I like where this story is going, Jon, the Closet added, each letter popping up with the ease of someone who could type as fast as they could think.
Jon shuddered in a breath, nearly gasping on it. Janet had plugged his laptop into the wall. Janet had plugged his laptop into the wall. He yanked the cord from the machine, but it was too late; you couldn’t dam the waters that had already poured in.
Now, let’s just clean up the rest of the house, shall we? The Closet suggested.
Jon was trying to skim back up through to the other paragraphs the Closet had written, but only managed a vague glimpse of a scene describing the Widower as he stood at the front door, certain there was someone on the other side (holy crap, how deep was this thing in his head?) before the flood of letters started again, bumping the page back so that the words were in the middle of the screen, cursor leading the way.
Entrance Foyer was the next to go. The Closet ate and ate and ate, down to the mud ground into the wood grain on the floor because everything tastes good when you’re starving, you know what I mean, right Jon? And the Entrance Foyer hadn’t wanted to know what was going on anyways, so, really, I’m just doing the whole house a favor.
The entrance foyer suddenly felt emptier somehow. Like Jon could’ve clapped his hands together and the sound wouldn’t have anywhere to go.
I don’t understand why I’m never full. Why is it never enough? Food. Food, yes, let’s go where the food’s at.
Via the words on the screen the Closet began to eat the Kitchen—she shrieked (Jon could actually hear the walls squeal as joints shifted against each other and cracked like old knuckles)—and he realized he had to stop it before it finished the job.
Jon smashed his finger down on the delete button, which began swallowing the words. The walls of the Kitchen stopped groaning then cracked again as the two actions—the disappearing words as more words simultaneously piled on top of each other (no stop tha stop Jon stop you can’t faster keep going Jon delete stop deleting nice try go for it Jon I can type as fast as fast delete I’m here Jon I can help you wo no stop get get you want)—fought but made no progress.
He dropped into the chair so that he could put both his hands to work, left hand grabbing big chunks of text with the touch pad as he smashed repeatedly on the delete button with his right. But then those same big chunks of text kept popping back into existence, like the Closet had learned all the hot keys it needed to ctrl+v and paste the deleted text back into existence.
Underneath The Kitchen scrabbled for purchase, but of course it had no defense against an action it had spent the last fifty years pretending was impossible, the Closet added with cool indifference:
After this I’m going upstairs. There’s a delicious smell in the shower drain.
The End Jon tried in desperation, trying to bring the story to a close. The two words disappeared, the Closet deleting them this time, and he added them again (The End) only for the cursor to grab them again and delete once more. The end delete THE END deleted THE END delete THE delete ENDENDENDENDEND
Delete delete delete delete (Oh, and I still haven’t had my taste of Boy) and Jon’s mind raced, wondering if he should close the laptop but afraid that would make everything permanent (the thought of the unwanted hitchhiker staring up at Dylan’s bedroom window haunted him; he had to delete back to the chapter before first, or bring it to a close before anything
Right. Right right right; Jon went for the “X” in the upper right corner of the Word document, praying the Closet hadn’t thought to save changes yet.
Ah ah, the Closet wrote, automatically forcing the cursor back down to the middle of the page. You didn’t say the magic
The cursor blinked into existence above several mixed up lines where the Closet and Jon had fought for dominance over the content of the sentences, swiped over The Kitchen scrabbled for purchase, but of course it had no defense against an action it had spent the last fifty years pretending was impossible, and replaced it with a rapidly appearing: The Kitchen fought valiantly, the Living Room at her side.
There was a beat.
YOU, the Closet hissed.
Yes me, the Living Room agreed. You delete, Widower, I’ll type.
The Closet fought like a rat in a trap NO YOU delete but it was no avail OH YES IT swipe, delete for everything gets mashed together in the stomach. I’ll eat this place back together WATCH IT JON, THAT’S NOT ME another swift swipe and delete. With one emptying the space while the other immediately filled it, they had a chance.
Jon was weak and stupid and
The Widower was brave and intelligent
for he faced off with demons, and he did so alone.
