“What are you doing?” Dylan croaked suddenly.
Jon startled very quietly. His hand slipped against the back wall, driving a sliver into the pad of his thumb; he hid his involuntary curse with a pained hiss as Dylan sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes. It was too early to be up on a Saturday morning, especially one after a long night of thinking and trying not to think while poorly muffled talking and laughter floated its way up the stairs from the living room, but Jon hadn’t been able to sleep in.
He had to know. He had to know if he was crazy.
The closet screed as he settled back into a more comfortable position, shoulder bumping the door as it shifted on its hinges. “Can I ask you something?” he asked. Dylan looked uncertain—and exhausted, now that he’d had a long look at him (Jon suddenly felt more than a little guilty for insisting that his son suck it up and sleep in the room anyways)—and waited for his dad to elaborate.
Jon looked downwards, into a dark corner tented by the odd angle where the slanted wall met the floor, trying to decide if last night’s damage really went this far up into the second floor, or if he was just imagining a crack in the shadows of the ancient, peeling paint. He glanced back again at Dylan, the nine-year-old still trying to rub the dark smudges from under his eyes. “Why do you think the closet is trying to kill you?”
Dylan bit the edge of his lip with hard concentration, frowning. “Because it is,” he finally decided.
Jon huffed a little, or possible sighed. The long night of thinking had sent him far down this rabbit hole, but the light of day had reintroduced cold reality, as early mornings often did to the brilliant ideas he’d come up with the night before. He was more cynical at dawn. “That’s not a real answer.” When annoyance replaced the anxiety in Dylan’s frown, he added, “Come here.”
Uncertainty crept back into his son’s expression, but Jon simply insisted: “Come here.”
Dylan nodded, crawling out of his sheets. He hit the floor with a too loud thump – hopefully the girls downstairs were hard sleepers – and Jon settled back even further against the hard wood, opening the closet door as wide as it would go to allow daytime in. Not much made it.
The fourth grader was giving him a suspicious look now, which Jon pretended not to notice, hoping to ignore his son’s dread out of existence; not remotely helped by the grey gloom of the closet shrouded in the sickly light of pre-dawn, shadows still swallowing much of its hungry maw. He brushed any fear aside with all the practical no-nonsense he could manage on a Saturday morning. “I need to know how high the damage goes. Your eyes are better than mine in this lighting.” Or anytime, really. “Does that look like a crack to you?”
He might be losing ground with Janet, but at least he apparently still had his youngest’s trust. The more Dylan woke up, the more he appeared to shed his fear and hesitation. Either that, or Jon’s look of this is just joints and construction problems, kid was working. Dylan crunched down into the small space, his face in shadows.
“Right there,” Jon said. “Do you see?”
“Where’s your phone?” Dylan asked.
“Where’s your flashlight?” Jon replied, understanding the point of the question.
Dylan waved vaguely behind him, which could mean anything, and Jon said, “Same.”
Lights suddenly started flashing off-on in the closet, momentarily startling him until he realized that Dylan had found an old shoe (not worn in ages, by its size, and why he hadn’t gotten ridden of it in one of their earlier moves was beyond him) and hit it against the floor, triggering the light-up sole.
“Blood.” Dylan decided, pulling back out again, blinking shoe in hand.
Jon gave him a look. “Blood.”
“Mm-hm,” the boy said, all business; bold move for someone holding a GlideKick made for a second-grader. “That is definitely blood.”
“Dylan, you were supposed to be looking for a crack,” Jon said, exasperated. “Not dark shadows that look like bloodstains.”
“Well look for yourself!”
Jon huffed out an audible breath this time, and gestured him out of the way. Dylan shifted but didn’t go far, giving Jon just enough room to reach over him and feel into the corner in question to see if—
“What are you doing?”
Jon and Dylan both startled at the half-whisper this time. Jon automatically – and, for some reason, guiltily – jerked back, accidentally bumping into Dylan with his hip and almost immediately feeling the subsequent jolt of Dylan’s skull hitting the closet frame. He winced at Dylan’s sharp, “Ow!”
Janet had her hands on her hips, hair a wild tangle. He should’ve known his daughter would be up first out of her cohorts. She’d clearly been on the way to the bathroom to wet down her hair, but the sight of her little brother and her dad crawling around the creepy closet floor had stopped her. Jon almost snorted as he imagined what that had to look like. Would’ve stopped him too.
