What the Three-Year-Old Knew

Holy bananas, I found it. Behold, the source material:


Susan Wellins sighed loudly in the doorway to the living room, mostly to indicate to her husband that there was a problem and he should ask about it. She gave him a second, and then decided waiting for the perfunctory “eh?” wasn’t really worth her time.

“The closet again.”

The back of Jonathan’s head over the couch didn’t relay what he was thinking, nor did the green-socked feet resting on her coffee table. Book pages rustled. “The closet again?” he repeated absently.

Susan moved past the couch and to the squashy chair across from it, depositing her shoes with two satisfying clunks next to the magazine holder. Jonathan kept reading, turning a page with one finger. He continued to read and she watched him until he got the point. The book disappeared, brightly illustrated cover going under his thigh. Why he did that she wasn’t sure; maybe to keep himself from picking it up again, before the conversation was over. She gave him a tired sort of smile to let him know she appreciated it.

“The closet again,” he repeated.

It was opening enough. “I don’t understand that kid,” she said. She pressed back into the chair, paused to push her short hair her neck, and then leaned back again, aware that the blonde hair pushed up around her head probably looked stupid. “Who’s afraid of their closet?”

“Petey is, apparently,” Jonathan answered her. “What did he want you to do?”

She answered with exasperation in her voice. “He wanted me to lock the door. So it couldn’t look at him. We don’t even have key for that closet. He takes after you,” she added suddenly.

Both of their children seemed to take after their father, with darker hair than her own, and even at age seven and three she could tell they’d end up looking like their Dad. Susan did, however, claim Juliella’s curiosity and her maddening need to take everything apart. She generously gave full credit to Jonathan for Petey’s inability to turn off his imagination.

Jonathan tilted his head just slightly, as though to take her in. “Weren’t you afraid when you were little?”

She eyed his nearly black hair with disappointment, before answering. He’d snuck off again to the barber and it was much shorter than she liked. That always happened when he went to Super Cuts unsupervised.

“Monsters,” she admitted, meeting his eyes again. They were crinkled at her, probably suspecting what she’d been thinking. “Monsters in my closet.”

In fact, this wasn’t precisely true. She hadn’t really ever been afraid of monsters. Dark places were scary, so closets and basements did fall under that jurisdiction, but she’d always been more afraid that a burglar, or a kidnapper, or maybe a murderer would pop out of the dark. It was close enough to monsters, though, only she had never really had the delight of growing out of her monsters, like you could the boogey man.

“There you go,” her husband said, sweeping a hand at her. It was a tactical move, she knew, meant to distract her from the hand creeping back to the book under his leg.

Susan snapped her gaze forward without working herself up into a rigid sitting position. The day had been too long for that. “In my closet, Jonathan. Not my actual closet.”

She took another long moment, tired, and then continued. “He says it’s using your face.”

“What? My what now?”

“The Halloween one.” Susan waited for recognition, but it didn’t come. He stared at her, and she realized how that had probably sounded. “The mask I mean, the one you wore two Halloweens ago.”

“It couldn’t,” he said, expression mystified. “I’d never have given it to Petey. He hated that thing.”

Susan widened her eyes at her husband, biting her lip in exaggerated horror. “Maybe the closet took it.”

“I’ll write that down,” he assured her. It was one of their jokes, that Jonathan would write down whatever profound thing had come out of her mouth. For posterity’s sake, he sometimes added. Writer-husbands thought themselves so clever.

Susan wasn’t looking at him now, considering the options as she gazed at the family photos above the couch. “We should get him his own room,” she said. “Juliella’s old enough to be out of the crib anyways. That’s probably what this is about.”

“Or maybe,” Jonathan suggested, “he’s afraid of the closet.”

“It doesn’t make any sense.”

Jonathan shook his head as though she didn’t get it. “Houses are creepy places.” She was very proud of her house and immediately shot him a look, but he had already put up his hands. “Even parts of good houses.”

