Chapter 1

A thrush flitted from the ground to land on a support of the bridge. It gave forth a moment of song that sounded like, "oh- holy, holy, holy; ah- purity, purity, purity; eeh- sweetly, sweetly, sweetly."

When the thrush flew away, a different song replaced that of the bird. The eerie tune, sung slow in a deep voice, cut through the misty evening atmosphere breaking the concentration of the man sitting on the railing of a railroad bridge that crossed a hundred feet above the river below.

"Ain't no grave can keep my body down, Ain't no grave can keep my body down, my body down, When that last trumpet sound, I'll be getting up and movin' round, Ain't no grave can keep my body down."

The man looked up trying to find the source of the haunting song, but from his vantage-point he was unable to see most of the bridge. A huge I-beam that formed one of the supports cut off his view back along the length of the bridge. Looking down at the water below, he wondered if he had the courage to make the jump.

"Sure is a long way down there."

The voice coming from beside him almost startled the man off his perch and into the water below. He looked over and saw an old man wearing a green robe beside him, leaning over the railing to look at the river below. In his right hand, the old man held a shepherd's staff. He recognized the outfit, but not the man.

"You're a Druid," said the man, appearing to state the obvious, but trying to make a point.

"Yes, I am," replied the Druid. He wondered if the man knew him by reputation or had seen other Druids. It didn't matter to him.

"Why were you singing a Christian song?"

The Druid looked at the man understanding his earlier statement as a result of the question. He answered, "Songs need to be sung occasionally or else they die."

"It's a Gospel song. Why do you care if it lives or dies?" asked the man.

"That song still has a purpose. If I don't keep it alive, who will?" answered the Druid.

He looked over the railing of the bridge again and commented, "It sure is a long way down there. I'm not sure if it is enough to kill you quickly, but you'd be assured of drowning at the least."

The man started at the comment. He'd had that thought several times while sitting there and had wondered if he would rather move to where the water wasn't quite so deep and he'd be sure of the fall killing him. Rather than comment directly on what the Druid had said, he asked, "What are you doing out here?"

"This is the bridge where Runnin' Man died. Just thought I'd stop by and pay my respects to him," answered the Druid with a melancholy smile.

"Runnin' Man?"

"Yes. Runnin' Man was a hobo that I knew in my younger days. Poor guy suffered from the shits for years and was always running for an outhouse. That's how he got his name."

"How'd he die?" asked the man wondering if the Runnin' Man had jumped or met an accidental death.

"He was standing up on top of a box car looking back over the end of the train. Didn't see the bridge or the beams that crossed it. Foolish thing to do, but lots of folks do foolish things when they are tired."

The man on the railing looked down at the river below. The water looked dark and foreboding from that height. Slow moving water always looked like it held dark secrets in its depths. It wouldn't be too much longer before the sun would set so and he wouldn't be able to see the water below. He said, "I guess you don't have to be tired to do foolish things."

"There's all kinds of tired," replied the Druid.

The man watched as the river became lost in the increasing darkness while the Druid watched the man. After a while, the Druid climbed up on the railing. Noticing what the Druid was doing, the man asked, "You getting ready to jump, too?"

"Nah. I just didn't want to get hit by the train when it crosses the bridge. It'll be here in about a minute and there's not enough time to get off the bridge."

The man stared at the Druid with a blank expression for a moment before he asked, "How do you know that?"

"I'm listening to the rails. Better hold on or it'll blow you off the bridge," answered the Druid as he hooked his legs onto the lower railing and grabbed a portion of the I-beam. He noticed the other man did the same.

In less than a minute, the train entered the bridge with a rush and a roar. The blast of wind, air displaced by the front of the train, threatened to blow both men off the bridge. The noise of the engine and wheels riding rails deafened them. If they hadn't taken the time to brace themselves, it was likely one or both of them would have been pushed to the water below.

It took a long time for the train to clear the bridge. With fewer trains running, they tended to be longer now than they were in the past. Each gap between trains generated a blast of air that felt like a huge hand hitting their bodies. As the train buffeted them, the man on the rail tried to figure out who was the Druid next to him. It took most of the train, but he figured out the identity of the Druid.

When the train had gone and their ears had recovered, the man said, "You must be Happy Harry."

"I am, and you are?"

The man licked his lips wondering how to answer the question. Should he give his birth name or the name that everyone else used for him? He decided on the later and answered, "Shadow."

"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" asked Harry in a radio announcer voice.

"Only the shadow knows," answered Shadow in a flat voice. He had no idea how many times he had been subject to that exchange. It wasn't funny the first time that he heard it and it wasn't funny now.