“We’re checking the closet,” Jon explained, which really didn’t explain anything.
“There’s blood!” Dylan exclaimed as he stopped rubbing the side of his head. He still looked excited, but Janet’s severe “shhh!” (finger actually on her lips) worked—he dropped the volume of his voice to add, “The closet ate…something. We think. Know.” As he spoke his expression lost more of its smile. “It’s always hungry.”
Jon ducked down again so his children wouldn’t see the look on his face, hand once more feeling its way cautiously along where the carpeted floor met the wall, giving up on the abandoned light-up shoe and instead trying to “see” any possible cracks with touch. Looking for signs of anything that might tell him whether he was imagining things or…making things.
“Closets don’t eat things,” Janet informed Dylan, with the tone—though hushed—of someone narrating a documentary. “Or animals or people either because I’m pretty sure I’d notice if anyone was missing downstairs.” Dylan must have given her a look because she finished, “I just saw them, dingus. That’s not blood.”
“It is so! And yes they can,” Dylan objected. “Dad thinks so too.”
“I said I was looking for the crack in the wall,” Jon said, meeting Dylan’s eyes. He glanced up at Janet, feeling compelled to explain. Whether to her or him (the hand spidering along the wall trembled, but if he didn’t think about it, it would go away), he wasn’t sure. “To see how far the damage goes.” He glanced back down again at Dylan glaring with haughty ferocity at his sister. “All the rest is conjecture. Your conjecture.”
Janet snorted. “Conjecture doesn’t mean what you apparently think it means.”
“It does! Tell her, Dad!”
“Dad…” Janet started, sounding pained, but Jon gave her an absent, “Hold on,” as he leaned further in, head turned to the side so that he could keep feeling along the baseboards. How deep was this closet anyways? The corner was farther back than it looked. He was almost completely laid out on the floor now, thinking about what he had written and how dried blood couldn’t be felt anyways and—
The wall gave way with squashy moistness, and the unexpected feel of his fingers pressing indents into something unpleasantly spongy instead of hard wood startled him so badly that he jerked his hand back like a bug had just landed on it, knuckles hitting dark wood so hard that he pulled his hand out stinging, hissing at the sudden pain.
“What? What?!” Dylan demanded, over Janet’s appalled: “Dad, your hand.”
Jon stared at the blood already sheeting the knuckles of his left hand, thick red trickling down the outside length of his palm and towards the sharp bone of his wrist. His relief at the realization that it was coming from a cut on his hand – that it came from a real source – surprised him.
Almost certainly instinctively, Dylan had crab crawled away and was stopped against the end of his bed, still propped on his elbows. He was breathing harder than normal, staring first at Jon’s hand, then into the closet, then up at his father’s face. “The Closet bit you!”
“No it did not!” Janet snapped, thrusting the Kleenex box that she had already grabbed from the nightstand at her brother. She started wadding loose tissues against his bleeding hand. A second later she remembered that she was trying to keep her voice down and continued, sotto voice, “Closet’s do not get hungry and they do. Not. BITE. People.”
And cracks don’t form in the walls of your house when you tell them to.
Jon wordlessly pulled his hand out of her grasp, pressing the scrunched mass of Kleenexes against the cut in hopes that the tacky blood would keep it stuck there, and reached in again, this time with his right hand. The angle was awkward, but the closet seemed shorter this time as he went right for the black corner, not cautiously but grabbing at the moist spot. The wall gave a little, still squishy to the touch, but what caught him this time was something else; something stringy. Cobwebs maybe. He hesitated a moment, still unsure what it was in the dark, then grabbed at the fibrous mass anyways, pulling it out with slow, gentle care.
When he was done, long, ash-colored hair trailed from his grip, clumped together by…
Jon swallowed. Clumped together on one end by a piece of flesh.
Scalp, if he had to guess.
Janet looked horrified. “Dad,” she said, voice nearly a whisper. She reached forward, almost to touch it, but Dylan had backed even further off, scrambling right onto the bed, the fear plain on his face. “Where…”
Jon laughed suddenly and his kids turned their stares – confused and a little frightened – to his face.
“Do you know what this means?” he asked. He didn’t wait for an answer. “I’m controlling it.” He laughed again, and this time both Dylan and Janet looked at each other.