She wasn’t buying it.

“Come on,” he said, leaning forward in the couch. Susan wondered what that was doing to the book cover under his thigh. “You don’t get a bad a feeling sometimes, when you enter a house, or a room? Never?”

“Never,” she assured him. “Houses are houses. Any bad feelings are from the people living in them, and that’s usually because of the way they decorate and treat their place.”

Jonathan was grinning, expression wry. “How unromantically scientific. Too scientific sometimes, Sue.”

She didn’t agree or disagree. “Hm.”

“Maybe houses do have personalities.” She must have been giving him a look of incredulity, because he neatly turned it into a joke. “I’ve always felt the garage door hated me.”

“But the closet?” she demanded. “You’re the English major. Analyze it.” When in doubt, fall back on a good standby: lovingly mock your husband’s degree.

“I write children’s fantasy,” he said. “I’d rather tell a story than try and find the meaning of life in it.”

“So Petey’s need to see the closet as an enemy is…”

He sighed. “I’ll humor you.” She grinned. It was fun getting him to play. “To escape his suburban confines and have an adventure. He’ll realize, by the end, that there are no real happy endings and return, unsatisfied and disillusioned, to the comfort of his conservative upbringing.”

Settling even further into the chair, Susan searched the space between the cushions and the side, finally pulling out an old issue of MEMagazine. She glanced up at Jonathan, the book back in his hands.

“He gets it from you,” she told him.

Jonathan cocked an eyebrow at her and flipped a page.

#

Petey lay in the dark, staring at the strange shadows the nightlight cast on the ceiling. Sometimes he saw faces, dogs, cats, even a pair of wings once, but tonight all he saw were the shadows trying to swallow up his glow-in-the-dark stars.

He needed to figure out what he’d done to piss off his closet. If he could, he wouldn’t have to lay awake at night, afraid to close his eyes and afraid to open them, because the door was always gapped just a little bit wider. The closet hated him. Had hated him since they’d moved into the house about three years ago, and first started trying to kill him.

He’d suspected it was monsters for awhile. Monsters made sense. Monsters were traditional. It was only because things happened in the daytime too that he realized it might be the closet. Monsters had run of the night, but the house was supposed to be his once morning broke.

Why, why, why did it have something against him? It had no reason to hate him. But it did. He lost everything in the closet, never could find a thing when he needed it, and Mom said it was because he was messy. She didn’t believe him when he told her that Dad’s mask, the one he’d worn one Halloween with the ugly mouth and big, hairy nostrils, was always on top of the pile of closet debris whenever he opened the door.

Petey suddenly felt the closet door begin to creak open. It was sound too, but the snick was so quiet it had to be half-imagined. Sometimes he looked over at the closet and nothing really had happened. He’d asked his mom to lock it, but she’d said he needed to stop being ridiculous.

Over in her crib, Juliella stirred.

Juliella was barely three, had blonder but wispier hair than him, and shared his freckles and his sleeping space. He should’ve minded (all his friends with little sisters did), but he liked having her where he could keep an eye on her. Big brother was a worthy job. He’d taught her to walk, and he’d teach her the Scooby Doo theme when she was ready to learn it.

That’s what scared him about the closet most. He looked over at it, saw the strip of black between the door and the wall that grew wider every time he looked away and back again, and hated the innocent cheerfulness of the white door. Juliella was fooled by that color.

“You won’t get her,” Petey hissed into the dark. “I won’t let you.”

Because it kept trying to suck her in.

#

The closet hadn’t always hated children. Just people in general. But children had proved the easiest to frighten, because they couldn’t explain it away like the adults (“Oh my, I thought that shelf was a little loose.” “Dear me, I swear I put those shoes right here.”). The closet had started out bitter, for no better reason than it felt cheated by the rest of the house, with their furniture and their people and their long memories. Perhaps at one time it would have admitted to being lonely, but now the closet enjoyed its sullenness, harboring animosity for the children that had started to think they could use its space.

