SHADE OF GARY

On an unseasonably nice day in November, Gary Atteberry climbed out his bedroom window to lie on his roof for an hour or so, to enjoy the weather, stare up at the white clouds in the blue sky, see what he might imagine they looked like.

“That’s a cotton ball,” he said about one, and laughed to himself. “And that’s a sponge.”

We’ve got some pretty boring clouds in this neighborhood, Gary thought after a while, then closed his eyes and just let the sun warm his face. Every so often an unexciting cloud would pass between him and the sun, and Gary would sit up and consider going back inside. But then the cloud would pass.

After forty minutes of sunning, Gary did decide to call it a morning. Before he crawled in, though, he crawled to the edge of his roof to admire the job he’d done earlier of raking the lawn clean of fallen leaves and mowing the grass to an even trim for probably the last time before the snows came and covered everything. Then Gary brought his focus in a little and saw darkening the grass the shadow of the small autumn-bare tree in the yard. And he saw the shadow of a man hanging by his neck from a rope tied to a branch of the tree. But of course there was no man hanging from the tree. Gary went inside, then downstairs, then out the back door of the house to look at the shadow from ground level.

It was more distorted from there, but Gary also wanted to wave his hands under the branches of the tree, convince himself that there was in fact nothing there. There was nothing. And yet there was the shadow of a man hanging from the shadow of the tree. Gary went back inside.

He called to his sister. She was in her room, reading.

“Come with me,” Gary said. “I want you to see something. Tell me I’m not crazy.”

“I’m reading, Gary. I’ll come look later.”

“It might be gone later,” Gary said.

“Then there won’t be anything to worry you. You can go back to thinking you’re not crazy.”

Gary went back to his room alone. He didn’t go back out on his roof yet, but he did go to his window. Still there and unmistakable: the shadow of a man hanging by the shadow of a rope from the shadow of a branch of a tree in the yard. The shadow moved when a breeze moved the grass and the smaller branches. What the hell? Gary thought.

A car honked in the front of the house. In the driveway, actually. Gary went out the front door to help his mom with the grocery packages. He didn’t say anything to her about the hanging man. He’d tell her when he could explain it, he figured.

In their own front yard, the kids from next door were playing with the kid from next door to them on the other side. Gary never remembered their names, but he thought they were good kids all the same. Eight or nine years old or so. Not too wild. Not too bright, but not bad kids. Gary brought six or seven bags into the house. He’d come back for the rest, no need to make his sister help. She was reading, anyway. Couldn’t be disturbed.

When he was bringing the last of the groceries from the car to the house, the older boy from next door intercepted him and asked, “Can we have a couple of those?”

Gary looked to see what the kid could see through the opaque plastic bags. Even Gary didn’t know what he was carrying. He made out the outline of a large round vegetable.

“Lettuce?” Gary asked the boy from next door.

The boy screwed up his face. “Um, a couple of bags,” he said.

“Oh,” Gary said. “The bags. Sure. You can have the bags. Let me just put the food in the house, I’ll bring the bags back out.” Gary didn’t ask what they wanted the bags for. “Just don’t put them over your brother’s head,” Gary said.

Gary went back to his window. Warm as it was out, it would all the same be getting dark soon, by five. That meant that the hanging man’s shadow would be covered by night, just as it had already moved around the tree some, as the sun had moved in the sky.

Something occurred to Gary just then, thinking about the shadow of the man moving: Where the shadow was now, there were no branches between it and the sun. He knew that there was no man hanging from the tree in his yard, but now he realized that there could be a man hanging from another tree nearby. In a neighbor’s yard, maybe. Gary looked out his window to the other trees in the area, the taller trees. Of course there were no dead men hanging from any trees that Gary could see. This was getting plain silly.

Gary went back outside and, after a long moment of hesitation, stood in the shadow of the hanging man. Who knew what bewitchery would befall the one who stood in the shadow of a phantom dead man hanging from a tree on a warm November night…. But Gary chanced it, stood in the shadow, faced the sun, and looked up expecting to see exactly what was being projected on to him. Instead, of course, he got an eyeful of sunshine. But he knew where to stand and where to look. He’d come out later, with a flashlight, and maybe his sister if she was done reading.

