When the wild-eyed man in dirty clothing accosted me in the park, I never would have known that it was Dennis had he not immediately declared his identity. Even once he did, it was hard to believe. How long had it been since I’d seen him last? One month, maybe two? In any event, it wasn’t long enough to explain the state he was in when he ran up to me and began spinning a paranoid tale and begging for help. Something awful must have happened to put him over the edge like that.
He could clearly tell that I’d struggled to recognize him, and I guess he took offense. “It’s me, Bobby! It really is me!” he insisted, touching his fingers to his face as if to hold his sunken features in place while we talked. “I can feel myself slipping away, though. If you don’t help me, the next time you see me, it won’t be me!”
Dennis and I had been very close once upon a time. We had even roomed together when we first started law school. But a year or so later, the pressure must have started to get to him. I saw less of him at classes, and then less of him in general. It looked like he wasn’t going to be able to hack it, and I guessed that it was the natural order of things for people to drift apart in situations like that.
I first started to suspect that something was seriously wrong with Dennis when I ran into him at a party at the end of second year. It was the sort of scene where drugs were flowing like water and I quickly got to wondering what he had gotten into when he cornered me and started babbling about “something” that had been following him. Whatever had brought it on, his bad trip involved disembodied shadows and dark allies; and he seemed to be recounting some half-remembered mythology about shapeshifters or doppelgangers, or something of the sort.
“Look at my eyes!” he shouted, leaning uncomfortably close to me and clouding my glasses with the alcohol on his breath. “What color are they?”
By way of reply, I merely shrugged to make it known that whatever his point was, it eluded me. “They’re supposed to be bright blue,” he continued. “But they’re not, are they? They’re grey.”
“Okay…” I answered, knowing only that he was right about their grey appearance at that moment, in that lighting. But as to how that compared to a few months earlier, when he and I were seeing more of each other, I couldn’t say. It had never occurred to me to make a mental note of the color or the brightness of my friend’s eyes. How often do you really take note of such things?
Picking up bits and pieces of his broken narrative, I gathered that Dennis believed he had been seeing an amorphous figure lurking behind him over a period several weeks. He said that it began with just a feeling, and that that feeling coalesced into a blur or a haze in his peripheral vision, which disappeared when he turned to look at it. Eventually, though, when he was walking alone he would catch longer glimpses of something lingering behind him – something with the shape of a human being, but featureless and all in black.
Eventually he came to the point about his eyes when he told me that he’d been leaving a bar at 1 AM a few nights earlier when, for the first time, the figure drew near enough for him to confront it face-to-face. But when he wheeled in its direction, he found no face looking back at him, only a pair of eyes. Minutes later, when he’d run home in terror and sought to calm himself before the bathroom mirror, his panic doubled when he found a changed man looking back at him.
“They were my eyes, Bobby! It took my eyes from me! And it’s still out there and I don’t know what else it wants.”
I offered to get him some coffee, wanting as much to escape as to help him start coming down. But when he registered that I wasn’t taking his tall tales seriously, he vanished into the crowd and probably out the door, looking nervously over both shoulders.
I didn’t see him for a long time after that, and when I did it was only in passing. He paid me little mind and his shaky appearance led me to believe that he was in the grip of the DTs; and if he recognized me at all, he probably knew that I wouldn’t help him in the way he wanted me to. But his eyes lingered on me long enough for me to recognize how sallow and sunken his appearance had become, how much he had been drained of his former color.
That was probably the worst I saw of him until he confronted me in that park. It was by no means the only time, but it was then that his deterioration seemed most pronounced. There were occasions after that when I spotted him, or even briefly spoke with him. And while I judged him to be even less himself, he seemed to be on the upswing. In fact, he told me as much. His color was faded but seemed to be returning, as were his strength and bulk. “I’m getting better,” he said before hurrying off amidst promises that we would reconnect at a later date.
I assumed it was an appropriate sense of shame that kept him from lingering too long, and I assumed that it was for the same reason that he spoke to me with his eyes averted. They flicked up at me from time to time, though. And while I did notice, I didn’t immediately think anything of their bright blue color. I guess bad decisions really can drain the color from your eyes, at least temporarily.
By the time of our meeting in the park, Dennis had apparently suffered a relapse. All of his progress toward recovery had vanished and his panicked paranoia had returned with such a force that it was impossible for me to stand and listen to him for long. It made me terrifically sad to see him slipping away, and I could think of no way of replying to his desperation other than by being perfectly frank.
“Look, Dennis, I don’t know what you’re on, but you’ve got to commit yourself to kicking it. It’s killing you.”
“Killing me?” he scoffed, as tears welled up in his eyes. “Killing me?! You don’t understand, Bobby. I could handle it if I was dying. But that isn’t it at all. It’s like everything around me is dying. I finally know where this is going. It’s not going to let me die. It’s going to make me like it used to be: just a walking shadow.”
I knew that in his mind this was not a metaphor. But I took it that way and hoped it would do some good to reply in kind. “I’m sure it seems that way, Dennis. I’m sure you’re right in a way. But whatever you’re on, it is going to kill you.”
“I’m not on anything!” he screamed loud enough to make me take a step back. A moment later I turned to walk away and he reached out and clutched at my sleeve. “Please, wait!” he cried. “It can only steal from me when I’m alone! Please, we’re old friends. You’ve got to help me!”
He released his grip on his own as I continued moving away. Unable to look him in the face, I said, “You do need help, Dennis. But I’m not the one to give it to you. But if you get through this on your own, I’ll be around.” As I walked off and left him behind me, my heart sank when I heard that he was weeping.
Dennis disappeared more fully from my life after that. And I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t really think of him until I started to see him again more than six months later. But when I did, I swiftly took comfort in the belief that my final words of encouragement had probably helped to get him back on the straight and narrow. Our interactions at the party and in the park seemed entirely forgotten, and an altogether new man came gradually back into the orbit of my social circle.
Physically, he was exactly the same as the Dennis I had known two years earlier. He came before me and my friends clean-shaven, in freshly pressed clothing, visibly happy to be among us. He re-enrolled in school, albeit in a different program, and he generally seemed to take a renewed interest in life. It was not the same life that he’d lived before, and there have even been times when it seemed to me that I was speaking to someone I had met for the first time only recently. But I suppose that’s only natural. After all, does anyone really go through hardship and change and long periods of loneliness and come out of it on the other side as the same person? I doubt it.
Part of me feels like I lost my old friend for good when I turned away from him in that park, or when he slipped out of sight at that party. But that’s silly, isn’t it? My old friend is right here whenever we feel like seeing each other. And when we do, I experience none of that sadness that overcame me when I saw Dennis from a distance all those months ago, looking like half the man he used to be.
Still, that feeling isn’t entirely gone. I still experience inexplicable twinges of it from time to time when I see someone or something on a deserted street and I vaguely think of it as having the shape of my friend, receding away from me. But the feeling never lasts long and it is becoming less and less frequent. Soon it will be nothing but a shadow.