“Not alone,” Jon corrected to the empty room, and shivered with more thrill than terror when the word came swiftly after: Mostly.
But you’re forgetting the corpse on the front lawn, Jon.
Jon missed a swipe/delete, both startled and uncertain if the Living Room was trying to warn him or the Closet had written it as a taunt, and the Closet took full advantage of the falter:
She came in through the Closet. Any two-bit bulimic knows how to stick a finger down their throat and vomit everything they’ve ever eaten, and you’re the one who forced her down my gullet, Jon. She doesn’t need the front door.
Jon realized he was standing, tense gaze up at the top of the stairs with the laptop in one hand and unable to do its job. Letters appeared with furious speed in the bottom periphery of his vision and he glanced down, reading the last line out of the flurry of words he’d just missed:
Try what you will. It’s too late. Knock knock, Jonny Boy.
Something thumped on the floor of Dylan’s room.
SIXTH SECRET! SIXTH SECRET! The Living Room was all-capsing in the Word Document. THE DEAD CAN’T HURT THE LIVING, JON, ONLY THE
But Jon couldn’t let this play out any longer (in the back of his mind was the sudden, awful certainty that he hadn’t turned off the laptop immediately, not because he’d written Hope’s corpse into existence and needed to undo it first, but because he’d been watching magic and magic in the real world was so rare he couldn’t bear not to be a party to its existence). He whammed the laptop closed, shutting down the Living Room as it screamed at him; because maybe if he didn’t read it then it couldn’t come true.
He took the stairs three at a time, with a wild and unhelpful, “Dylan, DON’T!” There was a brief flash of Janet poking her head out of the bathroom, but he’d sprinted the length of the hallway before he could register her surprise. Jon darted into the black bedroom, door smashing against the wall. Light from the hallway flooded the room.
The bed was empty. He had only the impression of tangled sheets, tossed into a misshapen pile of flat, empty wrinkles, his face and all of his attention towards the Closet, to see exactly what it had vomited out onto the floor and into their plane of existence.
There was only one figure in the closet doorway. It was small and shriveled, tangled in her hospital sheets, and he realized, with gripping horror, that Hope had already eaten Dylan.
Jon became aware of the weight in his hand, and that he had never let go of the laptop.
He moved without thinking. He was on the thing in a couple of steps, with the computer shifted into a two-handed grip, drawing back like he was up for bat.
“SPIT HIM OUT!” he screamed, swinging forward, just in time to hear Janet scream behind him:
The figure turned and Jon had just enough time to pray in one unbroken string of desperate words OHGODPLEASENO.
He saw Dylan’s face as the nine-year-old twisted to look backwards, a sheet from his bed wrapped around his shoulders and head to protect him from the monsters because he’d decided to be brave—of course his boy had decided to be brave because Dad had told him to—for brave boys faced their monsters, unaware that sometimes the monster didn’t bother to hide, just inch-by-inch coaxed us into being the worst versions of ourselves.
Janet’s warning gave him a second to force the arc of the laptop just a little higher than he had originally intended, but not another to pray that it would be enough.
The laptop missed Dylan’s head by centimeters, hitting the door jamb hard enough to shake the computer loose from Jon’s grip, which bounced into Dylan’s shoulder with enough force to make the boy stumble sideways. Jon caught him automatically.
There was dead silence, both behind him where Janet should have been asking what was going on but for some reason – disbelief, perhaps, or fear – couldn’t, and in front of him where Dylan stood staring, shocked alarm frozen on his face. He was afraid. Of me, Jon realized.
Sixth secret, he thought. Only the living can hurt the living. Of course it’s me.
The silence lasted one heartbeats, two, and then Jon said, nonsensically, thoughts still badly shaken but grabbing onto the phrase because it had been written on a sign on his own bedroom door from ages seven to twelve:
“Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”
Dylan’s expression cleared and he grinned. “Yeah!”
“Kill the Closet,” Jon told him.
Dylan pumped a fist. “Yes!”
