A short story from the Charlie Holiday vault.

“Gotta do the deed, dude.”

Charlie looked up from his phone but didn’t yet look over to the guy who said it.

He thought about asking what he said and the whole who-are-you-and-why-are-you-talking-to-me but it had become so common that so-called strangers just struck up conversations with him that he wasn’t going to bother.

He thought to himself, Going to skip all of those pleasantries and get into it.

“And what deed might that be,” he said in his best sophisticated accent, especially good, he thought, in response to the scratchy ruffian voice that asked the question.

Charlie still didn’t look at the man, choosing instead to look straight ahead and leave something with his imagination.

“Embrace the shadow.”

Charlie nodded as he took it in. He understood the words but was pretty certain there was some ridiculously important meaning behind them. He also calculated, with lightning-speed efficiency, the man was going to explain further if Charlie didn’t quite catch on immediately.

Neither of them said anything for a few seconds. Charlie was waiting for the man to make an explanation, but none was coming.

In a staring contest without looking, Charlie was about to lose. He was indeed curious and couldn’t deny he wanted to know what the man meant. He had absolutely more important things to do the same afternoon, he was sure he did.

He looked at his watch in a blatant and old-school sign that he did have better things to do, but they both knew nothing was better than the topic at hand.

Charlie turned his head.

The whole dude reference had implanted a vision of a younger man, but not to the extent he saw now next to him.

The guy, no, the dude, couldn’t have been past his mid-twenties. If wrinkles around the eyes and a bit of stubble in a beard were signs of intelligence, experience, and all-around worldly importance, this kid had none of that.

He was fresh off the boat of innocence. What could this kid possibly know about Charlie, about some shadow of, what was it? Embracing? Charlie thought to himself as he looked into the eyes of the young man next to him.

But his eyes were unwavering. If his blemish-free skin and clean-cut hair were signs of youth, his eyes held a deeper soul that had no trouble holding ground with the powerful gaze of Charlie Holiday.

It was clear the boy wasn’t going to give in and speak again. Charlie had things to do, he was sure of it, he needed to move on to other matters of the day. Still, he had to know.

“OK, I give in,” he started. “What does it mean to embrace the shadow?”

“What do you think it means?” the boy responded immediately as if he had been waiting for the question.

Charlie hadn’t been waiting for the question to his question and before he could reply with some delaying tactic like that, he stopped to actually think about it.

Embrace the shadow.

He let it roll around in his brain a few times. The idea bounced around like a Bingo number in one of those air poppers—lots of air and one ball made of plastic.

With witty commentary on the tip of his tongue, something about Bingo balls and empty space, a pang hit him in his gut as if the man punched him. Of course, the man was sitting still, very still in fact, and hadn’t moved a muscle. At least not a physical muscle.

It was as if the young dude had hit Charlie in the stomach with a thought.

The thought of embracing the shadow.

It sank in quickly, like a strong punch, and the ache spread further throughout his stomach to his back and up to his heart. In another instant he knew what the pain was: he knew what embrace the shadow meant.

The problem was that he didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to talk about this. He wanted to get back to whatever it was he was doing, which was guaranteed to be more fun than this.

All of this thinking and shadow dude hadn’t moved or turned his laser-focused stare away from Charlie.

“This is exactly what it means,” Charlie started. “Right here. Not backing down, not giving up or even giving in.” He paused. The man was listening. “You want me to face you head on, to address the situation, to open the wounds, to look you in the eyes, as I’m doing right this very second and let you know I won’t back down.”

The guy blinked. He was human. There might have been a slight nod of acknowledgment, but only maybe. Still, he didn’t speak. Charlie kept going.

“I suppose if it’s a shadow I’m supposed to embrace then it’s not light and fluffy, then you might have said embrace the cloud or embrace the cotton candy, but no, it was absolutely a shadow and I get it, no, really, I get it. The shadow, something dark, something hiding behind what I think it might really be.”

Again with the punch to the gut. Shadow dude sending another punch message? Chai tea latte packing a bit too much cardamom?

No, he knew what it was. It was recognition. He was quickly and painfully understanding what was going on.

“Shadow. Dark. Secret. Pain. Hiding. Hiding in plain sight,” Charlie thought about it all again as now all of those thoughts and words were bouncing around in the same Bingo ball sphere together. His ideas were churning and bouncing wildly.

“Face my fears,” Charlie said. “Embrace my darkest fears. Is that it? Is that what you want me to do?”

Finally, secret dude spoke.

“I don’t want or need you to do anything.”

“Then what are you doing here? Why are you talking to me?”

“Because,” the guy started. “Although you seem to have a good handle on what it means, you’re not doing it.”

“I’m not doing what?” But as soon as Charlie said it, he knew exactly what he wasn’t doing. He knew he couldn’t argue because the guy was right. By saying nothing, the man sitting next to him acknowledged he knew Charlie knew what he was not doing and was not going to dig deeper.

“Embrace the shadow,” Charlie repeated. Loads of light-hearted one-liners raced through his mind, got to his mouth, but he held them back. Now was not the time for joking. The guy was right, they both knew it and there was nothing else to say.

“You know what to do,” the guy said and before Charlie could come back asking more questions he realized, yet again, he did know what to do. Maybe not exactly how to do it but it didn’t seem the time or place to ask for specifics and Mr. Shadow Dude would probably respond with some deep, philosophical monologue about how Charlie would figure it out.

For the first time, the guy turned his gaze away from Charlie and rather than stand and make some dramatic exit, he turned back into his own chair and held up the newspaper he was reading.

Charlie finished his Chai and even though he had the urge about 87 times to ask more questions and strike up conversations about nothing in particular, he knew he shouldn’t and didn’t.

It was as if the guy returned to a person who didn’t just talk to Charlie and melted back into the scenery. As if he didn’t just tell Charlie what was missing in his life, the block that was going to set him free and let him loose to reach new heights and all of that.

Just a few words exchanged, a clear understanding of what was needed to be done, a message delivered by a supposed stranger and Charlie’s life was altered forever. Again.

After having stared straight ahead for a while longer, he turned back to have one last look at the guy but he was gone.

Charlie knew what to do. He wasn’t excited about it because it was going to be unknown and possibly dark and probably painful. But he knew what to do. It was as clear as the single winner Bingo ball coming out of the chute and up onto the board.

Embrace the shadow.