He stopped laughing.
“It’s fine,” he said. He caught them exchanging glances again and said, more practically, “Go down and get yourself some breakfast. I’ll clean this up.” Dylan nodded, looking uncertain if he should leave and simultaneously desperate to do so, so Jon gestured him towards the open door, which was enough to make up his mind. He paused in the doorway, mouth open to speak, but another hand flick – this time from Janet – got him out the door.
Janet stayed where she was, looking at Jon like she wasn’t sure what she should do.
“You too,” he said, looking at the ugly gift the Closet had given to him, holding the twisted cluster of hair and skin in a tight grasp. It had to be coming from him—he had seen such a thing before. These were his memories. “Your friends will be awake soon, and hungry.”
She turned, but stopped at the doorway, hair still a ridiculous bush around her face. “Dad, I don’t think—”
“I’ll be down shortly,” he cut her off. “Like you said last night: later. If you pull out the batter mix I’ll even make pancakes.”
Jon didn’t watch her go, though he heard the creak of the floorboards in the hallway as she walked away. He peeled the tissue from his hand to tuck the hair inside before shoving the whole wad in his pocket, then reached back onto the bed without looking, pulling the laptop he had brought with him over his head. He flipped it open, setting it in his lap.
The cursor blinked in the empty spot next to okay nice, pay attention, Jon
Jon’s heart beat with what he could do.
He hit enter twice, then paused, thinking for a long minute. Needing to get this right. When he finally started typing he began slowly, fingers hesitant, halting before they picked up speed, but he didn’t delete anything. By the time Jon was through, there were only two lines. One very long, and the other very short.
Hope may have died, but the Widower and his children needed her—to tell Jon what was going on with Janet; to help reign in Dylan; to fill the empty ache of 2 a.m. when the watches of the night crawled with lonely nothing; to make them all happy again.
So Hope came home.
Jon read it. Again. And then again.
“I’m crazy,” he said, and snapped the laptop shut.
That night, Jon dreamed that Hope was hiding under the covers.
He was trying to pull her out, listening to her laugh as she evaded him, his hands in her long, soft hair. He was laughing too, trying to tease her out but growing frustrated as he failed to feel past her hair to the rest of her. Instead her hair just kept coming and he found himself pulling harder, wrenching and dragging the dead weight of it forward like she’d come with it, except they weren’t at home they were in her room at the hospital and her hair was coming out by the handful now, skin tags on the ends of the thickest chunks (there was a memory there he wasn’t quite remembering, Hope sitting on the edge of the bathtub with a towel wrapped around her thin chest as she matter-of-factly fished the last of her long, ash-colored hair out of the shower drain and stated, quite calmly, “Well. There it goes.”) but now it was just bloody clump after bloody clump of flesh and hair while someone banged on the door downstairs and he panicked, realizing that he had to get up and let her in before the house, cracks echoing like gunshots in the dark, came down around them; but then Hope, with her throat cut, the skin sliding open and shut as her head bobbled back and forth, surfaced from the hospital sheets like a corpse bobbing on a lake and said, “Better go answer that, honey.”
Jon jolted awake, his heart pounding in his ears. There was no one knocking at the front door. Hope had died on a ventilator. No one had cut her throat. She had threatened to do it, when the tumor had eaten large enough holes into her frontal lobe and Swiss-cheesed through her inhibitions and her personality, leaving behind this angry, confused, child-like woman who swore at her children and tried to hit Dylan with the flat palm of her brittle, feeble hand when Jon had stepped out of the room to escort his mother-in-law to the vending machine. He hadn’t realized that he hadn’t properly conveyed to his father-in-law the seriousness of: “She’s a little moody today—watch her with the kids.” Jon had walked back into the room just in time to see Janet block the harmless blow, her serious, eleven-year-old features set with the calmest desolation Jon had ever seen in anyone’s face.
Tired, barely awake as Dylan snuffled obliviously next to him with his arms flung out across the bed and into his space, Jon silently choked on an emotion he didn’t want to name. That was the first time he’d wished she was dead. That was—
No, he thought, rolling over and pressing the heels of his hands into his closed eyes. Don’t. Forget it. He pressed harder. Forget it. Forget it, forget it, forget it, forget it…
In the morning, Jon remembered neither the dream, nor the memories.