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How to Shrug Off the Shoulder Man

I had been tired for the last half of year, encumbered, drained, defeated, depressed. Each thought I had was mired in mental mud. Each step I took was plodding and aimless. Always hunched, my spine had not stood erect in all that time (as well as other body parts). A general haze of my life veiled my perception of time and hindered my ability to act upon the many life responsibilities I had. That was just over the last several months though. I used to exercise, eat, and just enjoy my family life, but that was before I was burdened by a malicious force. I finally figured it out though. I finally figured out how to shrug off the Shoulder Man.

It feels like so much longer ago than it was when it started, when the Shoulder Man attached to me. I was picking up my nearly 3 year kid from daycare/preschool. Usually, he’s an upbeat little dude, a real rascal kind of tumble kid. He gets it from me. He’s always crawling over things and I’m always plucking him from precarious situations, but it’s fun. I make sure he’s never in any true danger when he’s burning energy, but he likes to play dangerously. His mind is as active as his body, too. Any new word he learns, he uses as often as possible, repeating any new phrase whether he’s using it right or not, and if he hears something he has never heard before, he’s incessant on knowing what it means. Any parent knows what that feeling is like, of having to dance around explaining some kind of concept they’re not ready for or just don’t need to know about. It’s the reason why he thinks beer is too spicy to drink, and why he thinks I really like spicy foods.

That day was different though. After picking him up at the door, I could tell he was in a weird mood. He sauntered out, looking down at the pavement.

“Hey Jay, ready to go home?” I offered him, trying to perk up his outwardly dour mood. He just shuffled past me and towards the car.

I looked over to the teacher who was still holding the door open.

“Did something happen to Jay? Why’s he look so depressed?”

She just shrugged and told me that kids have their ups and downs, and that sometimes kids might seem really depressed, but their moods are volatile, and that Jay would likely bounce back to his rowdy self soon enough. Still, I had never seen him like that. I opened the door and got ready to strap the somber toddler into his rear facing seat. He says nothing, and I think that maybe the teacher was right. Jay was my one and only kid and she had seen hundreds of kids. Maybe they just act like weary weirdos sometimes. At least, that’s the feeling she gave me, pretty unconcerned about it.

I watched as he slowly climbed into the van and waited for me to plop him in his car seat and buckle him up, which I did.. I pressed the button and just watched the door slowly slide closed as Jay just stared straight ahead with a weariness well beyond his tender age. This wasn’t something to be nonchalant about like his teacher.

“So, how was school?” I asked him as soon as I closed my door and snapped my seatbelt.

It took him a minute to just sigh as a response.

“Not so good? Did something happen? Are ya feeling okay?”

Nothing.

“Jay? Are you sad?”

“Yeah.” He finally said.

“Okay. Why are you sad?”

“Josh.”

“Josh? Is Josh your friend at school?”

“Yeah…”

“Yeah? Why did Josh make you sad?”

“He put a man on my shoulder.”

“What? He put a man on your shoulder?”

“Yeeaah…”

“He put a man on your shoulder. What does that mean? Like a toy man?”

I adjusted the rearview mirror to face him more squarely. His little feet just dangled lifelessly in front of the car seat with his little shoulders slumped. Gazing unfocused at the floor of the van, he whined out, “Josh put a man on my shoulder, dad.”

What did that even mean?

“Josh put a man on your shoulder, okay. Did you take the man off your shoulder?”

“I can’t…”

“You can’t?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“He’s too heavy.”

“The man on your shoulder is too heavy?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.”

When you’re a confused parent, you end up just repeating whatever nonsense your kid is spouting off because you have no idea what they mean. Sometimes if you get them to say what they’re talking about enough, you’re able to extract some sort of nugget of information and realize what it is they’re actually trying to say to you. For the man on the shoulder, I was lost. If it wasn’t a toy, then was it a game or something?

“Can dad help you take the man off your shoulder?”

He started crying, causing me to swerve a bit on the road, distracted.

“Yeeeaaaah…” he moaned.

“Okay. How do I take the man off your shoulder?”

“You tell him to go on your shoulder, dad.”

“That’s it? I tell him to go on my shoulder?”

