Monday, November 1, 2010

"In the Closet, On the Shelf"

This was my Halloween short story, initially written for David Hunter's "The Campfire Pages" All-Hallows Eve writing blog.  This is the same story, with no edits.

“When we are children, it’s not the unknown that scares us; it’s the unknown corners of the known that terrify us. We bury our heads under blankets when the oak tree outside blows in the wind and ghouls appear in the branches. We ride past empty houses and down deserted streets on our bikes and we never are anxious. Yet we pass the dark rooms of our own house with quick steps, afraid of what will pull us in with them.

Closets frighten us. Clothes, shoes, toys, coats – they shift and form boogeymen and skeletons, zombies and devils. We would cross the room and push the door closed, but we’re afraid to touch the floor.

Things under the bed also frighten us.

One of my earliest memories is of the closet in my parents’ house. It was room-length, and the doors were sliding mirrored ones. It was nearly impossible to keep them closed. When the air conditioner or the heater came on, they’d sway slightly, and the reflections of the room and windows behind the bed would jump and jitter. In the cracks between the doors, I’d see it watching me.

From high up on the shelves, where the dress slacks and sweaters were stacked, it would squat, waiting for me to sleep.

As I grew older, I realized that there was no monster on the shelf, no little goblin looking down at me. There were just patterns on sweaters and the shine from my church shoes. I never told anyone about the shelf-creature, but then children never told anyone about the horrors they saw. If we cried loud enough to wake mother or father, all they would say is:

“There, there… everything will be all right. There are no such things as monsters.”


I had almost grown old enough to believe that. I lie in bed one night, cold wind rattling the windows. Ghouls appeared in the oak tree outside, and inside the furnace pushed heat into the corners of the house, swaying those closet doors.

I saw it again, squatting on the shelf, watching me. I buried my head under the blanket and breathed as quietly as I could. When my face became too warm, I threw the blankets aside and looked back at the closet.

The doors still swayed, and the creature watched. It hadn’t moved and I started to wonder if it was real again. I knew of the shoes and sweaters, but in the dark, fear sends the gossamer web of logic away. It was there now, even if it were gone by morning.

I tried reminding myself that I’d looked at the shelf time and time again, and never saw the creature. I told myself I was too old to worry about boogeymen in the closet. I tried and failed.
The furnace blasted heat and wind whistled under the eaves. The television was on downstairs and my parents were watching the news. They would not hear me.

I leaped from the bed and ran to the closet, pushing the door aside. It banged against the other door as the overhead rollers guided it past. I had a plastic stepladder in the closet, for those times when I wanted a treacherous sweater. I unfolded it and climbed to the top, hurling sweaters and slacks and shoes to the floor. When it was clear, I reached up and swept my hand across the bare wood, disturbing only fluffs of dust.

Defiantly I left the door open and jumped back into bed. I glanced out the window. The ghouls had disappeared, leaving only crackly leaves and branches. I pulled the blankets up to my chin and looked toward the open closet, triumphantly.

The creature knelt on the shelf, an unnatural smile on its face. I stifled a scream and froze, watching it watch me.

Then, while I lie there, it blinked. I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs to my parents. I never slept in the room again…”

Sandy pushed the laptop away.

“Good story.”

“Thanks.”

“Is this the guest room at your parents’ house?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“The one we sleep in every time we’re there?”

“Yeah.” He smiled.

“So this isn’t true – or is it?”

“It’s true. But if I said, ‘I never slept in the room again – at least until I became a fearless teenager,’ it wouldn’t have quite the impact.”

“I get that, but weren’t you afraid then?”

“I was a teenager. Teenagers are too stupid to be frightened.”

“And now?”

“Now there’s nothing in the closet.”


* * *


Carrying his suitcase, John David climbed the stoop to his parents’ house and knocked on the door. City manners forced him to do so, but enough of the small town remained for him to press the latch and let himself in. He stepped into the hall and set down the suitcase. The entryway looked as it always had.

“That you, John David?”

“Yeah, Dad.” He called out to the far end of the house.

“We’re in the kitchen.”

Leaving his case where it set, he passed through the living room – which always seemed much smaller than he remembered – and into the kitchen. His father sat at the table, a little unshaven, a little stooped. His sister sat next to him. On the far side sat Reverend Jacobs, nodding to him.

“Hey, Jeanne.” His sister stood and hugged him. When he was done, he hugged his father, noticing the lost weight and fragile grasp.

“Any problems getting here?” his father asked.

