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Monday, October 8, 2012

Penumbra By Chris Brecheen

By Chris Brecheen 

Yes, I can see Penumbra.

I’ve been able to see them for years, even without the usual equipment. I know nobody believes me, which is (of course) why I’m here.  Dr. Cienica says that I’ll be tested soon, but I know she’s lying.  I can tell.  (Are you reading this Dr. C?  I can always tell.)  She pays lots of attention to how dirty her glasses are whenever she lies.  She starts looking around for her little green wipe cloth and holds her glasses out in front of her to see the spots.  I watch her hazel eyes darting around--looking anywhere in the world but at me--and I know she’s lying.   

I wish you all would test me. Bring your cameras. Bring your motion sensors. Bring your thermal imaging equipment. And I’ll bring just myself. You’ll see.

Everyone’s so sure I’m lying. Everyone’s got it all figured out. So for now, Dr. Cienica says my only job is to explain why and how I have this amazing ability. She says it with that edge of incredulity in her voice--lengthening the A in “amazing” while remaining deadpan--so I never forget she’s humoring me. I think they must have a class in college on how to maintain plausible deniability when talking to people without ever letting them forget that you think they’re delusional. I imagine Dr. C did very well in that class.

The problem is, I don’t know why I can see Penumbra. I don’t know how. The only thing I know is when. When I started to be able to see them.

So I guess I’ll write about that, and maybe you and Dr. C and the whole gang can put those big science brains of yours to work doing something other than figuring out how much Sertindole to give me.

It started with this one Penumbra at the 19th street BART station. I think she lived there.  Maybe she knew how to avoid the scanners. Maybe she scraped together the six dollar minimum. Maybe BART sucks at sweeps. Places are always getting lazy unless there’s a problem, and BART has been struggling with its budget since forever. These days I wonder if she didn't know an employee who helped her out. Anyway, somehow this lady got herself settled at the west end of the eastbound platform, and set up house. 

I don’t know how long she’d been there. I never went down to that end until I started walking.  I’d usually sit on the benches with the blue tile backs and cement seats, pull out my tablet or my laptop, and play some video games. I only started walking after the strip club. 

I guess I should explain that. Dr. Cienica says I’m supposed to make this “girthy.” I don’t see what the point of that is, but I guess I can flesh out some back story. I’m not particularly attractive. I’m not tall or in great shape. My face isn’t handsome. I've had a few relationships, but they always took time to bloom. I never catch anyone’s eye. I just don’t have the look for it. I never really thought about that until I went to this strip club in the city for a friend’s birthday party. His girlfriend rounded up a few of his friends for an evening of debauchery, half to embarrass the hell out of him and half because I think him being there took the curse off of things she wasn’t ready to admit--at least if those smoldering looks I saw were any indication. Or maybe she was. Jesus I don't know what their relationship agreements were.

But I suppose I’m getting off topic.

The strip club was kind of an eye-opening experience. No, I don’t mean an eye-popping experience, though it was that too, but actually I realized something watching women grind and undulate taut bellies and svelte limbs to the thumping music. As desire gripped my gut like a hot talon and taut muscles bent and flexed through the haze of stale cigarette smoke, I noticed that not all the dancers were classically what you might call beautiful.

They were fun to look at. $172 dollars worth of fun if I remember correctly--even though I started the night insisting I was only there for the party.  Some of them were total lookers, but a lot of them were sort of average.  If those amazing bodies had been concealed, they wouldn’t have caught anyone’s eye. This one that I hired to do a lap dance on me--Cindy or Candy--was kind of plain. An underbite, and a flatish nose made me wonder if she ran into too many walls as a kid. (As I’m writing this now...I really wonder what made me think something so mean and why I can’t recall her name.)

Anyway, Candy or Cindy was not unattractive, you understand, just nothing special. But oh how that gentle groove between the muscles along the side of her thigh drew my eyes when she danced, and she was just so hot. It occurred to me that the reason all these guys gladly submitted to a two drink minimum and a weirdo who made you tip him to leave the bathroom was not the faces. It was the bodies. At the time, I think I had some thought like looking at a Ferrari and not thinking about driving it.

