and swear I saw a demon shape. The next time I looked it was a damn bunny. The mind tends to go when you're living rough."
Simon's curiosity got the better of him. He had never met anyone else that spoke of shapes like they were real. He had researched this troubling disorder. It was called pareidolia. It was the same phenomenon that made people think they saw Jesus in a potato chip. It was all harmless until the shapes came to life.
"Do you see shapes often?"
Parker grew quiet, not sure how much to reveal. He knew the shapes lurking in the trees were listening. He spoke slowly," I had a different kind of life once. Not always like you see me. Had me a family. People I cared about but it's all gone. I sold them all for a little bit of glory. The shapes came afterward to remind me of the debt. Nighttime is the worst. When I close my eyes they terrorize me. Listen, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to lay this on you, but you asked. My visions tonight seem particularly sinister. I can't tell you how happy I was to see you and know you were real."
Simon was visibly trembling now. "What was your glory and who did you sell it to?" he whispered. He started rocking back and forth afraid of the answers Parker would provide.
"I was an average everyday stockbroker looking to get investors. I struggled barely able to make a decent commission. People just didn't have the money to think ahead for the future. They were busy making ends meet. I had me no good connections to the affluent. One day this shady character pops up in my office offering me the world. He never told me the cost. He kept coming back. I was fighting just to make rent and pay any bills. He finally convinced me to do things his way. Almost immediately the dough started rolling in. I knew I had made it big when I saw my face plastered on a billboard. Now I'm wishing I'd never made that wish."
"Did he wear a hat with a red feather in it?"
Parker grabbed Simon's arm in answer to the question. "You know him?" he said with a look of shock painted on his face.
"What you think it means, him bringing us together, like this?'
"I think he's planning on collecting his debt. He's got two in the fishbowl now."
Both men gazed at the skies waiting for the shapes to appear. Silhouettes dangled in the trees stalking the prey. The howling wolf etched in face of the moon howled as Simon strummed his guitar. The dark shadowy clouds held images of a variety of eerie ogres waiting to pounce. Simon mumbled under his breath to fend off the demons, "This is just my pareidolia. The monsters are not real!"
Simon was so busy trying to convince himself that he barely heard the agonizing screams of the man seated next to him. He failed to open his eyes to gore as Parker was devoured by the beasts. He refused to acknowledge the wetness of Parker's blood as it splashed against his skin. He tuned out the noises of bones crunching beside him.
Simon only took notice, when the shadows came for him.
Word Count 1483