“No.”

“Is Sandy going to join us?”

“Tomorrow. She’ll be flying into Memphis and renting a car.”

“Good. I like her.”

“Me, too, Dad.” He turned and nodded to the minister.

“Thanks for coming, Reverend.”

“It’s the least I could do.”

Jeanne touched him on the shoulder:

“You want some coffee?”

“Yeah, thanks.” He took an empty seat and rubbed his face.

“So, what time do we need to be at the hospital?”

“Dr. Parvasandra is expecting us at ten,” Jeanne answered, pouring from the carafe. “We’ll have time to say goodbye before…” She stopped and set the carafe down. She didn’t look up.
John nodded then touched his father’s hand.

“You’re sure about this, Dad?”

“Your mother and I both have living wills. That’s what she wanted. That’s what I want.”


* * *


“She was volunteering over at the library,” his father told him when they both had big cups of coffee in front of them. “She was reading stories to the children; she did that every Thursday, been doing that for a couple of years now. The lady at the library said she was reading Charlotte’s Web and making little pig noises. Then she stopped and sort of rolled off her chair. By the time the paramedics got there, she was already too far gone.”

“That was the aneurysm?” John David asked.

He nodded. “They got her to the hospital and did the clipping surgery, but it was too late.” He stopped speaking, keeping both hands on the cup. “That Indian doctor says she’s already brain dead.”


* * *


John David set the suitcase on the floor but didn’t bother to open it. He looked around, glad that his parents weren’t the types to keep his room as it was in his high school days. Now it was just another guest room, with some of their knickknacks decorating it. The closet door was open. Inside, a few winter coats hung over labeled boxes on the floor. The top shelf was stacked with framed pictures and a few small boxes.

He undressed, tossing the clothes in the corner – a habit he’d had for years and one that drove Sandy crazy. He’d pick them up in the morning or she’d give him hell about it in the afternoon. He moved to flip the light switch, but stopped in front of the closet again. He pulled the mirrored door closed, listening to the familiar rumble of the tracks that it hung from. Satisfied, he shut off the lights and went to bed.


* * *


He jerked awake, found himself looking out the window, where the old oak once stood. Now only the moon shone through the window and thin curtains. Breathing shallowly, he pushed the blanket away and glanced toward the closet.

The door stood open six inches.

He watched the gap, actually able to feel his pulse in his hands. After a minute, he slid his legs from under the sheets and stood. He went to the closet and grabbed the edge of the door. He pushed it open. It rumbled again.

There was nothing inside but coats, boxes, and pictures. He closed his eyes and again pulled the door closed.

I could sleep on the couch, he thought. Dad wouldn’t care, and Jeanne would understand. She never knew exactly why I hated sleeping in here, but she knows that I did.

He lied back down. Pulling the covers up to his chin, he faced the closet until his eyes drooped and he felt the twitchy urge to move. Bedsprings squeaked as he rolled over and looked through the pale curtains at the moon. He was just drifting off when he heard the door rumble again.
Clenching his eyes shut, he refused to look. He drew the blankets up to his face, moving as little as possible. Childhood logic took over again.

If I’m asleep, I can’t see it. If I can’t see it, it can’t see me.

The rumbling returned as the door moved a bit farther.

Dear God, I can’t do this again. Not now. Not here. There is no such thing as monsters. There is no such thing as monsters.

He rolled back over, pushing the blanket from his face.

High in the closet, a pair of eyes gazed down at him. He strangled a scream and started to move, and a broad smile appeared below them.

His feet tangled in blankets, John David fell from the bed and ran from the room.


* * *


“I’ve had two different neurologists examine her,” Dr. Parvasandra said. “And both agree. She is experiencing no brain activity of any sort. We’re beating her heart for her, and operating her lungs. This is not the thing one ever recovers from. She will never be better than this.” Using the end of a pen, the doctor pushed his glasses up on his nose. He spoke to John David; the others had already heard it.

“Should I ask if you’re sure, doctor?”

“You can. I’m sure. Mr. Thompson, I love my mother as much as anyone loves theirs. If it were my mother in this same situation, I would feel comfortable knowing that my doctor had done everything he could for them, and I would feel certain that there is no reason to keep her alive in this artificial way.”

John David glanced towards Jeanne and his father; both were nodding idly along with the doctor’s speech, in a familiar way. Certainly they’d already heard him say the same things.