So I started going to the gym.  I lifted weights, cut out sweets and fats, and started jogging. And anytime I rode BART, I walked the platform. Up and down as fast as I could past the long lines of people queued up at each door marker so they wouldn’t lose their position. 135 yards I estimated.  About 13 laps to a mile. I tried to get as many laps in as I could before the train pulled up. 

That’s when I found her.

I don’t know if you remember winter three years ago but it rained all the time. Not peppery drizzles that we usually get around here, but merciless downpours. It would let up, the sun might even tease us with a quick glimpse, and then more rain. It was raining the day I met her. I know that because I was soaked. When I left home, I saw sunbeams punching through the grey blanket of clouds, but in the three-block walk, the sky opened up. I had to do my laps despite that nasty, sloppy feeling of cold, wet denim pressed against my thighs. I was afraid to turn on my smartphone to play games since it had gotten a little wet in my pocket. So I plodded along with squeaky steps and simply looked around at the mosaic pattern of the blue tiles on the wall. I had only recently seen that there was actually a complicated pattern and not just a random assortment of tiles. The darker blue tiles snaked through the lower parts of the station and the lighter blues alternated with whites up above.  A few dark tiles dotted the top, and a few light ones showed up down below. It looked completely random at first, but it was actually a predictable pattern if you looked at the bigger picture.

When I saw her, it took me a second to realize what I was looking at.  Everyone sees them once in a while. One of my friends can sometimes hear them when they're talking to themselves and then if he focuses on the voice, eventually he can see where it's coming from. And I knew a guy in high school who swore if they were walking toward him, he would see them within 15 feet. You hear the stories on the news when one of them saves someone from a fire or something. It’s always the same: the person can see them for a week or two, then it fades. None of that stuff applied to me though. And yet there she was.  I turned a corner, looked down, and there she was.

She was a small black woman. Short but also thin and frail. She had herself set up for comfort--a dark grey blanket, a pillow of bundled clothes, a folding grocery cart filled with crap. I half expected to see a TV plugged in, leeching off BART electricity, so she could watch some soap opera. As soon as I noticed her eyes, I didn’t notice anything else. I don’t like hyperbole, and I always thought burning-rage-eye or fiery-look cliches were stupid. 

She made them all make sense.

And she did not like being seen. “What the fuck are you doing?” she spat. Her voice was low and gravelly and sounded like a dog giving you your one warning growl not to come any closer, so only I could hear, and the consonants hit hard in a tight staccato.

I kept walking.  I didn’t know what else to do. Penumbra are dangerous. They’re usually crazy, almost always alcoholics or addicts, and very often military-trained veterans--not a combination you want to upset. I know you aren’t supposed to talk to them or really even acknowledge them if you do happen to see one. Eventually, my walking carried me behind the blue partition wall and out of her sight, cutting off that lock between our eyes.

I took it as a fluke.  She obviously must have done something–made a move I could perceive as a threat, gotten close to me, addressed me directly without me realizing it, or something–I just didn’t know what. 

Except it wasn’t a fluke. 

The next day, I saw her again in the same place. I noticed a spray of salt and pepper along the fringes of her short afro. Her right eye seemed bigger than her left. Smells of vomit, urine, feces, and unmitigated body odor like sour onions wafted around her. Her folding grocery cart overflowed with dirty clothes and had a threadbare stuffed lamb perched on top of it all. It was worn in patches, with one leg that looked tied off at the foot, but it wasn’t stained like everything else.

Her head yanked as I came around, and our eyes met again. That murderous rage welled up in less than a second. “Don’t you fucking see me!”  she seethed.

But I kept right on seeing her every day.

I decided her name was Claire; I’m not sure why.  Claire had two sets of clothes–one was blue-jean overalls with a thin orange sweater like the color of canned tomato soup, and the other was long-faded camouflage pants with a grey splotchy shirt that may once have been a cream color.

