My mom wasn’t a big talker, but there were two things that she always told me: “When loneliness comes calling, you will know it is him by the sound of his voice.” and “There’s a special place for lonely people where they can roam and bloom as they will.”
My mom was kind of big on the whole loneliness thing. I don’t know why. She had eight kids, myself included. How could she have been lonely?
Maybe she wasn’t lonely.
Maybe she just longed for it. I don’t know. I never asked her. It was just one of those things I was always afraid to ask.
The possible answers scared me.
But Mom’s gone now.
My sisters and brothers have dispersed all over the country as if they were eager to get away from each other. Only I stayed home.
But I am not lonely. I haven’t heard his voice. I haven’t felt his chill.
I have been happy.
I am happy.
I’ve made it up to 40 years old.
And I’ve done it alone.
No family to wish me well.
And I am well.
Even as I sit at our family table for eight and I am one alone.
I am not lonely.
I am solitary.
And I like it.
But lately the house has been too quiet. The grandfather clock has stopped working again. The house is now a home without a heartbeat. And it feels empty-souled.
I am alone. I can feel it. If it were a sound, I’d hear it.
I startle whenever the phone rings.
It’s ringing now. So, I answer it.
“Hello.” It’s a strange voice. Not quite male. Not quite female. Just an off-pitch in between.
“Hello? Who is this?”
“You live in darkness.”
I frown. I feel like I’ve heard his voice before.
“And there’s no one else around.”
But I don’t like the things this voice is saying. I’m inclined to hang up the phone, but I don’t.
“Come then. Meet me in The Shadows. I’m here now. I’m waiting on you.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m waiting for you.” And he hangs up.
I am a fool.
I’m a fool who is asking for danger to come and put a switchblade against my throat.
I am here at The Shadows. I’d rather be anywhere else.
I am here at The Shadows waiting for a complete stranger to approach me.
I am a fool.
The Shadows is a place for mercenaries and revolutionaries and thieves to gather and barter their services. It is no place for me.
I sit at a corner table all alone and unnoticed, but I feel like a spotlight is shining on me and a barker is pacing around me shouting “Hey, everyone! Easy target over here.”
I should leave while my heart still beats. I should. I should.
I stand and at least three scurvy looking men glance my way.
I quickly sit down again.
They resume their whispered conversation.
I feel stranded.
I feel abandoned.
I feel horribly alone.
And suddenly he is there beside my table. A man dressed entirely in gray leather which matches his shoulder length gray hair. It does not match his red and gold mask.
“Hello.” His androgynous voice still sounds off-pitch, as if he needs to clear his throat. “You arrived.” He smiles and it’s neither pleasant nor unbearable. Just a strange in between.
“Who are you?”
He sits down at my table. “I don’t think I need an introduction. I am the one who called you here and you heard my call. You came.”
“Save the gloating for later or never. Just tell me what you want.”
“It isn’t what I want that matters here. All that matters is you. What do you want more than anything else?”
If he were just another man, I would have brushed off his questions as unreasonably nosy and none of his business.
But I open my mouth and my words come out. I tell him of my family. How far away everyone is. How none of us ever get together anymore. How long it has been since any of them have called me. How none of them have given me their new phone number or new addresses.
How terribly alone I feel all the time.
He smiles again. It isn’t such a bad smile. It’s kind and reassuring. It makes me feel at peace and I don’t know why.
“You don’t have to be alone.”
“There is a place you can go.”
“A place where all lonely hearts gather to just be.” He pauses. Maybe to gauge my reaction. Maybe for the dramatic fun of it. It’s hard to tell with him wearing that mask. “Hearts like yours.”
“What is this place?”
“There isn’t a name for it. For only the lonely go there. Those who are ignored and forgotten. I will let you know this: They never come back.”
I think about my family. Would they miss me? Would they even know that I was gone? Would any of them actually care? “Do I have to die to go there?”
“No.” He stands and holds out his hand. “Just walk with me.”
I hesitate. I’ve always been so level-headed and commonsensical. I’ve never jumped into the dark before.
I rise from my chair and take his hand.
And I understand.
I know him. I’m just surprised I didn’t recognize his voice like Mom said.
“I’m ready. Let’s go.”
A portal opens before us and we walk through.