Sunday crawled, and by 10 o’clock that evening Jon had written nothing.
The last day and a half had stagnated like a pool of tepid water, brackish liquid glistening over the foul, airless filth beneath. The longer Jon had waited, the more the weekend had felt…off. Like he and the kids were driving on a road parallel to their normal one, only noticing their mistake when they had finally looked up and seen nothing but miles of corn, rolling soft and ominous in the failing light.
It was hard to pin down when the road had started to veer away. Janet’s friends had left shortly after lunch on Saturday, and then only church broke the mindless pattern of breakfast, lunch, dinner, bedtime, breakfast, lunch, dinner. Maybe it was the bitter cold forcing them indoors. Maybe the kids themselves, Dylan testy all weekend and Janet smilingly closed-lip, like a robot who didn’t know how to mean it. Or maybe because by the time Dylan was in bed on Sunday and Janet was finishing up her nightly routine, no one had knocked on the front door and asked to be let in, Jonny boy.
Because that was impossible. Foolish. Hopeless, if you want the dad-joke. Mind you, if Hope had risen from her grave, she’d have had to walk all the way from the Craigfield Cemetery four hundred miles away and you know that commute’s going to take more than a day and a half, Jon.
He tried to laugh at himself, but the visual of his dead wife trying to hitchhike cross-country in a rotting dress with dirt and splintered wood under her fingernails wasn’t funny.
Jon finally stopped tapping a finger on the plastic casing housing his laptop keyboard. His eyes, when he looked down, focused automatically on the last line in the Word document.
So Hope came home.
A muscle tightened in his jaw.
You’re crazy, he smashed into the keyboard. You knew you were crazy but you still actually thought
He deleted the accusation, driving his index finger too hard into the backspace key as he watched the words disappear, stopping just before he got to the period after home. Maybe he hadn’t said it right. Maybe he needed to set it up more realistically. Instead of glossing over the details, maybe he had to explain how she came home. To make it real.
Or maybe he was crazy and this was just some stupid kid’s story that would never sell because it wasn’t quite a kid’s story, it wasn’t quite horror, it would never be a memoir, and it definitely wasn’t necromancy, you frigging idiot. He glanced down at the clock on the bottom left corner of the screen and pretended not to notice that he still hadn’t deleted So Hope came home.
The house was quiet at five past ten. Nighttime stretched her hand over the house but there were no creaks yet as wood settled and joints sighed, for the rooms in the broken house still slept. The only sound was that of the clock, counting the growing seconds that separated the storyteller from his wife.
Jon closed his eyes, the ticking of the living room clock behind his head dulling the sound of the upstairs shower. The house was otherwise quiet, for which he was thankful. Janet shut down like the off-switch on a computer as soon as her head hit the pillow (a skill inherited from her mother that Jon both admired and envied), but Dylan could go round in circles for hours, pretending—badly—to sleep while he talked to whichever action figure he had snuck under the covers that night. Silence upstairs meant that at least one battle had been won tonight, and Dylan was asleep in his own bed.
The pipes in the walls shut down suddenly, shower off, and Jon opened his eyes.
There would be no sleeping for the Widower tonight. Sad memories fester when the sun goes down and A low battery warning popped up on the screen; irritated, Jon closed it, absently searching the space between the cushions for his charger before getting sucked in again the only things still awake are the thoughts in your head and the empty no one who lies in the space next to you and holy crap shut up with this garbage, there’s no point delete value delete pu
A footstep crunched on the gravel walk outside.
Jon jerked, eyes instinctively on the entrance foyer. Ears strained; waiting. Above him Janet opened and closed the sink cupboard, sounds brusque and normal in the pregnant silence. The clock ticked.
He forced himself to relax. He’d imagined the sound.
When he turned back to the computer in his lap, Jon deleted back to thoughts in your head and added and the broken rooms of a dead house. He hit enter automatically, then paused, his eyebrows drawing downwards.
But how did the hair get in the Closet?
He considered the blinking cursor.
How did the hair get in the Closet?
The perpendicular line behind dead house went off-on-off-on-off-on with the regulatory of a metronome. Outside, a cat fled the thing coming up the walk.
Jon rolled the question along the bottom of his mouth, and slowly started to type.
