I loved playing hide-and-go-seek as a child. Well, not so much the seek part, because as the youngest, my brothers, sister, and cousins could usually run faster than me to whatever base had been established as home, but I delighted in the opportunity to hide out. It didn't matter whether I was lying as flat as possible underneath a bed, had scrunched myself up inside a bathroom cabinet behind a clothes basket full of damp and smelly towels, or was curled into a ball at the back of a closet littered with shoes, tennis rackets, and someone's forgotten roller skates. I loved it! In fact, I came to enjoy hiding so much that I would occasionally sneak away to one of my isolated retreats, even when no one was looking for me.
One day, when I was around eight years old, I discovered that there was just enough room behind our living room sofa to allow a skinny and flexible child to gain access. Cautiously, I straightened up from the mouse's eye view I had been emulating, and examined my surroundings.
Momma was in the kitchen, separated from the living room by a counter and stools, doing dishes, and was humming along with some old people song on the radio. Toni, my sister, was hunched over one of her puzzles at the kitchen table, her right foot tapping a staccato rhythm on the linoleum floor. Even from behind, I could tell that she was, as my Grandma would say, "Not a happy camper."
I hurriedly crouched back down again. If she turned around and saw me, I was a goner. My two brothers, nicknamed The Twin Terrors by Toni and myself, had left with a group of their friends about an hour ago. Which left Daddy unaccounted for. Where was he?
The sofa tunnel was perfect. The opening in-between its top and the wall in back was very small, so much so that I figured someone would have to be lying on top of the gap using a flashlight before they would have any hope of seeing inside the hidden space beneath. The far end of the sofa was bracketed by another wall, which meant that, once I was inside my new hideaway, there was only one place marauding invaders could come from--or so I thought.
I peered into the tunnel's dark and inviting depths again, and decided that the one thing I needed to make it even better was a blanket. I had just started concocting an elaborate plan for stealing a blanket out of Toni's bedroom, when the back door to our house banged open. Quick as a shot, I slithered into the sofa tunnel. Whether it was my Dad or the Twin Terrors returning, blankets and other niceties would have to wait until later.
Once I was inside my new hideaway, I could almost imagine that I had traveled to another world. Noises from the outside were muffled by the sofa's fabric, making them seem remote and thoroughly unimportant. The carpet beneath my back and the sofa pressed along my right-hand side felt feathery soft, like clouds I might brush through during an aerial flight. The light filtering in from above was diffuse, a shimmering glow on the edge of my awareness, a dreamlike luminescence that hinted at other mysteries as yet undiscovered. Imaginary or not, I decided this was a world I could happily live in forever.
I slipped into a half sleeping half waking state then, the muted light and sounds from outside still registering on some level, though translated into ever more fanciful dream realms for my young mind's entertainment. I don't know what I dreamed about during that time, only that when I did finally wake, no sound at all remained. The Golden Oldies station on the radio, along with my Momma's humming, had gone silent. The hissing slide of my sister's puzzle pieces and the irritated tapping of her foot were absent as well. I strained to hear any ongoing conversations, but there were none.
With a start, I realized that everything around me felt different as well. The floor under me and the sofa along my side, once so soft they had made me imagine flying through feathery clouds, now seemed both rigid and confining. The wall behind my head, as well as the one along my other side, were oppressively close, and felt somehow as though they were pushing closer. Even the light above me had changed. The glimmering promises it had made earlier were gone, replaced with a dull reticence, a thin and sickly gleaming which could easily be snuffed out forever.
I struggled to wriggle free from the tunnel which had become my prison, and was horrified to discover that I couldn't move. My legs, my arms, everything was immobilized.
Overhead, framed by wan illumination which seemed on the verge of flickering out at any moment, a writhing shadow appeared. The remaining light dimmed still further, and then was sucked completely away, devoured by the blackness above. The absence of light should have made it completely invisible to me, but somehow it was still there. Snake-like, it whipped back and forth, coiled into menacing loops, and then struck, each lunge bringing it inexorably closer and closer to my prone form. I longed to scream, to scamper away like the mouse I had imitated earlier, to close my eyes and block out the hovering horror descending towards me, but I couldn't.
When we finally touched, the darkness and I became one, young child and shadow melded together forever.
The nothingness lives inside me now, a constant companion I carry with me everywhere. Far from quiescent, when others around me feel emotions it feeds on, I can sense it stirring. The loneliness Momma suffers when Daddy's traveling for work; the hurt and anger that Toni feels when her best friend ignores her; the pain and despair Grandma endures when the arthritis makes it difficult to walk; the jealousy and growing dislike in-between the Twin Terrors because they have to share everything. All of these are emotions the darkness loves, and just as it did when I was trapped and terrified in the sofa tunnel hideaway, I can feel it writhing inside me, coiling itself tight, and preparing to strike.