The pile on the closet floor shifted as the weight of night settled down. Comics slid under used socks and smelly sneakers, and somehow the mask ended up back on top. That wretch, Petey, got a start every time he opened the closet and found it sneering at him. It was the closest the closet ever got to wearing a face.

The closet liked the smell of fear. It was a heavy feeling that roiled around the toys and into the clothes, so that whenever the boy put on his shirt he was bathed in the stench of it, stupid and unaware. The strip of door cracked a little wider on creaking hinges, and stopped when Petey’s head snapped up and around to look.

The little boy slipped out of bed, hesitating because everyone knew the place under the bed wasn’t a very nice spot either. Most under-bed spaces were merely misunderstood, and this one was the same, allowing the child’s bare feet to touch the floor without incident. Chump. The closet watched Petey bend down to unlock the wheels on the crib. This had been a common ritual for the past couple weeks, Petey slipping out of bed to roll his sister’s crib against the back wall, straining with the effort to do it silently. He stopped when his own bed was between her and the closet, crawling under the covers to pretend to sleep.

The closet peered in a little wider, and lazily froze again when Petey looked back.

As much hostility as he had for the children and the rest of the cheerful house, the closet knew it couldn’t break the rules. It wanted to, badly, but the rest of the house would let the closet alone so long as no one ever caught his movements. The living room, a benevolent room but largely territorial when it came to the family, was up in arms over the closet’s behavior. But the closet knew it wouldn’t make a move without the kitchen, which was too concerned with making sure the family ate well to bother paying attention to the rest of the house.

The teddy that had been lost last week rolled to the front of the heap, and the closet creaked with the pleasant sense of the wait before morning came. Once they let the little girl out of her cage, he’d crack the door, and let teddy peek out into the bedroom.

The closet couldn’t smile. But the Halloween mask leered into the dark, grinning from the top of the pile.

#

“We are going to be late.”

This was not as foreboding a situation as it sounded, as every week morning at 7:45 his wife uttered the same words. There was an explosion of activity from the front hall, and Petey came out dragging a backpack and trying to hop into his shoes.

“Hup hup hup,” Susan ordered, whirling through the kitchen to grab a pop tart. She handed them to Petey.

“These are cold.”

“Then start getting up earlier,” she told him, which hardly seemed fair, Jonathan thought, since his wife pressed the snooze easily twice as many times as Petey did. “We are late.”

Petey managed to finish the hop into his shoes, smashing down the back heel of his sneakers. He was fighting the foil of the pop tart packaging and Susan was whirling her hands in wide circles to get him through the front door when he stopped.

“Dad, you have to—” Petey saw his mother looking at them, and leaned in to Jonathan’s ear. “Keep her away from the closet.”

Jonathan smiled, ruffling his head. “Come on. Things aren’t so bad when it’s light out.”

Susan was tugging at their son’s arm now, pulling him towards the door as she shoved Petey’s coat at him. Petey looked troubled, face drawn in serious contemplation. Jonathan was pretty sure he’d answered wrong.

“The closet won’t get her,” he said loudly. “I promise.”

Petey didn’t look happy, but then there was little else the kid could agree to. He nodded hesitantly, looked at Juliella hard and long, and finished pulling on his coat.

“We are so late!” Susan exclaimed. She kissed him like it was a drive-by shooting, fast and hard on the mouth, and the front door was slamming before he could feel the ache of his front teeth.

“All right, Juli,” Jonathan said in his best punk-rocker voice, looking down at his daughter. She covered her smile with her hands. “The day is ours.”

Pete and Susan were always flurries of energy and motion in the morning, rushing for bags and food and shoes, depending on their desperate need in the fifteen minutes they had before Petey had to get to school and Susan had to get to work. When Jonathan was finally left with the baby of the family, the day appeared calm and his for the taking. He sat at the kitchen table, writing while Juliella worked on something at his feet.

