Shadows by Lamplight

Shadows by Lamplight

A Story by Dms

A young soldier adjusting to life as a civilian.


I know why I bought the lamp. I had a date that night, and I realized all at once that my house was a bit gloomy, so I drove up to the Saint Vincent and grabbed the least hideous one I could find and put it on the desk in the corner of my living room…I think. I cooked chicken and rice that evening, and set out the good china just as she pulled into my driveway.

She was a knockout named Lacey I’d met at a gas station the same day I got home from Virginia. She saw me in uniform and walked right over to thank me for my service. Then she said I was cute and hell, I’d have been pretty gone not to ask her out at that point. Of course, I didn’t plan for much to happen that night. I’d never been much of a ladies man anyways.

It was getting dark when I invited her in. She wore a white turtleneck sweater and jeans. Her golden blonde hair fell over her shoulders and she coyly brushed a strand from her cheek as I showed her around the house. I’d closed on it about a month before I came home. It had been a foreclosure, but still a lot bigger than I needed at two and a half stories with a full basement. They’d wanted ninety thousand and the real-estate agent had told me it was a handy man's dream. I’d told her that I was a soldier, not a handy man, and that I wouldn’t pay over seventy for a house in the middle of the flood plain that was about to fall over. We agreed to eighty, which was what I'd wanted anyways.

There were four bedrooms, two upstairs and two down. Two bathrooms, a full kitchen and a spacious living room. The basement was flooded, so I avoided it for the time being. I didn’t yet have the money to get everything fixed. So far I’d only done the roof and patched up some places in the upstairs ceiling. The wiring was still bad though; something I’d tried to cover up with candlelight and then there was the lamp.

I got the feeling that Lacey had never dated a guy who didn’t live in a dorm or with his parents because she seemed very impressed. Still, I didn’t want to overplay it, so I sat us down to dinner and put on some soft piano music.

“So what did you do in the army?” she asked.

“Would you be impressed if I said I can’t tell you?” I asked back.

“You don’t get to answer questions with questions on the first date,” Lacey smiled as I poured her a glass of red wine.

“I worked with intelligence. Just gathering information, mostly. It really wasn’t very interesting.”

“So you’re done with it then?”

“For now, at least. I’m still thinking they might call me back any day,” I said, taking a sip from my glass.

“What do you do now? Besides cooking for two?”

“Cook for one on most nights,” I chuckled, “But actually I…I…did I leave that light on?”

Suddenly I noticed the lamp in the living room flicker to life. At least, I thought it did. It may have already been on. I couldn’t remember if I’d turned it on.

“It’s fine. You were saying?” she asked.

“Just a moment,” I said, heading into the living room.

I stopped dead in my tracks. A huge red stain stared up at me from the center of the carpet, just within the small golden ring of light coming from the lampshade. I reached down to touch it. It was wet, and warm. Panicking, I turned off the lamp.

“Is everything alright?” Lacey stood up, trying to see what I was hovering over in the living room.

I continued to inspect the carpet, but just like that, the spot was gone. I rubbed my hand into the soft grey fibers, and this time they came back dry. I shook my head.

“I thought I saw a spider. I hate those things.”

I sat back down and we ate, and talked. She was going for her nursing degree at Madison, while I pursued English at Platteville. Both of us hoped to remain in Wisconsin, though I still wanted to see some parts of the world without a uniform on. She had just begun to tell me about a trip to Canada she was planning with some friends when the lamp switched on again. It seemed odd that she didn’t notice. I tried to keep eye contact and seem interested but it was as though a magnetic force were pulling my eyes in the direction of the living room. The red stain was there again, but this time there was something else. A thin white hand was peeking out from under the couch. I turned my head and Lacey stopped talking.

“Another spider?” she asked.

“I think the wiring must be bad in that lamp,” I stood up again, smiling apologetically, “Let me just unplug it, but continue. You were talking about Ontario?”

“Toronto. There’s always something going on at the Du Maurier, and me and my friends were thinking…”

I couldn’t hear her after a moment as I stepped back into the living room. The slick crimson liquid in the carpet soaked through the bottoms of my socks. On the other side of the couch, a foot was jutting out, it’s toenails yellow and cracked, the marble skin bruised all over. I looked back at Lacey, who didn’t seem to notice anything wrong though she was looking right at me, observing every move I made while she droned on about some horse show in November.  

I turned off the lamp again, then knelt down and checked under the couch. There was nothing there. I shook my head, then out of curiosity, reached up and flicked the lamp on again and immediately leaped back, almost knocking it over. The naked emaciated body of a young man lay directly in front of me, his head turned towards me, blue eyes bulging, mouth hanging open as though his jaw had been wrenched free of it’s hinge. I snatched the blanket from the top of the couch and threw it over him as Lacey got up and came towards me.

“Wait! Don’t come in here!” I shouted.

She flinched, stopping just feet from the back of the couch as my hands scrambled to cover the dead man on the floor.

“What’s going on with you?” she demanded.