“Turn on all the lights. Let’s chase it all the way out of the house.”
Dylan laughed as he raced for the hallway, jumping up to flick on the overhead light as he passed. Janet sidestepped him, but both father and daughter flinched when the light seared their night-adjusted eyes.
“All of them!” Jon shouted at his back, vision clearing. The lights went on in the master bedroom, Dylan stomp-running towards the stairs like he weighed eight hundred pounds, and Jon glanced back at the closet.
The laptop wasn’t in pieces, but that was no comfort—the casing had split at the seams and what was attached hung on only by twisted, white-scarred plastic. The computer had popped open when it hit the floor, cover catch almost certainly broken, and there was an awful sickle-shaped gouge in the display, rainbows on the anti-reflective surface bleeding weird patterns onto the Microsoft page Jon could still see open.
He released his breath in one sharp blast, looked at Janet, and didn’t quite ask her: Do you realize what I almost did?
The fourteen-year-old’s expression flattened into a scowl.
“I’m not speaking to you,” she reminded him, turning suddenly on her heel and stalking away.
Jon followed her to the bathroom. Downstairs he could hear doors and cupboards banging open, and the sound of Dylan shouting, “Get out of here you jerk!”
He knocked on the closed door quietly. “Janet?” he called. “Janet, I need to talk to you.”
There was no answer, but he went on.
“I’m very sorry, Janet,” he said. “I’ve been dealing with some things, but—no, doesn’t matter. I’m sorry.”
Still no answer, but he deserved it.
“I want to hear what you have to tell me. You really reached out to me—” he grimaced, uncomfortable with the phrase, but there was nothing else for it but Dear Abby at this point “—and I should’ve listened when you asked me to. I would like another chance.” A pause. “Janet?”
Still not good enough, her answering silence said.
“Janet, I’m not very good at this.” He cleared his throat. “You’re so much like your mother. She had such a gift for getting right to the heart of a problem. She wanted an explanation for everything, and when she had it she could turn it around and figure out how to make it make sense for the rest of us.”
He paused, considering how to say this.
“I think I understand why you want to do the project. You’re an explainer, and your mother said and did some terrible things…when…” He sighed, closing his eyes. “I wish…” he said, very quietly, knowing that Janet couldn’t hear him.
The door startled him by clicking open. He found that he was actually nervous to go in and talk to his daughter. But if Dylan could face a closet that wanted to eat him, he could be the Standup Dad Hope always said he was.
Janet had just re-seated herself on the closed toilet lid when he went in, knees clenched together and hands clamped around her upper arms. Her teeth worried at her bottom lip. She had changed into her pajamas but her day clothes were still crumpled in a neat pile on the floor. Jon glanced over the room on automatic, saw her underwear hanging from the bathtub rim – dripping with wet and clearly very recently hand-rinsed – and froze when he realized the stain on them was blood.
Every awful thing that could mean flipped one after the other through his mind. Had she been—no that couldn’t, it could be worse, it could be—
The words came out of her in a rush. “Daddy, I’m having my period.” Janet covered her face with her hands as soon as she’d said it and the only thing he could think was: Oh.
“Janet,” he said in his gentlest tone, kneeling down next to her and trying very hard not to let her hear the laugh in the back of his throat, “having your…” he cleared his throat and wondered just how old he thought he was “…period is a very normal thing for a young woman—”
“Ahh!” she cried, throwing up her hands. “Stop talking about it! It’s just…” she swallowed and wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I’ve been borrowing pads from Marissa and I don’t think I should do that forever and I really need you to buy me some and I didn’t know how to ask because it’s so embarrassing and gross and, and…”
“What’s gross?” Dylan demanded from the doorway. “What are you talking about?”
“Ahh!” she screamed again, but this time the shriek gave her the drive she needed to push them both out of the bathroom and into the hallway, door slamming closed behind them.
Dylan looked at Jon, lips pursed. “Women,” he said knowingly.
Jon snorted, wondering which TV show Dylan had picked that up from.