Sometimes she hadn’t even woken up yet. It was always a relief when I’d round the corner and see her scrunched up into a ball, trying to tuck as much of her tiny body under that coarse grey blanket as possible.  Her arms looked like wrinkled brown sticks ending in twiggish fingers with gnarled marble-sized knots for knuckles. They clutched her little lamb close to her chest. Swollen bare feet poked out the other end of the blanket, revealing black patches on the soles as dark as oil, two missing toes on her left foot, and angry red splotches running up both ankles. She slept soundly, mouth open, slimy runners of drool dripping onto the jacket she’d balled up under her head.  Once I stopped to look at her. I watched her breathing gently, and I wondered how far up her leg the red patch went.

After that I started being relieved when she wasn’t asleep. 

Her head would flip around as I rounded the corner. Her eyes would harden into those hate-filled buttons, and she would growl at me not to look at her. I tried.  I really did. I tried looking away.  I tried ignoring her. I stared at the opposite wall and studied the pattern in the mosaic of dark and light tiles.  But I still saw her out of the corner of my eye and she still yelled at me.  “Stop seeing me!”

After a couple of weeks, I got pissed off. Who was this insane Penumbra to tell me where to walk?  I grew to hate that end of the platform.  I was entitled to walk the BART platform without some Penumbra ruining it for me by setting herself up like it was the Ritz Carlton.

“Stop seeing me!” Claire would yell, and my blood would boil. 

One day she had an unusual moment of lucidity. Instead of getting angry, she just watched me when I came around the corner. Her eyes narrowed.  “How?” she asked simply. She was trying to fix one of the eyes of her lamb with a needle and thread, sewing another button into the lamb’s face like she’d done it a thousand times. I could see that the button she was using was bigger than the other eye, and navy blue instead of black. Her fingers looked like sticks wrapped in brown tissue paper, but they worked the needle adroitly.

I didn’t stop my round, but I did slow a bit. “I don’t know. You’re the only one.” 

“Lucky me,” she said.

“I don’t like it either,” I said.

“You’re always walking,” she said. “Where you going?”


She smiled.  It was an eerie and serene smile. With her working a needle and thread on a stuffed animal, I had a powerful image of her smiling the same way, as she performed urgent surgery on the favorite toy of an inconsolable child.

“Don’t need to walk to go nowhere,” she said. “Save yourself a trip.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I couldn’t think of what else to say, and I was still picturing that image of her as some actual person.  I must have looked pretty stupid.

“I wish you’d walk somewhere else,” she said.

“One end to the other,” I said.

“I wish you’d walk the other way.” An edge crept into her voice. I was only about halfway done with my horseshoe, but I felt her old rage rising.

“Yeah, well,” I said, “if I walked the other way, I’d eventually hit the other side and have to come back.”  I thought I was being pretty clever.

“Then turn around sooner!” she spat. 

I stopped.  “Lady…what is your problem?”  God I knew better than to be hostile to a Penumbra. I vaguely wondered if anyone thought I was talking to myself.  I’m still not sure what I was thinking. “I’m sorry I can see you.  Believe me, I don’t want to.  I mean…who the hell wants to see some Penumbra?”

At first she seemed to deflate a bit like a balloon released without tying off.  Her hand pulled her lamb close to her.  She looked away.  But then her little tiny jaw set, and started to quiver.

“Stupid ASSHOLE!” she screamed, and struggled to her feet with only the arm that wasn’t clutching her lamb tight.  She was tinier than she looked lying down. I’m five four, and people usually tower over me, but Claire might have come up to my shoulder. 

I flipped her off and started walking again. I tried to be casual as I walked away, but my heart slammed against my tonsils, and I knew casual was gone. She hobbled after me, favoring her left foot and with each step she rubbed her hips with those gnarled hands. “Keep walking. Don’t you come back here!” she said with just enough volume to keep from getting noticed. “Don’t you ever come back here!”