His mother lied stiffly in bed, as if posed. Her head had been shaved and the scar remained on her scalp where surgeons had attempted to save her. A tube had been pushed into her mouth and down toward her lungs. Multiple wires led to different machines. One machine whirred, another machine pinged. One made light humming noises.

“What will you do?” John David asked.

“We’ll take her off the ventilator and disconnect her from the medications that keep her heart beating. Without the ventilator she’ll go very quickly, and she won’t feel anything.”

“How long will it take for her to die?”

“She’s dead now, Mr. Thompson.”

He glanced toward his sister. She stood beside their father, each leaning on the other. His father was looking down, but his sister’s eyes focused on him.

She’s already been through this, he thought. Dad went through this two days ago. I’m just making them do it again. No wonder she was glaring. I wish Sandy could be here.

“Do it,” he said. Jeanne’s glare softened as she came over and hugged him.

“Do you need a few more minutes to say goodbye?” Dr. Parvasandra asked.

“No,” their father answered. “We’ve been doing it for too long already.”


* * *


Neighbors brought casseroles, and sandwiches, a ham, and lots of desserts; it was time for a funeral, Southern-style. Two of the ladies on the block brought their own coffee and carafes and kept everyone’s cups full. Sandy arrived after the neighbors but before the cousins. Family members he barely remembered or hardly knew approached, told him they were sorry, and moved on to share grief with someone else. He deep-nodded thanks to them, and gripped Sandy’s hand most of the time, never crying.

When someone pressed a plate of sliced ham and a dab of spinach casserole in his hand, he took a moment to chew a few bites and set the plate down. A cup of coffee appeared soon after. He drank most of it, losing the cup in the front hall somewhere.

I want this to end, he thought. I want them to go home and leave us alone. I want silence. Silence and Sandy. That’s all I want.

Hidden away in the guest room late in the afternoon, Sandy held him as he cried.


* * *


“We had a dog when we were younger,” Jeanne told the others at the table, long after most had left, and Dad had gone to bed. “Mom hated that dog.”

“I loved that dog,” John David said.

“It peed on the floor.”

“I still loved the dog.”

“We could get a dog,” Sandy said, squeezing his hand.

“I don’t think I’d ever love a dog like I loved that one.”

“What happened to it?” one of the neighbors asked.

“It ran away, I think,” Jeanne answered. “Do you remember, John David?”

“No. I came home one day and it was gone.”

“How old were you?” the neighbor asked.

“I don’t know, nine or ten, I guess.”

“Did your dad give you the ‘it went to live on a farm’ story?” a cousin asked.

“No,” Jeanne answered. “They never did that. I don’t think they ever knew what happened to it.”

John David shook his head. “I loved that dog.”


* * *


Wind whistled through tiny gaps along the window and warm air blasted through the guest room. Wearing only shorts, John David lie facing Sandy, who wore little more. Behind him, the mirror doors swayed and bumped against each other.

“Are you going to be okay?” she asked.

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Good. I love you, you know.”

“I love you, too. More than anyone I’ve ever known, I love you,” he said.

She smiled; they kissed. When she had fallen asleep and he was watching her face, he heard the door rumble behind him.

It doesn’t matter, he thought. She’s in the room with me, and there’s no way you can touch her. As long as she’s here, there’s nothing you can do. Stare at me all you want. There is nothing you can do to me.

He slept.


* * *


More cousins and more neighbors arrived for the funeral. The family made their way through the fog of well-wishers and through the ceremony, trying to avoid repeating the same banal “thank you”s they had to say. When it was finally over, the extended family was gone, the neighbors had gone home, and only the plates of food remained.

“When are you leaving, John David?” his father asked.

“Friday. But Sandy’s got to fly out tomorrow.”

“That’s too bad. Thank you for coming, dear. You’ve helped make this easier on all of us.”

“I’m glad I could help,” she said. She got up and kissed John David on the forehead.

“I’m going to bed. Don’t throw your clothes in the corner.” She smiled and left.

After watching her leave, John David turned back to look at his sister and father.

“She really loves you,” Jeanne said.

“I know. I’m a lucky guy.”

“You love her, right?”

“More than you can possibly understand,” John David answered.


* * *


That night, he looked up at the gap where the closet door had opened. As the mirrored surfaces tapped and swayed in the warm air, he watched the pair of eyes high up on the shelf.
This time, it was he who grinned.

“You won’t beat me,” he said quietly, so as not to wake Sandy. “I’m going to beat you.”


* * *


He carried her suitcase to the car and put it in the trunk.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, kissing him. “Um…I’ve got a weird question. Well, I think it’s a good question, but it’s still weird.”