“Tell him to go on your shoulder, dad!”

“Okay, okay. Go on my shoulder. Get off of Jay’s shoulder and come onto my shoulder.”

I immediately got a shiver up my spine. Ya know that spooky feeling when you realize your imagination is having fun in the shadows just behind you on the way up a dark set of stairs in the dead of night? Yeah, that feeling tingled up and down my spine several times over. I shuddered a bit and had to hit my brakes kind of suddenly to slow down in time for a red light. That abrupt jostling got Jay laughing. At least he was having fun as I took a deep breath and released it through my teeth, sobering myself out of a stupor I didn’t even realize I was in. Even though it wasn’t even really a close call, it felt like a somber reminder of just how close I am to killing myself and Jay on the road every single time we drive together.

I repositioned the rearview mirror to face out the actual rear window like it was supposed to.

Jay laughed, “You have the man on your shoulder now, dad!”

“Yeah, dad has him on his shoulder now. That’s right.”

I thought the long day at work dealing with the same mundane things I always deal with then seeing Jay all down in dumps had all of a sudden caught up to me right there at that stop light. I was definitely done talking about this Shoulder Man thing.

I pretended to reach up to my shoulder and grab him.

“Okay, dad’s gonna take the shoulder man and throw him out the window. Ready?” I wrapped my hand around what I imagined to be a tiny, action figure sized guy.

“Okay, I got him!” I faked enthusiasm, “And throw! He’s gone!”

“No dad, he’s still there.”

“Oh okay, let me pick him up again and throw him.” I motioned to grab another little guy off my shoulder, but I was interrupted by a somewhat joyful yell from Jay.

“No, dad! He’s big. He’s bigger than that, dad.”

“What? He’s bigger? How big is he?”

“Yooouu.” He squirmed excitedly and said in that little kid way where you have no idea if they even said the word they wanted to say.

“You? What do you mean, ‘you’? He’s as big as dad?”

“Yeah!”

“Okay. Okay, I’ll just let him ride on my shoulders until we get home, apparently.”

“Yeah!”

Jay was back to himself at least. For the rest of the ride, he fumbled through singing the ABC’s, and I didn’t even bother trying to make sure he sang it right, just drove home in a hypnagogic state. Before I knew it, I had pulled into the garage, snapping out of one of those zoned out, autopilot drives home. For a brief moment I thought Jay was still singing, but he was yelling at me.

“Open door, dad! Open the door!”

I didn’t respond verbally, just opened my own door and stepped out. I was exhausted. My legs and especially hamstrings were sore as if I just got done hiking for hours with an extremely heaving backpack. I’m sure you’ve experienced it, or something similar, that deep, bruisy feeling that makes you audibly “ooff” once you get walking, that stiff neck that hurts to move in any direction. I hit the side door button and unbuckled Jay too slow for his likes. His legs were kicking with pent up energy and as soon as I set him on the garage floor he ran for the door into the house.

I’m not sure what happened from that point until I was staring in the mirror at night brushing my teeth, and I certainly didn’t care. I must have been mindlessly brushing my teeth for too long, because my wife came up and said something to me, that even if I can’t quite remember, was enough to jog me out of my trancelike state and get me into bed. I didn’t say anything to her.

I laid on my back fitfully teetering on the edge of exhaustion and actual sleep, my consciousness’s pants caught on the spoked fence separating the two crying out for either neighbor to come out and help. Dread wadded up my stomach with a claw grip, squeezing that tender flesh between its cold, bony fingers. In my dismal languor at some ungodly hour, I felt something decidedly non-metaphorical. A hand landed on my right shoulder and then slid across my collarbone, before stopping and holding my left shoulder. Then, another ghostly arm slipped across the clammy skin of my chest. Though weak and nearly powerless, I was not paralyzed. I was not in some sort of terrible nightmare confined only to my mind. Turning to my wife, I saw her sleeping restfully, her back turned. Cold legs wrapped over from behind my hips and intertwined with my legs. Then, finally, a chin fell upon my shoulder, and a head leaned against mine. The entity squeezed, a terrible hug. I endured this anguish in silence until morning.

