You’re walking down a quiet residential street, bemoaning the fact that you have to go to a dinner party tonight alone. It normally wouldn’t be a big deal as you enjoy catching up with your friends but lately, they’ve all hooked up and are in that blissfully happy, rom-com stage of their relationships. Frowning, you snuggle into your fur-lined jacket to keep the brisk Autumn wind from your neck. You look at the color-changing leaves and wonder if they welcome their Fall deaths. They probably have no idea what’s about to happen to them. They’ll complete their lives and fall, alone, with no one missing them. You sigh in regret, wondering if you’ll ever get that rom-com moment yourself.
Lost in your thoughts, you startle as a leaf, not quite dead, lands against your face. You catch it gently in your hands and stare at it, wondering what this could mean. Is it a sign? You don’t know. Just as you’re about to put it in your pocket and continue on your walk, a good looking stranger comes up to you. He stands in front of you, the fading sun casting a golden glow around him. You marvel at the honey of his hair, the clarity of his blue eyes, and the lines of his chiseled jaw.
He smiles at you, causing laugh lines to form at the corners of his eyes. They mesmerize you but you’re not sure why. He gently takes the leaf from you and writes his number on it. Winking, he hands it back to you and walks off into the sunset. You stand, confused, not moving for several minutes. Finally, you shake yourself, put the leaf in your pocket, and head home. By the time you enter your apartment, you’ve convinced yourself it was all a dream.
A week later you’re checking your pockets so you can do laundry and you find the leaf. Gently you hold it between your fingers, unsure of what to do. You place it, folded, on the kitchen table and walk away. Every day you walk by the table and stare at the leaf, not sure what to think of it. Eventually, you decide even though the leaf was real, the rest couldn’t have been. To prove this, you gently unfold it. You see numbers and realize it all really happened. You kick yourself because it’s been two weeks since that day and you never called him. He probably forgot about you. You set the leaf back on the table, torn between throwing it away and calling him.
A few more days pass and you go out for dinner and drinks with some single friends. You drink two too many and are feeling brave when you get home. You shower and put on a nightshirt, grab the leaf and your phone and sit on the couch. You’re really going to do this. As you look at the leaf though, you realize he must have used a gel pen because the numbers are smeared. It doesn’t matter. You’re pretty sure you can make it out. You squint your eyes and dial. You don’t realize you dialed the wrong number.
Eventually, it doesn’t matter if the number was right or not. You’ve formed a connection with the man on the other end. You stay up late every night talking and pouring out your souls to each other. He knows you better than your best friend from second grade, your parents, and your diary. You know him.
After a few months, you mention meeting but he puts you off, says he’s too shy. You’re confused since he was bold enough to write his number on that leaf (you thought) but you agree because what you have has been life-altering, soul-baring, and heart-healing.
After six months of learning everything about each other, you casually move to sexting and sending nudes. He never sends any back but that’s okay because you know he just has a flip phone. He hates technology and doesn’t even have a computer so you can’t Skype either. He’s very encouraging and appreciative of the pictures you send though. It makes you feel safe and adored. One day he sends you a grainy, blurry, half shot of what could be an ear. He apologizes and says that’s the best he can give you. You treasure that picture more than the leaf you have pressed between your volumes of Emily Brontë’s works.
However, everyone has their breaking point and after two years you finally can’t stand it anymore. Your family and friends tease you relentlessly about having a serious relationship with a stranger over the phone so you press him for a meeting. He says he’s out of town. You insist. He doesn’t budge. Eight months later he finally gives in and you agree to meet him at his hotel in another town (which he tells you he’s in for business).
You land but he’s not at the airport to greet you. Before you get too upset he calls and apologizes. Apparently he had a meeting go too long but he will meet you at the hotel. Give your name to the desk and they will give you a key.
You get to the hotel, order room service – romantic steak dinner for two, and fill the bath with scented oils and bubbles. The food comes. The bathwater gets cold. The bubbles go flat. Your heart aches with torturous disappointment. You cry yourself to sleep hugging the thin hotel pillow.
In the morning, he calls you. Says he’s beyond sorry. He never meant to hurt you. You came out of nowhere and stole his heart. He’s not the man you think he is. You tell him you don’t care. You love him for who he is – who he’s been the last three years. He reluctantly caves and says he’ll meet you at the service entrance to the hotel kitchen at 9 pm. Promises he’ll be there.
You decide to not get your hopes up but still put on a little mascara and lipstick, just in case, you think. 9 o’clock comes and goes and he doesn’t show. You wait until ten. By ten-thirty, you’ve finally decided that your heart and soul just can’t take this anymore so you go back up to the room to pack. You’re done.
You wipe the tears from your eyes and open the door. There’s a man standing by the window, looking out into the night. He’s in the shadows so you can’t see who it is, but your heart knows it’s him. You play it cool, shutting the door behind you and wait for him to turn around. He takes so long that you don’t think he ever will. You give up, again. You walk to the bed and start putting your clothes in your overnight bag.
He is suddenly behind you. His hands slide down your arms and grip your wrists, stilling your movement. He leans forward and you feel the rasp of his facial hair against your ear. You smell his sweet breath. Peppermints.
He presses his lips against your ear and says, “I am the Shadow and I will always be the Shadow. I belong to no one. You made me forget my darkness for so long but our relationship stopped working for you. I loved you more than the air that I breathed so I will bring you into the darkness with me.”
He releases your wrists and as you turn to finally look into his eyes, you feel a sharp pain in your gut. You meet his cold grey eyes. Disbelief and confusion flashing through your mind. How did you never figure out who it was?
It’s too late now. You belong to the Shadow.