But Jon wasn’t afraid of monsters under the bed anymore.
Hope had died. He’d watched cancer swallow her body, crawl into the recesses of her mind, and burrow and eat and carve rat-infested caverns into her personality, and he had stopped being afraid of the dark.
Janet banged the pot harder than she needed to onto the stove, probably to get his attention.
“I thought we’d have sandwiches tonight,” Jon said, looking up from his laptop. The keyboard cursor blinked at the end of “Ten Ways You Can Be More Productive at Work.”
Janet shot him a look, pulling her bushy hair back with a fat scrunchy. “We have sandwiches every night. We’re going to have real food.”
There was a box of Mac & Cheese on the counter, which made Jon think that he should probably look into buying actual “real food” for his children.
“I thought it was my turn to cook dinner,” he said.
Janet slit open the package with her index finger, the cardboard popping away from the top of the box. “You did the budget last night.”
“I was supposed to do that last week.”
The water flowed with a loud shushing sound into the pot. The pipes in this house were old, and made a fuss anytime they were used at full power. Janet, Jon was absolutely sure, didn’t have the patience to fill anything at half speed. “Anyways,” she said, like that explained anything.
“Besides,” Jon went on, watching her work with brisk efficiency, turning the gas on with one hand while reaching into a drawer for matches with the other, “I cheated. I’ll do dishes tonight.”
“And garbage,” Janet said.
“And garbage?” he asked.
The burner whoomfed to life, and she tapped the schedule taped to the side of the fridge. “You’re on garbage tonight. It’s Wednesday.”
“I thought Wednesday was Dylan’s night.”
“No, Thursday is—”
The phone next to the refrigerator rang suddenly, but before either of them could answer it a faintly yelled “I’ll get it!” came from the direction of the den. Dylan liked answering the landline, and he’d taken it on as his personal household responsibility.
Janet rolled her eyes and Jon went back to his laptop, grinning.
He was deleting “1. Stop checking Facebook, doofus” from the article that he needed to turn in tomorrow when Janet spoke again. “So…I wanted to know if it would be okay if I asked some friends over on Friday.”
She said it confidently, but the wording meant she was afraid he was going to say no.
“Is that what the noodles are about?” he asked. “Janet, you know you can have friends over anytime.”
“Okay,” she nodded, steam from the bubbling pot obscuring her glasses. Macaroni noodles slid from the box into the boiling water and she started the timer. “It’s for a group project, and I thought it would be fun if my group could spend the night. We’ll get work done too, I promise.”
Jon made a noncommittal mhmm, sounds nice sort of noise while he thought about ten ways he had been unproductive at work, back when he had a normal 9-5. Janet’s suddenly small voice made him look up again, to see her eyes focused on cleaning her glasses. “I…kind of…already invited them.”
The guilt audible in the admission made Jon laugh, as he realized the noodles were actually about the fact that his daughter thought she’d done something wrong. She glanced up at him, but he didn’t explain. “You don’t even need to get any work done.” He frowned suddenly. “Wait. These group members aren’t boys, are they? Is that the problem?”
“No!” she said quickly. “I’m not stupid. It’s Emily, Marissa, and Izzy,” she listed, ticking them off on her fingers.
Jon looked at the ceiling, trying to put names and faces together. All he got we’re a group of girls with about the same hair and makeup, and with infinitely less interesting personalities and looks than Janet. “These are the look-alikes?”
Janet stirred the pot, trying to look severe (it suggested: how could you talk about my friends like that?), but failed when Jon saw her bite down a smile. “Some of them. But Em’s pretty cool, and Izzy is nice.”
Jon snapped his fingers, remembering one of them. “Marissa’s the one with the mom.”
“They all have moms.” Janet looked stricken for a second, like she couldn’t believe she’d just said that. “I mean—”
Jon didn’t let her apologize for it. “The divorcee, the one who likes to call people ‘poor thing.’”
Janet faced him, hands on her hips and a weirded-out furrow between her eyebrows. “She doesn’t call me ‘poor thing.’”
“No,” he said, smiling with frank amusement, “but then you’re not a poor, lonely widower.”
The timer beeped, and Janet pulled the pot off the stove. She was pouring the noodles through a strainer when she spoke again, tone quiet.
“You’re lonely?” she asked.
“Aww,” Dylan pouted, suddenly walking into the kitchen. Jon, still startled by his daughter’s question, had to let the matter go. “I wanted sandwiches.”
Janet banged the empty pot into the sink.
“Here,” Dylan said, handing the phone to Jon. “It’s Grandma. Grandpa’s at the shop.”
For just a second, Jon thought Janet might have caught his wince, but he covered it with a smile and his daughter was full-focused on the directions printed on the box when he glanced at her again. She either hadn’t, or pretended she hadn’t. Mom was easier when she had Dad in her ear telling her to leave the boy alone, Jo. “Hi, Mom,” he said, walking out of the room. “How are you?”