I found a bench and sat down, my circuit abandoned. My hands shook.

Then I saw the white operator phone.  It stood out against the blue brickwork like a lone milky cloud coasting across a sunny sky.  Oh the things I could do to her—the torment I could inflict. All it takes is one person to point a Penumbra out, then the dominoes fall. I had all the power. She would have to show me some respect if she didn’t want to end up in the pouring rain.

I imagined the scene…

“Stupid cracker!” she’d yell.

I’d stay cool, collected. “You might want to consider that tone, Claire,” I’d reply.

She’d be taken back by my demeanor. She’d sense something was...different. Just from my voice, she’d know I meant business. But she wouldn’t be ready to let go. Not just yet. “Don’t look at me, cracker. Don’t walk here and look at me!”

I’d saunter towards the phone. I’d place my hand on it, and sneer back at her.  “Are you sure you want to do this, Claire? You sure you want to push me? I can end your whole little setup with one call. You got a pretty sweet gig going here, the rain coming down like it is. Shelter. Warmth. You sure you want to mess that up?”

She would stop cold. 

“Is it really worth it?” I would ask.

The fight would drain out of her. Her eyes would go soft and gaze at me, pleading.

“Now,” I would say, “do I lift this phone, or do you apologize?”

Her head would slump. She would sigh. “I’m sorry,” she would say. “I’m so sorry.”

“And you’re going to leave me alone from now on when I walk by you, right?” I’d say.

She would nod, utterly defeated.

Well, I seem to have gone way over five pages here, but I guess I should at least finish my story.  Fortunately, Dr. C says that's a minimum, not a maximum. I guess I didn’t need so much filler after all.

She was asleep for several days after that, so my fantasy marinated in the juice of my imagination, getting more and more absurd each time. At one point, I actually imagined her taking me back to the Penumbra headquarters and becoming their king. There may have even been a queen who wasn’t quite so dirty and crazy as the rest. It's all embarrassing to think about now, honestly.

The next time I found her awake I appeared to be running late for work. I was up for review and even actually wearing a spiffy black dress shirt to score some points. Not that my shirt would matter if I waltzed in late. But I would just make on time it if I caught the next train and walked as fast as I could from my stop. I rounded the corner expecting to find her asleep again, but she was sitting up, reading a tattered paperback—one of those romance novels they write so many of that they have a triple digit number on the spine. Her little lamb sat in her lap with its mismatched buttons. 

She looked up at me right away.  “I told you not to come back here!” she said.  Her voice was cold and level.

My heart pounded.  My hands shook.  I tried to remember my plan, but it started to get muddled when I actually looked at her.  “Look, relax okay!”

“I don’t want you seeing me,” she gritted through bared teeth. Her gums had receded so far that she looked like a skull. Most of her teeth were black or brown. Several dark spaces marked missing ones.  One was a nub, worn halfway down, the tooth blackened. I watched her nostrils pulse as they flared and I saw the delicate hairs inside fluttering against her breath. A fresh brown stain on her splotchy shirt looked almost exactly like a small person.

“I get to be here too,” I stammered. My voice shook. "I paid for a ticket.  I can walk where I want!"

Claire strained and twisted to stand.  The wrinkled skin of her arms shifted as her tiny muscles flexed. She didn’t seem to be able to do much with her left hand, and so getting up was a process of shifting weight on her right. A process made even more cumbersome by the fact that she kept adjusting her lamb so it wouldn’t fall to the floor. Finally she stood, her lamb in her right hand, and swiveled her eyes to meet mine.

“I’ll call the cops!” I blurted.  I took a few steps back. “I’ll get you kicked out.”

“Motherfucker!” she screamed.  This was loud enough that people would notice, and I saw a couple of heads turn to look. “I ain’t done shit to you. Why do you keep seeing me?”

"I'll do it!"  I moved down the platform toward the phone. Claire waddled after me favoring her left leg. I dimly heard my train being announced as approaching. I didn’t care. I reached the phone well before her. I touched its smooth, white surface. I looked back at Claire. She still hobbled after me, screaming obscenities.