Once upon a time there was a woman named Hope who got brain cancer and died. She was buried in a lovely hardwood casket, in a cemetery just outside of the no-consequence suburban town of Altenburg. Her Widower and two children will move three times, until they settle in a house as broken as they are.
And then one night
Jon paused. How do you make the impossible real? How do you breathe life into the dead? How could she make a 400 mile journey when the starting line is a six feet of packed dirt overhead? You can’t go back in time, you can’t erase the cliffhanger, at the end of the day you’re still bound by the non-fiction boundaries of everyday life—
Brilliance hit him.
the Widower wrote a story about a man named Jon who could change reality by typing it into his computer.
Change the genre. You change the genre, you change the rules.
Jon writes a pretty terrible story about the angriest of the rooms that haunts the Widower’s broken house. The Closet is a force of raw, lonely hunger, evil and old, and it had somehow gotten its claws into Hope, leaving nothing to the Widower but the last few clumps of hair from her head, having started with her brain then eating and eating and eating until it was desperately licking at the inside of her skull, like the leftover grease off a hamburger wrapper. But Jon doesn’t like this so he types up a different ending where Hope goes ahead and digs herself out of the ground and through the shredded lining of her coffin. She brushes the dirt off her dress and stands on the shoulder of Highway 11, with her thumb stuck out to rush hour traffic.
And Jon gets into all the details to make it more realistic. Like the man who picks her up does so because her silhouette looks thin in the darkening twilight and that might make her pretty. Like the way he drawls “Where to, darlin’?” as he leans across the front seat to push open the door. How he only gets to “Where to—” and then chokes on the smell.
And now the Widower’s trying to figure out why Jon is focusing on the gross details (how she doesn’t answer because the mortician had sewn her mouth shut through the bottom of her jaw, how the man misses every single one of his turn offs to Altenburg because if he stops he’ll have to look at her, how the vaguest impression in his peripheral vision of the skin she left on the inside door handle when she pulled it closed is already too much to bear), and he’ll drive her all the way to 4279 S. Meyer and let her out without ever looking at her. He leaves her standing just outside the light of the front porch, looking up at the second floor.
So the Widower better not have been planning on getting any sleep tonight because, Jon—fifth secret—the thing that’s going to knock at your door to be let in tonight isn’t
Janet cleared her throat.
For the second time that night Jon startled to a stop, though in the low-key, hard-to-read way that had gotten him a reputation in college as unflappable; Hope had known better. His daughter didn’t though, surveying him from just a few feet away with her hands folded, her lips pursed, and her hair still wet from the shower. The fourteen-year-old was glaring at him, either in anger or concern. The furrow between her eyebrows could mean either.
“Yes?” Jon asked, tone borderline strained. He could feel his heart pounding in the base of his throat. Abruptly his laptop blinged at him in that too-cheery way it had when he wasn’t in the mood and the low-battery warning popped up again. Jon tore his eyes away from the screen and, to distract himself away from the keyboard where his fingers itched to keep going, started feeling around the cushions again. “Have you seen the charger?”
She nudged something into his foot with her toe, unimpressed frown telling him she didn’t think much of his observational skills. He reached down and grabbed the charger from the floor, plugging one end into the computer before realizing he’d have to get up to get to the outlet for the other end, and stayed seated.
“You’re too far away,” she supplied helpfully, making no move to assist.
Jon just gave Janet a look. “Yes, thank you. Is that all?”
She hesitated. Jon realized he was breathing in his mouth and out his nose, like he was trying not to gag on a smell, and made himself stop.
“What’s wrong?” she finally decided, if hesitantly.
“N—just focusing,” he managed, fighting off the flare of temper at his daughter’s attempts to worry about him instead of the other way around. Again. He glanced up at the clock, fingers absently feeling at the smooth curve of the backspace key. “Isn’t it past your bedtime?”
Automatically she glanced up at the clock, but the furrow was still there and she ignored the question as she met his eyes. “You…sure there’s nothing wrong?”
She hunched, then steeled herself to look at him again. “You’re mad about my group project.”
“I am not mad about your group project,” he explained calmly. His eyes flickered to a sound—probably imagined—from outside. “You don’t need to apologize.”