It took another ten minutes for the smoke to clear, but by the time every neighbor on the block had to be wondering why all the lights were on in 4279 S. Meyer, the Barton family was sitting on the floor of Dylan’s room, their backs to his bed and their faces to the closet.
With Janet pressed into his shoulder on the right and Dylan on the left, Jon could finally talk about Hope.
“Your Mom,” he said to both of them, “didn’t believe in killing monsters the old-fashioned way.”
Dylan laughed, short but gleefully.
“She was extremely rational,” he said, looking down at Dylan. “She thought you could explain everything.”
Janet snorted and he glanced at her.
“Now me,” he said, choosing to ignore the derisive sound, “I think there’s still nothing that shrivels monsters like a bright light.”
“Me too!” Dylan decided.
“Fine,” Janet agreed, sounding like she was doing everyone a favor by giving up on her very correct, very logical, very lost cause. “Light kills monsters.”
Jon grinned, not looking at either of them. “You know she used to call me Jonny Boy?”
Dylan laughed outright, thrilled. “Jonny Boy, Jonny Boy!” he sing-songed. Jon grimaced to himself, wondering what monster he had just created.
Janet spoke again. “You’ve never talked about Mom before.”
Jon frowned, but it was Dylan who beat him to an answer. “I like this Mom,” he decided. “Our’s was kind of scary.”
Jon thought, a little horrified, is this my fault?
“She wasn’t scary,” Janet exploded quietly but fiercely, looking around Jon’s shoulder at her brother. “She had a glioblastoma multiforme—a kind of cancer—that developed from the glial cells in her brain. The tumor was growing and dividing at an uncontrolled pace. It’s really hard to treat because the brain is so easily damaged and isn’t very good at repairing itself like other parts of the body. Worse, a lot of drugs can’t cross the blood-brain barrier.”
Janet had lost Jon at the addition of multiforme to the name of the cancer (glioblastoma was an old, familiar enemy) and kicked him when he was down with the phrase “blood-brain barrier,” but he tried his best to translate for Dylan anyways. “Your brain makes you who you are. That’s where your personality – what you’re like, what you’re not like, if you’re shy or brave or silly—” Dylan laughed again when Jon flicked him glancingly on the forehead “—comes from. When you have a tumor taking up space in your head, it pushes your brain around and makes it do weird things.”
Dylan, who had gone glaze-eyed at Janet’s explanation, nodded at Jon’s, but it was unclear if it was because he understood it better or because it was Dad who was saying it. “Awful things.” Jon admitted. He paused, then added, “Your mom did and said things she never would have otherwise.”
Janet sighed, and Jon put his arms around both kids, squeezing his daughter a little tighter to his side for a brief moment.
Dylan sighed too a moment later, but the noise was more theatrical than despondent. Jon followed his gaze and saw that he was looking at the laptop, still lying broken in the closet. “I wanted to read your story.”
It surprised a smile from Jon. He looked at the laptop too, wondering how he was going to fit another computer into their finances. “Someday,” he said, “I’ll tell you that story.”
“Yeah?” Dylan asked, excited.
“Yeah,” he confirmed. Someday he’d be able to look at it and pretend it was just a fantasy he’d created to deal with his grief and his loneliness. Someday he’d feel like a fool; a man in the middle of a nervous breakdown who’d pulled back at the last minute. But today a closet had tried to trick him into killing his son. Today he could—today he must—admit that it was real. “When you’re older.”
Dylan pouted, and Jon glanced over at Janet and said, “You too.”
She looked surprised but didn’t ask for clarification.
“How are we doing?” Jon suddenly asked. He felt rather than saw both his children look at him. “I mean our family. How do you think we’re doing?”
Jon remembered Hope while he waited for them to answer – the way she’d smile and scold and offer advice whether or not you asked for it – and thought, Jonny Boy, this is how we do without her:
“Fine,” Janet said.
“Fine,” Dylan repeated.
“Fine,” Jon agreed, and the house on the corner of Pine and Meyer had nothing to add.