“Dylan seems like he’s doing well,” his mother said in answer. “But his closet sounds like a right terror.”
Jon laughed, falling into the brown recliner in the living room. From here he could watch Janet telling Dylan to start setting the table. “He told you about that?” he asked. “I think that might just make it into one of my stories.”
“Oh!” She sounded surprised, and not altogether pleased. “You’re writing your stories again?”
Jon’s parents were immensely practical, had a solidly and traditionally established income, and thought writing was a nice hobby, dear, but couldn’t you do that on your time? Hope had surprised him once, shortly after they were married, mock-glaring over the loaded laundry basket in her arms from the doorway of their hybrid laundry/study room to demand: “tish-tosh! When will you grow up and get a real job?”
It was an old and very private joke. Even the kids didn’t know when or even why the phrase “tish-tosh” had crept into the family vernacular.
Jon neither argued nor tish-toshed his mother, knowing bland neutrality was the quickest way to get her to remember that he wasn’t twenty and about to change majors for the second time. “When I have time.”
There was a silence, and Jon thought here it comes. Instead, all his mother said was, “How’s work going?”
Unfortunately, they’d already had this argument too. By unspoken implication Jon was to understand that freelancing couldn’t cut it.
“We’re doing fine,” he said, forcing brightness into his tone. “I just did the finances last night. It’s tight, but I’m making enough to cover it.”
“You can always come to us if you need help.”
Jon sighed silently, closing his eyes. In the background he heard Janet say something, followed immediately by Dylan’s laugh. “I know,” he said. “But we’re fine. I’ve got a solid network of people who can always use some extra writing, and I’m even growing my client base now that we’ve moved to a new area.” He had, in fact, been growing it before, but Mom didn’t entirely understand how internet-based work wasn’t geographically bound. Anyways, that had been a much better answer to “But why in heavens name would you move now?” than “Because you’re driving me crazy.” “This move has really turned out for the best.”
Jon’s mother’s tone went brusque. “You had a good job,” she pointed out. “You could have kept working at that and we wouldn’t have minded helping with the children.”
Jon had started out married life freelancing (Hope was in PR at a major teaching hospital, and making just enough to allow them to throw the dice in a freelancing gamble), but when Janet had come along sooner than they had planned, he had broken into magazine work, covering stories and quietly finding out that he actually liked editing other peoples’ writing just as well as his own. It was hard work, it was long hours, and it had been going somewhere.
“They needed their dad,” he said. “I didn’t—”
“Dear,” she interjected, “You’ll always be they’re dad. Your father and I would have looked out for them. We still can.”
Jon tried not to resent her for the offer. His annoyance at her wasn’t fair. That he heard the sound of implied criticism was almost certainly due to his own self-doubt. Resentment, Hope had liked to tell him, seethed with little stirring. She’d sounded like she’d been quoting someone, but it had probably just been herself.
“I know, Mom, and it’s a comfort, really. But I want this to work. I want you to want this to work for me.”
There was silence, but it was probably shorter than he imagined.
“You know the offer is always open,” Mom finally said. “I’ll leave you alone about it.” Uh-huh. “But just remember that we’re here, if it comes to that.”
He loved his parents, he reminded himself, but these were his children.
“Thanks, Mom.” Jon paused for a moment, considering whether to offer her an olive branch by asking her advice about Janet. Besides, it really did kind of bother him that his daughter felt guilty about inviting friends over. Was it a girl thing? A Janet thing? An I’m-a-teenager-you’re-a-lame-dad thing? What else might she be afraid to ask him?
“Janet and Dylan are doing great,” he decided instead, not yet willing to expose his insecurities to the light of day. “They’re settling into their schools really well.”
“They always do,” she stated, matter-of-factly. “In fact, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about getting Janet involved in after school sports. I think that she’d do great at—”
There was a bang of porcelain on table, a final-sounding sort of cracking noise to it, and Jon fought the urge to go over and see what had just broken. His mother, thank goodness, hadn’t overheard the racket.
“—with college coming up in a few short years, you really should make sure she has a well-rounded application.”
Jon realized, when his mother didn’t immediately continue, that she was waiting for a response. That there was no crying from the kitchen was a good sign, but he wanted to know what had just met its demise. “I think Janet knows what she wants,” he said, looking to bring the conversation to a close, “and I don’t want to make her uncomfortable. Thanks for thinking of it but—”
“Janet,” his mother interrupted, “is fourteen. She’s already uncomfortable. Sometimes you need to push your children into things that will be good for them in the long run.”
Jon actually laughed, still largely focused on what had gone wrong in the kitchen. “You can suggest sports if you want to, but I’m not going to make her do it.”