In the morning, I no longer felt the thing upon my back and shoulders, but I felt the effects. More muscle soreness, more tiredness, exhaustion, but more importantly, profound sadness. Like everyone, I had had bouts of depression in my life. Everyone gets sad every once and a while, but you get over it. This was not like that. I wasn’t just feeling down, I was feeling utterly hopeless. My wife left for work before I even woke up, so she didn’t notice anything unless she was staring at me as I soundlessly wept through shortened breaths last night. Weirdly, it would have felt sort of comforting if she had. But no, she likely didn’t notice a thing.

I was out of breath when I loaded Jay into the car. When I dropped him off, I saw that same teacher from yesterday. She remarked how much more energy Jay had this morning than the previous afternoon, that he seemed to have bounced back from whatever was getting him down. She looked right at me as she said with an expression I couldn’t quite understand, but then again, I couldn’t quite understand anything at the moment.

The rest of that day was the same as before, a blur, a crawl through wet mud in a dense fog. That night, the same entity gripped me in my pseudo-sleep, pouring terror into my guts, a terror I was powerless to break away from. I couldn’t roll over. I couldn’t take a deep breath, I couldn’t fully wake up. It just kept dragging me deeper and deeper into indescribable fear, into my mattress to a realm between dreams and consciousness where it hailed from. The echoing of creaking bones and squishing organs rattled in my skull as the thing, the Shoulder Man as I later learned it was called, clenched me tighter and tighter.

“Babe, what’s going on with you? You haven’t seemed like your usual self the last few weeks.”

My wife’s voice snapped me back into a lucid state one evening after she put Jay to bed. I checked my phone, the date, and saw it had been almost three weeks since I first unwittingly took this burden from my son. At that point, I started to wonder if it would have been best to leave it with him, as bad as that sounds. If it jumped from one kid to my kid, then maybe he could have just passed it on to another, or maybe not. Maybe if I hadn’t taken the Shoulder Man from him, Jay would have grown up a depressing person lacking any form of energy or ambition. At least, that was what I became.

I mumbled back something, trying to avoid the subject for reasons unclear to me at the time, but she kept prodding. I eventually told her about that drive home with our son, how I took the Shoulder Man. She laughed awkwardly, not sure what to make of the situation, but then I described the weight, the feeling, my nights with this thing gripping my back, draining all will from me, and that murky, somber realm he pulled me into every single night. Slowly, I took off my shirt, thinking about the sheer lack of intimacy between us this whole time, and showed her the bruising around my shoulders and collarbone. I’m not sure if she believed everything I told her as she quietly and carefully prodded my tender bruises. She didn’t know what to say. Neither did I.

She avoided me after that and started sleeping in the guest bedroom. My life spiraled from there, the Shoulder Man sapping everything from me, all my physical and mental energy. He leeched every ounce of it. Every time I would feel fed up and make some sort of effort to solve my problem, to talk to somebody, he, it, seemed to be able to beat me back down. Like a zombie, I’d mindlessly shuffle through another week before realizing it. My wife stopped talking to me, too off put by the husk a man I used to be. My son avoided me as if I was a scary stranger. My productivity at work plummeted noticeably, and when my boss pulled me aside to ask what was up, I lied and told him I was going through a divorce. I have no doubt the Shoulder Man influenced that word choice, but for all I knew, it was true.

But the worst part? The Shoulder Man was getting stronger and stronger. In the beginning, I’d feel him, and I mean really feel him, not just the effects, only at night during the nightmares he induced. After a while though, he was always with me, riding my back. His arms weren’t so bony, but still chillingly cold. The ropes of sinew in his limbs creaked like tightening an old leather belt to the tightest notch. His hold seemed absolute. I began doing things involuntarily like knocking things off shelves or kicking things or opening my car door and slamming it into the car next mine. The Shoulder Man was puppeting me. As if my productivity wasn’t lousy enough, I also began to say weird, anti-social things to my coworkers. The Shoulder Man was whispering these things into my ear and in my muddied state, I’d just repeat them. I was losing everything.