“I’m not—” she huffed out a breath through her nose “—okay, I’m sorry, but—I don’t really feel bad—”
“I don’t!” she insisted. “I feel bad you found out—well, no, I was going tell you—I…I think, anyways—but that’s…that isn’t even what I want to—”
“Later, Janet,” he said, glancing past her shoulder, towards the front window. The closed curtains revealed nothing. “I’m on a roll and I’ve got to focus on—”
“What are you listening for?” she demanded, cutting him off.
“I’m—” he cut off his automatic defense (that he was distracted by his writing, as she knew he sometimes did) because it wasn’t true. He wasn’t trying to get back to his writing.
He was listening for a corpse coming up the walk.
There was the barest hint of a creak, like someone had just put their weight on a stair, but before Jon could jump from his seat and determine whether that had actually come from the front porch, a small voice called out, “Dad?”
Jon realized he was standing. He looked up at Dylan, hugging the top rail of the stairs and looking plaintive and lost in one of Jon’s old college t-shirts. The stair creaked – again – as his son shifted from one foot to the other. “I think there’s something in my closet.” Jon had imagined it. “Can I…” Again. “…sleep with you?”
The Widower lost his temper.
“I am done,” he explained through gritted teeth. “We are done. I am tired of this game of pretend. You need to stop it—you’re old enough now, you will decide to be brave, you will not sleep in my room again.” He was breathing hard through his nose as he took in his children in one sweeping glance, too angry to care about their startled expressions. “We all need to grow up around here.”
The clock ticked sharp notches into the thick silence.
It was hard to tell from a floor down, but that might be a quiver Dylan was trying to quell by gritting his jaw. The nine-year-old nodded with all the meek despair he could muster in a single gesture, turning away, and Jon – his well of patience dried up – turned too, back to his chair but right into Janet. She had her arms folded, a disapproving frown on her face. “Way to crush him, Dad.”
Guilt made his answer harsher than it should’ve been. “I thought you didn’t like how soft I was on him over this closet stupidity,” he snapped, exasperated.
Her expression fell into the blackest scowl he’d seen since she was five and mad-dogging the cameraman trying to take their church directory photo. “Oh,” she snapped back. “So you areinterested in listening to me?” Before he could answer her, she fled, stomping pointedly up the stairs before she apparently remembered that her brother was supposed to be trying to fall asleep. Her footsteps eased off.
“I plugged in your stupid laptop,” she added over her shoulder, with the tone of someone adding insult to injury.
Jon almost gave it up then. Left the laptop where it was, went to check on them both, put all the crazy ideas away and went to bed, never to resurrect the crappy Word document again. He had let his frustrations over his useless, irrational, increasingly disturbing ideas boil into temper at his undeserving children. Upstairs the bathroom door slammed shut, quietly but distinctly, and he winced as he started to go for the stairs, no longer torn.
And then the steps on the front porch creaked.
Jon jerked towards the sound. No. No, it couldn’t be. It couldn’t…
A second creak sounded, drawing Jon towards the door. Heart hammering in his throat, beating a painfully wild rhythm in his chest, Jon stood for a moment with his hand on the brass doorknob. Outside, something shuffled past the window – he waited just a moment too long to flick the curtains back so he could catch a glimpse – towards the door. Waiting for a knock. Imagining what she would look like. He could practically feel her on the other side.
And abruptly remembered with terrible clarity what he had written. Her smell. Her closed mouth. The rotting skin she’d left in a stranger’s car.
He wasn’t mad, Jon realized. He was frightened. Because it had worked.
Jon heel-turned away from the door so fast he had the laptop in his hand without processing the actual movements it had taken to pick it up from the lazy boy. Plugged in, it glowed a bright and cheerful white in his hand. He was sightlessly reaching for the delete button (he had to make her go away, he had to, he had to, what had he done?) when the sight of the cursor farther down the document than when he had left it stopped him cold. It was on an entirely new page, shoved there by a couple of paragraphs he hadn’t written.
Jon eye’s dipped automatically to the last sentence, sitting like a beacon on a single line by itself.
Didn’t believe it.
Read it again.
We’re writing ourselves now, said the Closet.