“I hung’y” Juliella announced.

Juliella stated this several times through every morning. Jonathan doubted she was hungry; it was more likely that lunchtime was her way of keeping track of the time.

“You’re only a couple hours too early.” She huffed and went back to her own work.

He scratched at his notebook and tried to leave it alone.

It was Petey’s insistence that bothered him. The closet, the closet is evil! It sounded so stupid in the morning, but Jonathan remembered how it had felt to be a kid, certain that the basement was going to kill you. He shook his head, as though to get rid of the thoughts. Time slipped by easily when you were trying to get out of writing a scene you didn’t care for.

He was working his way through a particularly insipid bit of phrasing when the silence of the house struck him. Juliella normally stayed near his feet, but even when she was in the living room she made some sort of noise, whacking at toys until they did what she wanted or taking them apart to see if they’d tick. But there were no sounds of a busy three-year-old, just the thrum of the dishwasher.

He stood. He couldn’t get it out of his head.

The living room was empty. Jonathan turned in the quiet space, hoping she was hiding behind the sofa. “Juliella?” he called uncertainly.

Half felt, half-imagined, he heard the sound of a closet door clicking.

Jonathan had always believed in the power of instinct, of gut-wrenching fear, and the fact that monsters were real. He loped up to the bedrooms, seeing as he passed that the stairway guard had been quietly taken apart by an inquisitive three-year-old, taking the stairs three at a time. He’d learned how to be an adult, but the other part of him, the part that had not grown up and wrote stories about adventures and danger and the usefulness of magic, knew these things could still happen. He slammed into Petey and Juliella’s bedroom.

Foolishness struck him. The room was empty. There wasn’t any sound, and that suddenly frightened him most of all.

Juliella,” he tried again.

The audacity of the closet struck him, glaring white and innocent in the morning light coming through the window. It glanced off the plastic stars on the ceiling, showing off the dust that floated above the book shelf next to the wall. The crib, for some strange reason, had been shoved into the corner between the bed and the wall.

Jonathan opened the closet, dread in his stomach.

Juliella sat in the dust motes, calmly taking pieces off of a Mr. Spell. There was a crowd of shirts that needed picking up off the floor around her, and a stuffed bear under her right knee. The Halloween mask smirked at him from the floor.

She looked up at him. “Lunchtime?”

“No,” he said, staring blankly down at her. Her hair was mussed, and the braids her mother had worked into her blonde hair needed re-doing, but that was par for the course. Life was so normal it wasn’t. “Hand that over, Juliella. It’s your brother’s.”

She huffed but obeyed, and he helped her to her feet, straightening her shirt with one hand. He waved the Mr. Spell at her, still staring into the closet. “We’re going to have a talk about this with Petey later,” he said.

“Awww,” she moaned, moving away, and Jonathan leaned forward, snatching the mask from the floor.

“Don’t you ever—” Jonathan started, jerking the mask angrily, but then he remembered that he was yelling at a closet and he turned to follow his daughter instead, back to the kitchen and the dishwasher and his writing, waiting to be finished on the table.

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6 Responses to What the Three-Year-Old Knew

  1. Your Local Friendly IT Guy says:

    The mother is still around! Also, that seems way more sinister. But maybe that’s mostly because there is no resolution.

    • A.L. Schultz says:

      When I read through this I realized I liked the family interactions so much better in this version. Maybe just because they’re happier? Some lessons to re-learn here, I think.

  2. The Sister says:

    Super creepy. Are happy stories so boring that you must delve into the darkness?

    • A.L. Schultz says:

      But no one died in this one!

      Yet, I suppose ;).

      • Your Local Friendly IT Guy says:

        It’s nice that the whole family is together, but there is something extra sinister about the fact that the youngest member of the family is so young. Keep away from the children! Or maybe that should be rephrased to the common tongue of the day: “Think of the children!”

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