“It’s just a…stain on my rug, and I don’t want you to see it, because the ceiling was leaking and it’s gotten moldy and I need to tear up the carpet here, but I forgot you were coming over, and it’s just a mess,” I said, as I reached over and yanked the lamp plug from the wall.

Lacey regarded me suspiciously, then crossed her arms over her chest.

“Should I come back another night?” she asked.

I stood up, noting the empty wrinkle under the blanket I’d just tossed over my perfectly spotless carpet. I ran a hand through my hair and breathed a sigh.

“Look, I’m sorry. I’m just a bit wound up. There was a storm last night and I had to run all over the house looking for leaks with pots and bowls, and I really wanted to impress you.”

“Well I’m impressed with the house,” Lacey said with a smirk, “but I think you’ve been alone a bit too long.”

She took my hand and pulled me in for a kiss. It was pleasant, as kisses go, tasting of chicken and rice, but having a distinct aftertaste of cherry lip gloss diluted with saliva. She pushed me over to my arm chair and sat me down, climbing onto my lap and leaning in again when the lamp clicked on. My limbs jolted so violently that she jumped back.

“What is it now?” she snapped.

“Behind you…the...the lamp…” I stammered.

A pair of boney arms wrapped slowly around her, clasping her loosely as the naked man moved his head from behind hers and gaped at me from over her shoulder. His broken jaw snapped back into place and his powdery blue lips curled into a lewd grin. Lacey rolled her eyes, and threw her arms up.

“Alright, that‘s really enough. You're freaking me out and I have to go,” she turned and went back into the dining room, breaking the man’s grip effortlessly, his arms falling back to his sides like the severed strings of a cobweb.

“Wait…you can’t see him? You didn’t notice the lamp turn back on?” I pointed at the table where the lamp should have been.

“You know, I thought at first you might be joking, but if it were a joke it wouldn't be funny.  Give me a call when you're not crazy,” Lacey snatched her purse from the kitchen counter.

“The lamp! The damned lamp on the desk right there!” I insisted, still pointing without looking.

“What lamp?” she asked, slamming the door behind her as she left.

I turned around, a tight knot forming in my chest, making it harder to breathe. A few of the candles in the dining room blew out as a slight breeze crept in through the window. It was darker than it should have been. I stared in disbelief at the top of the desk in the corner. The lamp was gone. I got up and swiped my hand through the open air it had occupied, then whirled around to where the man had been standing. Of course, without the lamp’s ghostly light, I could no longer see him.

"The basement," I muttered, remembering that I had gone down there first after bringing the lamp home, trying to find an extension chord.

I rushed outside and around the backyard to the stone steps that led down to the basement, standing water still several inches high at the door.  My heart was racing, but I couldn't understand why.  I didn't know why I was in such a hurry either.  It was just a stupid lamp, but suddenly it seemed that my entire life was hinged upon finding it.  

I went inside, soaking my socks and the cuffs of my pants as I sloshed through the water, hands groping through dusty cobwebs until they found the hanging string for the light bulb in the middle of the main room.  I switched it on, eyes darting around to the sagging shelves against the walls, searching for the lamp.   I staggered into the backroom where the water heater sat, it's discolored sides with peeling paint reminding me of an old bomb stuck in the ground, forgotten but still lethal inside.  I searched behind it along the shelves, knocking over boxes of old records and moth eaten uniforms I never intended to wear again but couldn't throw away.  I slid my hands along the top until my fingers passed over something sharp and I recoiled, blood flying from my hand to the dirty water that was up to my ankles, sending out small ripples as smoky tendrils of red dissolved into the murk. I stood on a crate and carefully plucked the broken lamp from it's perch, dust falling down as I stared at the strange foreign patterns painted on the side.

The shooting had finally ended and we were dragging out the dead.  We captured one who'd hidden in a closet.  I interrogated him with the commander looking on.  He was supposed to know something, but he never said a word.  He'd just been in the wrong place for all I knew.  I hit him so hard he flew back into the wall.  The lamp fell over.  My lamp...or maybe it just looked like my was so easy to forget after they put me on medication.  We released him when I was finished, but he'd been in no condition to walk.

I dropped the lamp into the water and turned around, heading back outside.  I slowly walked back through the kitchen and sat down at my table where one candle was still flickering.  The naked man sat at the other side, jaw broken and hanging again, eyes sunken in but tilted up in my direction.  His chest was caved in, purple and black in the middle where a small hole almost looked as though it were still smoking.  His hands were in his lap.  He made no move towards me.

I poured another glass of wine, then after a thought, filled the glass in front of him as well.  Then I drowned the contents of both and sat back, staring at his pale plastic expression and wondering how long it would be before I could forget again.

© 2011 Dms

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Added on June 27, 2011
Last Updated on June 27, 2011



Plain, WI

For those of you visiting me for the first time, my name is David Stienmetz. I'm 25 years old, and a six year Army veteran. Since getting out, I've started college, bought a house, had a bad.. more..

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