"I imagine that you know a lot about the evil that lurks in the hearts of man. I bet people have tortured you for years about your appearance," commented the Druid.

Shadow had thought he was hidden enough in the darkness that his birthmark had not been too visible. It covered half of his face and neck like a purple bruise from a slap delivered by an angry God. Over the years it had swollen to the point were it was disfiguring. The result was that men could not look him in the eye, children ran from him, and women shivered in revulsion. Shadow had gotten his nickname because he moved from dark place to dark place so that no one would see him.

"I'm a monster," replied Shadow.

"Really, I hadn't noticed."

Angry, Shadow leaned closer to the Druid without concern about his precarious perch. Pulling away the long black hair that hid half his face, he challenged, "Look at this face and tell me that it isn't the face of a monster!"

Harry examined the face with a calm and critical demeanor that Shadow found unsettling. The Druid hadn't flinched, grimaced, or frowned at what he was seeing. After a minute, Harry shook his head and said, "Nothing monstrous there. All I see is the face of a man that has been hurt by the words of people that are not very nice."

"Are you crazy?"

"Not in my opinion, but I'm sure that you'll find people who disagree with me," answered Harry with a smile. He untangled himself from his perch on the railing and stretched before adjusting his robe.

As Shadow stared at him, Harry turned and walked away without saying another word. Confused by the behavior of the man and wondering if he had somehow insulted him, Shadow asked, "Where are you going?"

"I've got hungry folks to feed," called out Harry as he waved a hand over his head in a gesture of farewell.

Shadow watched the Druid walk off into the dark. Harry had not said one word to talk him out of jumping, but he wasn't going to jump as a result of talking to him. It made him realize how much he missed talking to people. The temporary relief from loneliness had been like a glass of cold water to a man dying of thirst.

Shadow climbed off the railing and followed the tracks into town. His destination was five miles away, but he'd arrive when it was dark. He always entered a new town when it was dark. That way, no one would see him.

Shadow stuck his head out the opening of the storm drain and stared at the scummy waterway into which it drained. The smell of rotting plant life assaulted his nose, but he ignored it. Dark was another half an hour away, but he was hungry. He had worked out a path from his current home to an area filled with restaurants that allowed him to move without being seen. He crawled out of the storm drain, stepping into the muck that grew within the waterway. His shoes would smell until the mud dried, at which time the mud would flake off.

Slipping from dark place to dark place, he had reached an area behind a warehouse when his journey was interrupted. Two men stepped out of the warehouse carrying a couple of boxes each. They weren't supposed to be there. One of them spotted Shadow and called over to the other, "We've got company."

Shadow looked over at the two men fully aware that they were stealing things from the warehouse. As far as he was concerned, their theft of goods from the warehouse wasn't his problem. His problem was his hunger. He went on his way while the men loaded the boxes into a white van. He followed the circuitous path that he had planned, rather than a direct path away from the warehouse. He realized his mistake when the two men stepped in front of him carrying baseball bats.

One of the men said, "We can't have you telling people what you saw here."

Shadow looked over at the man that had spoken. He was a large white man with a belly that hung over his belt. He had short hair that was hidden under a baseball cap that sported the logo for the local team. He could make out the prison tattoos on the guy's meaty arms and knew that the man was more than willing to use the bat.

The smaller man took one good look at Shadow and then said, "Fuck! You've got to be the ugliest man on earth."

The smaller man had wild eyes with a patch of deadness in them. They were the kind of eyes that suggested he had sniffed paint a dozen times too many. Crazy from fumes and enough dead brain cells to undermine his control, the guy was very dangerous. This was the kind of guy that scared Shadow the most.

Trying to talk his way out of the situation, Shadow said, "I don't want any trouble. I just want to get something to eat."

"Too late for that," said the big man as he swung the bat.

Shadow backed away, avoiding the bat, knowing that he was going to get hit at some point in time. The only questions that remained in his mind concerned where, how hard, and how many times he would get hit. The sound of glass shattering interrupted the two men attacking him. The bigger guy looked at the source and swore, "Shit. That bastard just broke the windows on my van."

Unable to help himself, Shadow glanced in the direction of the van. Standing beside the van was Happy Harry. Shocked, he watched Harry swing his staff and take out a headlight. Little shards of glass caught the light and twinkled as they fell to the ground. He wanted to shout for Harry to run, but the movement of a baseball bat captured his attention.

The two men split up, the larger one going after Harry and the smaller one swinging his bat at Shadow. Retreating from the wild swings, Shadow kept backing away believing that the Druid was going to die because of him. His attempts to keep from getting hit failed as the bat finally connected with his left arm. As the pain exploded in his arm, he collapsed to the ground full aware that he was about to die. The little guy was going to beat him until he was dead.