When I did manage to focus enough in my sad solitude, I researched my “symptoms” or specifically if anyone else had ever dealt with this thing. I’d post over and over again to little forums and reddit posts, but the experts there always insisted it was all mental, that it was clinical depression, that I needed to seek therapy. The few that did believe me told me that it was possible to transfer the entity, but likely it would slowly devour me until I finally died a lonely death. “Good luck. Sucks to be you.” No one truly wanted to help. He fed off my frustration, off my energy spent just trying to figure out what he is, which in turn made him more powerful and more bold in the indescribable nightmares at night, terror that carried over long into the day, images that never faded.

My body withered, I lost my job, my wife couldn’t handle the negative and eerie aura surrounding me, and I ended up living in a motel. The weeks dragged by.

Tulpa. An object or being made manifest from spiritual or mental energy. Finally, I found something that made sense while browsing the library computers. Even a sad, exhausted, and creepy man like I had become is allowed in the library with a library card. That was one of the few things I still had in my life. This Shoulder Man must have been some sort of spirit created who knows how long ago and it was certainly feeding off my spiritual and mental energy. How do I get rid of this thing? There must be rules or conditions. Maybe there were incantations, procedures, anything. I tried to take a deep breath, but of course it was stifled short.

“You know how to get rid of me.”

Never so clearly had it spoken to me like that.

“The same way you took me on.”

He loosened his vice grip on my bones just slightly enough and turned me towards the shelves. With dark horrors in my periphery, a terrible tunnel vision, it seemed he wanted me to see the little girl all alone in the aisle of books.

“You’ve had enough, haven’t you? There’s not much more for you to give. But her?”

In spite of my apprehension, he jerked my body out of the seat and willed my approach. With every short, quiet step, I began to understand, to remember what the rules were for the Shoulder Man, and stopped just before entering the aisle, bracing myself against the edge of the shelf. I had forgotten how simple it was, how simple it was going to be, but I couldn’t possibly bring myself to do it, could I?

She couldn’t have been more than eight years old, stomping her light up sneakers, hair tied back into a long ponytail. She was browsing the books, seemingly more interested in the covers than the content. Whoever brought her here didn’t seem to be anywhere in sight.

“Go on. She’ll unburden you. You’ll find no adult willing to talk to a pathetic, creepy weirdo like you.”

I felt him kick my foot forward, hitting the shelf with a somewhat loud bang. It got her attention. An anxious adrenaline flooded my body, the first rush of anything I had felt in a long, long time. She looked over to me. I smiled as friendly as I could.

“Oh hello. Uhh, I’m just looking for a book in this row.” I said much more smoothly and friendly than I thought capable. I pointed at the row of books she had been pulling from and she smiled. I hated how instantly affable I had become. I hated how, at that moment, I knew this would work.

I picked up a book and asked her, “Hey, do you know about the Shoulder Man?”

She shook her head no, sickeningly interested in my follow-up to that question.

“Well, he’s this little invisible helper that sits on your shoulder. He helps you pick out and read the best books in the library! I have a Shoulder Man with me right now, but I’m about to leave the library and he wants to stay here and have fun picking out books.” I couldn’t believe what I was saying and how easily it flowed. “Hey… Do you want to take the Shoulder Man from me? He’ll only help you if you say you want him to. How about it?”

Internally, I cringed as her face lit up.

“Yes! I want a Shoulder Man!” she said.

No sooner had she dropped her heels back down from being on her tiptoes, did I feel the heft of the Shoulder Man slither off my body. As bad as I felt for the girl, I was ten-fold relieved for my own sake. Warmth returned to me, my spine straightened, I took an unabated breath for the first time in far too long. I couldn’t waste time second guessing my awful decision to trick this little girl into bearing the burden. Abruptly, I turned around and power walked through the library, trying to keep my cool, trying to contain that long lost feeling of happiness from completely bubbling over.

I couldn’t turn back and look, I just couldn’t. Her mother or father would ask what the sobbing was all about, and surely she would tell them of the Shoulder Man, she had to. She must have, right? I shrugged the Shoulder Man onto her and she’d do the same with her parents, just like my son did to me and whose friend did to him.

I did what I had to do. You must understand that. She would be okay. I have to believe that she passed him on. My kid needs his dad again. I have to believe some other adult is dealing with the Shoulder Man.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Horror

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