“Go ahead.”

“I’ve never forgotten that thing you wrote about the closet. It’s never bothered me before, but this time it seems like there is something really… wrong… about it.”

“I felt the same way when I got here,” John David said, nodding. “I think it’s probably just because of mom. We’re all on edge and thinking dark thoughts.”

“Probably, but I’ve got to say a couple times the last few nights I did feel like someone was watching me.“

“That was me.” He smiled.

“You’re sweet.” She leaned up and kissed him again. “But be careful. There’s something creepy about that closet.”

“There’s absolutely nothing in that closet to be afraid of,” he said. “Not now.”


* * *


He waited until Jeanne had quit puttering around the kitchen and gone to bed. Dad had laid down hours ago, and his snores buzzed around the corners of the hall. He left the lights on, reading for an hour after Jeanne’s room had gone dark. He folded down a corner of the page and stood up. He snapped off the light and sat down on the bed, facing the closet, watching his reflections grow and shrink with the motion of the doors.

“Well, come on,” he said. “Open the door.”

The closet door rumbled about halfway open. The thing sat on the shelf, mostly hidden in the shadows. Its eyes moved as it turned to watch John David.

He stared back at it, letting his mouth grow into a smile. On the shelf, the broad, unnatural smile appeared.

He clenched his teeth and his hands shook. He narrowed his eyes; it narrowed its eyes.

“You,” he said to the shelf-goblin.

“…you…” it responded.

“You.”

“…you…”

“This is my room.” He stood.

“…my room…”

“No. You’ve got it wrong. It’s my room.”

“…my room…”

He moved toward the closet. The eyes followed him as he approached.

“You just stay here,” he said up, into the closet. “I’ll be back.”

“…yes…”

His eyes widened; the creature’s eyes narrowed.

He swung open the door of the room, stepping out into the hall. Leaving the lights off, using memory and light touches on the wall, he made his way to the kitchen, out to the garage, and back. He closed and locked the door when he came back in. It watched him as he walked back to the center of the room.

I’ll bet he knows what this is, he thought. This is me, no longer afraid of you.

He let the sledgehammer slide through his fingers, until the head touched the floor. He tightened his grip on the handle and hefted it up, resting it on his shoulder.

“This is my room,” he told it.

This time it didn’t answer.

“That’s your closet.”

“…your closet…” Its smile grew wider.

“You.”

“…you…”

“Me.”

“…me…”

Both hands on the handle, he nodded and swung. Mirrored shards flew and the smiling eyes blazed. He swung again. The second door vanished in a roar of flying glass and rent metal framework. He ignored the shouts from elsewhere in the house and smashed the hammer head through the shelf. It cracked and collapsed, brought down by the weight of framed photos and boxed memories.

Jeanne and his father beat on the door. He heard one of them trying to shoulder it open. He hefted the hammer on his shoulder and went to unlock the door. It was time to explain.


* * *


He left that night, after explaining what had happened. They didn’t understand any of it. He told them both how much he loved them, then took his things and left. Suitcase in the backseat, he drove straight on.

The sun had begun to shine over the condo complex when he arrived. He glanced down at the paper gas-station coffee cups littering the floor. It had been a tough drive, but he’d made it. He got out, stretched, and grabbed his suitcase. He smiled; seeing Sandy always made him feel better.

He unlocked the door and called out.

“That you, John David?”

“Yeah!”

“I’m getting dressed.”

“I’ll let you.” He carried the suitcase to the bedroom and tossed it on the bed. He unlatched and unzipped it.

“When did you leave?”

“Middle of the night. I couldn’t sleep and wanted to get here.”

Sandy stuck her head from the bathroom into the bedroom. She was still working on her hair.

“I’m glad you did.”

“Me, too.”

The phone rang.

“Get that, will you?” she called to him.

“Sure. I love you.”

“I love you, too, baby.”

John David picked up the cordless phone and answered.

“John David Thompson?” the masculine voice at the end of the line asked.

He set the phone down.

“Do you know how much I love you?” he called to Sandy, as he went back to the suitcase and opened it.

“Aww… do you know how much I love you?” she said from the bathroom.

“Not as much as I love you,” he said, as he pulled the sledgehammer from the luggage. “But the dog loved me, too.”

As he went to the bathroom, he blinked and a smile spread across his face.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great story, and thanks for letting me post it at the Campfire Nick, cheers ...

    ~ David

    ReplyDelete