The Howl of the BART car pulling into the station echoed against the blue brick walls. It bounced across every surface and ricocheted around the station. The whine of the brakes screamed even over Claire. I lifted the receiver to my ear. This finally stopped her advance. She stood and stared. One shoulder slumped but the other—the side she held her lamb in—she held rigid and high. It gave her an odd, slanted look. Her bare brown feet contrasted with the white tile she stood on. I remember very clearly wondering if she could feel the black patches when she walked or if they were numb spots.

Or did they hurt? 

The doors of the train slid open with a hiss. “Pittsburg Bay Point train now boarding; platform one,” the soft female voice said. I would be late if I didn’t get on. Claire looked at me, unmoving and silent. Her head cocked--daring me to go through with it.

 I pressed the receiver to my ear.  The doors on the train slid closed with a hiss.

“Hello?” the operator said. 

What happened next still bothers me. I wondered who she was. Who was Claire? Who was this little, delicate-looking but fierce Penumbra that liked to say fuck a lot? How did she become a Penumbra. We know they all start out as real people. Did she just slip away from everyone? Did she fall on hard times? Drugs? Alcohol? I wondered if she played as a child. Before she faded away, did she have a family? Did she have children of her own? Did she sew their wounded stuffed animals back to health, and return them to sniffling kids with grateful eyes? This little lamb couldn’t have lasted forty years from her own childhood. Could it have been one of her children’s?

Then I thought of the cops escorting her out into the rain and the water seeping into her clothing and making a sopping-wet, freezing-cold sheath on her bony body like it had done to my jeans the first day I saw her. I thought about the wet slopping against her own thighs. I thought of her crawling into a cardboard box to sleep. I thought of taking painful steps on black patches of skin. I thought about what it would feel like if every step hurt.

“Hello,” the operator said. “Is anyone there?”

My train pulled away with a rising cry, eventually fading as the darkness beyond the station swallowed it. “Sorry,” I said. I put the phone back in the cradle. My hands relaxed and fell open. I sat down on the little bench near the phone. I looked back at Claire, not too far off. Her chin tilted just a little upwards, cocked in triumph.

“Hey,” I said, and she looked at me. With me sitting and her standing, our eyes were level. We looked straight at each other.

I yanked a small black button off my shirt, and tossed it at her.  “You win,” I said. I tried to throw it with all the hate and vitriol I felt, but it was just a button, and she reached out and caught it without the slightest trouble.

The next day I stopped walking.

It was summer before I dared to peek around the corner again. She wasn’t there. I don’t know if she left after the rains or what. Only a dingy stain ground into the linoleum remained.  However, I discovered, pressed into the crack in the cement where wall met floor, a small, navy blue button.

I know what you’re thinking. Maybe she was there, but I just couldn’t see her.  Look, I know that’s not it.  I know I would have seen her if she’d been there.  Because I can see all of them now.  Not just Claire…all of them. I see them under bridges, in parks, tucked into doorways, on busses, living right beneath our eyes. There's so many of them  Everywhere. 

So you tell me--you and Dr. Cienica.  Now you know the story.  Maybe you can see something I overlooked.

[© 2012  All Rights Reserved.   If you enjoyed Penumbra, please consider a small donation (in the tip jar on the left side of the screen or even better becoming a Patron) to continue to fund future offerings of fiction here on Writing About Writing.]


  1. I think this story is excellent, Chris.

  2. I wonder if you'd be interested at all in allowing me to publish this in an upcoming speculative fiction anthology I'm working on? (Or if you have something else you think would fit?) No worries, if not. I understand. But here's the link to open calls if you want to have a look: http://www.jayhenge.com/callforstories.html

    1. I'm interested (particularly if I get a promo link in some kind of bio blurb).

  3. Have been following your FB page about writing for a couple of years...but never actually read your work before. I think this is a brilliant piece of writing...hope to read more!