Rather than striking him with the bat, the little guy started kicking Shadow. He was enjoying the physical contact as it allowed a more personal delivery of pain. Most of the blows hit Shadow along his arms and legs as he curled into a fetal position in an attempt to escape injury. The blows suddenly came to an end.

Not trusting the quiet, Shadow remained curled in a ball. The sound of retching filled the silence. Opening his eyes, Shadow saw the little guy on the ground throwing up as he held his hands to his groin. The retching noises originated from the little guy.

Harry asked, "Can you get up?"

Shadow slowly uncurled his body and took stock of his condition. His left arm hung uselessly to his side, but nothing else seemed broken. With great difficulty, he rose from the ground and stood on legs that wobbled as if to reject the command to support his weight. His legs, arms, and side hurt from where he had been kicked.

"Good, let's go get you checked out," said Harry as he gestured in the direction he wanted the other man to go.

"I'm don't want to go to a doctor," replied Shadow even though he felt anything other than all right.

"Your arm is broken," countered Harry as he headed towards where he had parked his lunch wagon.

Too weak to argue, Shadow followed behind Harry holding his arm to his side. It hurt beyond belief to hold his arm, but that was nothing compared to allowing it to flop around. He reached the lunch wagon and got into the passenger seat while Harry held the door open for him. Settling into the seat, he looked around the truck wondering what a Druid would be doing driving such an unlikely vehicle.

Harry got in the driver's seat and turned on the motor. A few seconds later, they were out of the parking lot and headed into a more populated area that was near the restaurants that had been Shadow's destination. As the truck swayed from side to side, Harry said, "Sorry about the ride. This old beast rocks and rolls with less restraint than a sixties' band."

Shadow would have stared at Harry, but the swaying of the truck was sending shooting pains through his arm and straight to his brain. When they reached a Fusion Foundation Clinic, he wondered if he had blacked out for part of the ride since he didn't remember the drive there.

The sight of the clinic nearly made Shadow sick to his stomach. He hated doctors with a passion. He decided that it wasn't too late to try to run away. All he had to do was stand up, pick a direction, and start running.

Harry held the door of the lunch wagon open and said, "Becky will make you feel all better."

Shadow slid out of the seat and stumbled as his feet made contact with the ground while debating if they wanted to hold him up. There was no way that he was going to run more than five feet before falling flat on his face. Harry reached out and steadied him. Shadow said, "Sorry about that."

"Sorry about being hurt? You didn't have anything to do with that except being unlucky enough to run into those two idiots," retorted Harry as he guided Shadow into the clinic.

After years of living in shadows and the dark, the well-lit reception room hurt his eyes. Shadow didn't see other patients in the waiting room or the reaction that the sight of the two men had on them. Squinting his eyes in reaction to the bright light, he finally reached the empty receptionist counter. Once there, he sagged and rested his body against it. Harry called out, "Becky, come here and take care of this gentleman."

Recognizing his voice, an elderly woman in a white uniform came out of the back. She took one look at Shadow and called out for help. "We've got a serious injury here. I'm going to need some help here, stat."

Several medical staff members rushed out of various rooms. Within seconds, Shadow was whisked into a treatment room. The medical staff had seen enough in their time to deal with his birthmark as though it wasn't even there. Everyone was focused on his injury. The arm was a serious matter and some of the staff wondered if they should transfer him to the hospital. The discussion came to an end when Dr. Rebecca Grant entered the room and, after taking one look at the arm, said, "Pack him up for travel. He needs surgery."

Things picked up after that as an ambulance was summoned and his arm was restrained for travel. Shadow had no idea what happened to Harry as he was put on a cart and wheeled out of the clinic. By the time he reached the hospital, Shadow wasn't in any shape to care. He had slipped into unconsciousness along the way.

The light hurt his eyes as he lay in the hospital bed. He had requested the nurses to turn down the lights several times, but they had ignored his requests. When a doctor came into the room, Shadow complained, "Can we turn off the lights? I don't like to be seen."

The doctor replied, "This is a hospital. We want to be able see you."

"I scare people," replied Shadow.

The doctor ignored the words his patient was spouting and turned to examine the birthmark. It was of the type commonly called a Port Wine Stain and was beginning to exhibit cobbling. Before much longer, it would really start looking hideous. After a minute of touching the skin, the doctor said, "I'll have to run some tests on this."