“Children don’t automatically know what’s best for them.”
“Are you sure we’re still talking about Janet?”
Apparently he hadn’t put enough of a smile in his voice, because his mother sounded a little frosty when she answered. “Janet is a little girl fast turning into a young woman. You need to be her support in any way that you can – yes,” she interrupted herself, perhaps somehow sensing his distraction and trying to reel him back in, “even in small ways like whether or not she should broaden her activities – because goodness knows soon enough she’ll be dealing with the changes that come with puberty, and boyfriends—” Jon grimaced, but didn’t make the obvious joke, “—and…and a hundred other things that matter to a teenage girl, and talking to her about academics or sports may help open up the conversations she is not naturally inclined to bring to her male father.”
“You know they have operations for that now. I could—”
She cut him off. “Who is she expected to talk to when she doesn’t have a mother?”
Jon forgot his amusement. Forgot the thread of the conversation, the broken whatever-it-was in the kitchen; forgot, for a second, the gentle voice in his head that sounded like Hope, quietly reminding him that she says these things because she loves you. He tried to speak naturally. “She can talk to me.”
It didn’t work. “Jonathan,” his mother said, not altogether unkindly, “you can’t be both parents.”
“I’m getting Janet now,” he answered. He heard the sarcasm in his own voice, but couldn’t shut it down. “Good talk, Mom.”
His parents had been there for him, and for Janet and Dylan. Jon had moved, clung to his old job, let go of his old job, moved again, and between each transition they always somehow ended up back at Grandma and Grandpa Barton’s. But somewhere along the lines, it meant he’d stopped being the Standup Dad.
“I love you,” his mother told him.
“Yeah,” Jon said. “Me too. My love to Dad.”
He handed the phone to Janet when he walked back into the kitchen, the ear piece distantly assuring him that she would. The table was set but there was a pile of shards next to the broom, and Dylan’s expression sat right on that edge of put-out and put-upon. Jon had the feeling the next words out of his mouth were going to be something along the lines of, “It wasn’t my fault.”
“I’ll handle the rest of this,” he said. She nodded, but he stopped her before she could bring the phone to her ear.
“Are you ever uncomfortable?” he asked. “With me, I mean. Is that why you didn’t want to ask your friends over?”
Janet blinked. “No. Why?”
Jon shook his head. “Can you…do you feel like you can talk to me?”
“Dad,” she said seriously, “I’m always here to talk, if you need to.”
Jon actually laughed. Go figure she’d missed the fact that she could always talk to him, if she needed to. He smiled at her, purposefully wry. “Sometimes you can let me be the adult.”
Janet looked pleased at the subtle compliment, and went back to the conversation with her grandmother.
He missed his chance to tell her he was serious.
It was easy enough to take over the upstairs. House was naturally a single unit, and secrets left alone in the dark had swilled down the forgotten bedrooms when the rest of the house was absorbed in its refusal to look.
First secret: the Closet hated children.
It had remembered it hated children when the Boy moved in. Boys were nasty creatures that touched and smeared and searched into forgotten spaces. The Closet liked to be alone, liked to settle into the sleepy emptiness that a vacant house collects.
The Closet did not understand why it was alone. It had never asked, never wondered, and never told. It had once been something else, part of House, part of Living Room, Kitchen, Bathroom, Bedroom. But a long time ago, when the House had splintered, after the other rooms made believe nothing had happened and Closet finally figured out why it hated Kitchen the most, when the rest of House had pretended to forget for so long that it had actually forgotten, the Closet had learned something else.
The Boy hesitated at the door.
Second secret: Closet didn’t like anything. But if it could have remembered what that feeling felt like, it may have said it liked nighttime. Fear grew heaviest then, strong and sticky, when there were only shadows and shapes. Day revealed real things: wood, heavy planks, brass knobs, pictures on the walls. Sunlight made objects familiar again, and banished the groans the closet could make in the dead of night.
The sun has no power in the dark.
There was the soft, warm flesh of palm molding itself around the knob, and then the Boy was in. The hangers Boy left alone, so the closet needn’t feel the scrape of plastic hangers grazing with shuddering touches across the metal bar. Boy searched for sneakers, found one, and had to spider his hand between a box and the wall.
There was the cobwebby grasp of something – knuckles on paint that had bubbled and flaked with age and something else – and Boy jerked, sucking in a gasp of closet air. He fled, banging the door shut.
The hinges groaned with fatigue, tired with opening, shutting, opening, shutting, creaking until the door gapped. The Closet watched the bedroom, peering from one crack, through a bubble of paint, out through the blinking keyhole.
The Closet hated and plotted, thought of ways to crack open Boy’s hinges so that he would gap and swing, imagining the black hollows that the Boy must have inside the cavity of his flesh. But there was a problem.
Hope still lived in the Kitchen.