Gary stepped out of the shadow and looked up to the second floor roof of his next-door neighbor’s house. The kids he’d given the plastic bags to were opening a window and arguing about who would go first.

When his dad came home the family ate dinner. After dinner, before his sister could retreat to her room and her teen magazines, Gary asked her if she could spare ten minutes. He wanted her to hold a flashlight for him.

“Go fly a kite,” she said.

Fine. Gary could hold his own flashlight. His sister was useless, always either reading or talking on the phone or watching TV, polishing her nails, brushing her hair. Maybe she should——

Fly a kite, Gary thought. And then Gary thought he knew what he was looking for.

He ran outside, turned on his flashlight, shined it into his neighbor’s yard, pointed it down, onto their lawn. Plastic bags. Two of them. The bags he’d given the kids earlier. Gary walked around the fence that separated the properties and went into his neighbor’s yard. He picked up one of the plastic bags. The handles were tied together with string. The other end of the string was tied around the neck of an action figure. Gary smiled. The boys had made parachutes. And Gary would bet that there was an action figure paratrooper caught in one of his neighbor’s trees, casting a shadow of a hanging man onto his lawn during the day. Gary shined his flashlight higher, looking for the right tree, the tree in the right place, the tree that had captured one of the good guys on an updraft.

Either his neighbors weren’t home, Gary realized, or they didn’t care that someone was shining a flashlight in their yard. If they didn’t care that someone was behind their house, then they’d probably not care that someone was now climbing one of their trees.

Climbing trees at night was not the safest thing Gary could have been doing, but since he knew what he was looking for now, he didn’t think he’d be aloft very long, just long enough to knock G.I. Joe down and end the show, now that he’d solved the mystery. He was level with the second story of his neighbor’s house when, with a tremendous feeling of satisfaction, Gary was proven absolutely right by his sighting an action figure tied to a plastic bag caught in a bough above him. Gary continued his climb and finally made it high enough to reach the branch that held the little man, the prisoner of, well, not war, but wind, maybe. Friendly flora. The action figure was out on the limb, so Gary grabbed hold of the branch where it meet the tree trunk and shook it.

Of course Gary lost his footing, shaking the tree. The little man didn’t come unstuck but Gary slipped from where he’d stood. He held on to the branch above him with his hands but scrambled too forcefully to step back onto the branch below and it snapped beneath his flailing feet. His flashlight fell from his pocket to the cement below him. He was over his neighbor’s driveway now.

He didn’t yell. He didn’t pray. It didn’t even bother him much that he’d failed to loose the action figure. He just didn’t want to fall to his death from twelve feet above the earth on what had been such a nice day. There was no chance of his finding another footing now, though. His only hope was to grab another branch with one hand, maybe a lower branch, maybe swing himself around to a better side of the tree. Gary found a branch, reached for it, slipped and fell.

Gary Atteberry fell out of his next-door neighbor’s tree but he didn’t hit the concrete driveway below him. About this time Gary’s kid sister was looking for him. She went into his room to offer to help him with whatever stupid project he had in mind. She’d hold his flashlight for him, but she was not standing outside for more than ten minutes. It may have been a nice day, but it was still cold at night in November. Gary wasn’t in his room. His sister went to his window and looked outside. He wasn’t in their yard. At least, she didn’t see him shining a flashlight in their yard. She didn’t think to look into their neighbor’s yard, but she wouldn’t have seen her brother anyway, from where she was. The tree he’d fallen from was out of her sight.

But when their next-door neighbors came home, later that evening, when they pulled their car into their driveway, the headlights would cast onto their garage door the shadow of a young man hanging from the freestanding basketball hoop just below the tree they’d been meaning to prune because it interfered with three-point shots, the young man’s neck broken when it hit the rim.


Matthew David Brozik is the author of WHIMSY & SODA and TAKING IVY SERIOUSLY, among other things.

“Shade of Gary” appeared in Offline Magazine, August 2014.