"Why? God cursed me at birth and made me ugly," retorted Shadow. He had suffered the attentions of hack doctors for longer than he cared to discuss.

"Bah!" answered the doctor. He traced the edge of the birthmark with a finger and nodded his head as he worked.

"Just patch up my arm and let me go! God made me ugly and you won't change that." shouted Shadow getting irritated at the doctor's continued probing of his face.

"What's wrong with your arm?" asked the doctor. He looked down and noticed the cast on it.

"What kind of quack are you?"

"I'm a dermatologist," answered the doctor.

"Get out of here. Some asshole broke my arm and put me in here. That doesn't give you the right to poke and prod me," shouted Shadow as he struggled to get out of the bed.

As a child, his mother had taken him from one doctor to another trying to get rid of the birthmark. After she had gone to every legitimate specialist that had come to her attention, she started going to the fakes. She had spent money that would have helped the family. He didn't trust doctors. All they wanted was money for promises that they weren't required to deliver.

Shadow unleashed years of anger, aiming his tirade in the general direction of the doctor. After five minutes, a rapping noise at the doorway interrupted the angry man. As Shadow turned to see what had caused the noise, Harry said, "Shadow, let the man do his job."

The doctor stepped back and stared at Harry taking in his green robe and shepherd's staff. He had heard of the Druid, but didn't really believe that anyone like him could actually exist. Awed, he said, "You're Happy Harry."

"I am. Now get to your evaluation," replied Harry as he looked at Shadow. The expression on his face suggested that it was best for Shadow not to argue.

The look had only a minor effect on the man in the bed. Shadow glowered at Harry, angry that the Druid had taken the side of the doctor. He would have crossed his arms, but his left arm wasn't moving. He challenged, "Why are you taking his side?"

"I don't take sides," replied Harry unperturbed by Shadow's accusation.

"Then throw this quack out of here," snarled Shadow.

"I have to live by two rules and you are making it hard for me to remember that," replied Harry. "If you keep it up, I'm going to stuff a sock in your face so that you'll stop abusing the doctor."

The doctor stepped back and said, "Thanks. I'm done with my examination."

Sarcastically, Shadow asked, "And what is your diagnosis?"

"You have Type III Grade III Macular Lesions. It won't be too much longer before you move into Grade IV Lesions," answered the doctor.

"Shit, I could have told you that," replied Shadow, "and I can tell you that there is no treatment for it."

"Really? I didn't know that," replied the doctor sarcastically. He was beginning to get angry with his patient. There were times when patients felt they knew more than the doctors did and didn't know anything. He had spent years in medical school learning his craft and was still paying for that education.

Harry entered the room and put a hand on Shadow's good arm. He looked down at the man for a minute and said, "I'm supposed to protect the weak from the strong. It's a tough rule to live by at times, but I'm going to ask you to stop abusing your doctor. He's attempting to help you."

"You should be protecting me from him," growled Shadow.

Harry raised his eyebrows and shook his head as he looked over at the doctor. The doctor examined the patient for a moment before moving over to a chair to take a seat. He looked around the room collecting his thoughts. It wasn't rare for someone with that condition to have been through lots of specialists who promised a lot and delivered nothing.

"Using Laser Surgery we can get rid of most of the swelling and a percentage of the discoloration. The skin won't ever be the same color as your normal skin color, but it won't be so purple," said the doctor.

"Oh, now you are going to shoot me with a Laser. No thank you," replied Shadow.

The doctor was going to argue, but Harry turned to the doctor and stated, "Hippocrates is supposed to have said, 'First, do no harm.' I will hold you to that."

"Pardon?" asked the doctor knowing that it was commonly thought that the phrase mentioned by the Druid was the first line of the Hippocratic Oath. It had never been a part of the oath, but the Druid hadn't made that claim.

"If he rejects your offer of medical care, then you must accept that. To do otherwise would cause him great harm," answered Harry realizing that more was at work within Shadow than met the eye.

The doctor was silent for a moment and then nodded his head in agreement. An unwilling patient wouldn't recover and to spend his time treating someone that didn't want help was a waste of time. He asked, "Will you accept treatment?"

"No," answered Shadow, "I won't. I might look like a monster, but I've been subjected to enough humiliations from doctors like yourself that I know who is the real monster in the room."

Nodding, Harry said, "So be it. I'm sorry you wasted your time, doctor."

The back of the roach coach, as Harry called it, had become home for Shadow. Harry insisted that he stay with him until the arm was suitably healed for him to strike out on his own. In return for a bed in the homeless hotels and three squares a day, Shadow helped Harry prepare meals for the other homeless men. It helped the time pass and was better than living in his normal dark places such as sewers, abandoned buildings, and subway tunnels.

When Harry passed out food, Shadow hid in the front of the truck where he wouldn't be seen. At night, he would slip away from the truck and explore whatever city they were currently visiting. Every month, he went to a doctor to have his arm examined. Each doctor visit was preceded by a minor battle, as Shadow didn't trust doctors.

Harry nudged Shadow awake with his foot. As the man struggled to get his wits about him, Harry said, "Time to get the cast off."

"I can remove it myself," countered Shadow in what was an automatic response.

Despite all that Harry had done for him, he automatically fought each trip to the doctor. He liked and respected Harry; the Druid had done a lot for him. Although Harry never commented on his birthmark, Shadow kept from his view as much as possible. No one deserved to look upon such ugliness, particularly a good man like Harry.

Laughing, Harry said, "Don't worry, there won't be any doctor examinations this time. We'll go to a clinic and have them remove it there."

"If you say so," replied Shadow making sure that when he sat up, he was facing away from Harry.

"You don't have to hide your face from me, Shadow. I don't think you're ugly," commented Harry. After six months of having Shadow live in the back of the truck, Harry had hoped that Shadow would give up his compulsion to hide his face.

"I know what I am," replied Shadow. He waited for Harry to move up to the front of the truck before turning around to serve himself a cup of coffee from the always full coffee urn. He only took a quarter cup since more than that would spill as soon as Harry started to drive.

From the front of the truck, Harry said, "There's knowing and then there's knowing."

Shadow shook his head trying to figure out what Harry meant by that. Half the time he dealt with Harry, he had no clue what the man was saying to him. Often, days would pass before he would figure out that the old man had been giving him advice. Once he did figure it out, he was always amazed at how deep the man was.

"Hold on. This old thing is less stable than I am," Harry quipped as he pulled out of the homeless hotel. The truck tipped over to the point where Shadow was afraid that it was going to fall over. Defying the laws of physics, the truck returned to an upright position.

Shadow waited until Harry came to a stop at a traffic light before taking a sip of his coffee. He wondered how the Druid managed to drive the lunch wagon with such disregard to the fact that it was top heavy. Anyone else would have tipped it over three times on the way to the clinic. It only proved to him that Harry was something special.

He hadn't had enough time to finish the coffee before they pulled up to the clinic. He gamely tried to finish the cup as Harry led him to the door. Even though it had happened every time that Harry had taken him to a Fusion Foundation Clinic, it still surprised Shadow when Harry knew everyone that worked there.

As they removed the cast from Shadow's arm, Harry flirted outrageously with every woman in the clinic. Shadow couldn't believe how the women, young and old, reacted to the old man. He stared at a woman in her sixties when she giggled like a schoolgirl. It seemed like some law of nature had been violated. Harry just winked and pinched her on the rear, producing even more giggles.

When the cast had been removed, Shadow stood and flexed his arm. While Harry was busy talking to an overweight nurse, Shadow saw his opportunity and slipped out of the clinic. He didn't want to be more of a burden than he had been over the past few months. Despite his guilt, he slipped into the growing shadows of an alley behind the clinic.

Shadow felt horrible when Harry came out and looked around as if trying to find him. The old man looked disappointed in him and that hurt. He ducked into the darker shadows and waited for Harry to leave.

When Harry had left, Shadow made his way through the dark alleyways of the city to the door of a dingy bar that advertised packaged goods. Deciding that the bar was dark enough inside, he entered and purchased a bottle of whiskey. The bottle cost him most of his money, but he hoped that it would allow him to forget the hurt look on the Druid's face.

He searched most of the night looking for a dark place to hide. He found a place well before dawn. It was the basement of collapsed building. From the smell, the only visitors that ever came in it were the rats. He could live with rats; they didn't care about ugly.

Once he had a place, he opened the bottle and took a swig. The liquor burned his throat and stomach. He fought the urge to allow it to come back up. The first swallow was always the worst. He took another and then another. He didn't stop until the bottle was drained and the room spun before his eyes.

In the dark corner of the room, he swore that he could see the hurt expression on the Druid's face. Worse than that, he knew that he had disappointed the old man. He rubbed his eyes in shame. He considered that the Druid was the only friend that he had and he had let him down.

Throwing the empty bottle across the room, Shadow shouted, "I'm sorry."

His slurred words and the sound of the bottle breaking echoed in the enclosed basement. There was no answer to his apology. He had not expected one, although he needed one more than anything. The loneliness of living in the dark descended upon him even as the liquor had the desired effect. Alone once again, Shadow passed out on the floor.

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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Slow /