A bad thing happened.
“A WHAT now?” Boy’s father asked.
“A VERY bad thing happened,” Boy explained.
Kitchen did not find this topic interesting. Kitchen liked sunshine fading the red curtains above the sink to a pale maroon, macaroni boiling in a pot that had steamed the wall warm, and nice conversations over the dinner table like “How are you?”followed by “Fine, and how are you?” Never mind the bad things. Every thinking piece of the house knew something bad had happened, and that it had happened in the Closet. WHAT, as Boy’s father had said, did not matter. You don’t dig up what’s buried.
“That’s very interesting,” Boy’s father said. “In fact, it’s ALMOST as interesting as that new mark on the wall in the Den.” A long guilty silence, then in a different voice Boy’s father said: “Or NOT. Come here you goof,” as he grabbed Boy around the neck to give him a noogie. Boy tried to push him off, his muffled protests mixed with laughter. “I’m pretty sure ANY ‘bad things’ that happen around here are your fault. You do realize this is why we can’t have nice things.”
Kitchen watched on in contentment, already forgetting the ALMOST interesting thing that had happened somewhere else in the House. Kitchen, who thrived on hope, always looked forward.
You do realize a bad thing happened, Living Room pointed out. WHAT VERY bad thing happened?
The question sat where it was for a moment, then the other rooms swallowed it.
None of the rooms could speak. Not directly, not out loud or with noise or with voices, but they could suggest, repeating pieces of the conversations they had absorbed into their walls. They traded phrases with one another, bridging brokenness with words.
ALMOST interesting, Kitchen repeated. ALMOST as interesting. You goof.
NOT interesting, Entrance Foyer disagreed, ever contrary.
Den? ventured Living Room.
There was a faint stirring; a heavy sigh nearly like a groan. But groans that soft could only be heard in the dead of night and right now, in daytime, the noise of The Family covered it. Den rolled over and did not stir again.
Entrance Foyer sneered at Den’s sleep, and envied it too.
“I am not even going to ask where it came from,” Boy’s father said. Boy brightened visibly – Kitchen liked that look, hopeful and happy – but then his father added, “but I do expect that off the wall before dinner.” He ignored Boy’s dramatic groan. “Remember, we’ve got company coming.”
But WHAT happened? Living Room tried again.
Not nice things, Entrance Foyer said, then it too rolled over and pretended it could not hear.
“I hate guests,” Boy complained, though he was already searching under the sink, where Kitchen had opened up its cupboard to offer him a bucket and rags.
Boy’s father snorted. “No. You hate cleaning.”
Cleaning, Kitchen said in dreamy remembrance. Guests. Dinner. We’ve got company coming. It had been many years since they’d had company, either coming or going.
I hate guests, Living Room repeated, even though it wasn’t true. A truly lived-in room loved people and the things that came with them: noises, running, jumping, sudden laughter, the sound of movies in the Den, the smell of popcorn from the Kitchen. But because he could not shout at Kitchen to PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT I’M SAYING, he had to shock instead. I hate cleaning. It’s your fault.
Kitchen was not shocked, but she stopped thinking about dinner for a second to find out why Living Room suddenly hated guests and cleaning.
“They’re not real guests anyways,” Boy continued to argue, though he was already filling the bucket with water under his father’s watchful eye. “It’s better when they’re not real guests. We haven’t had any in forever, and I DON’T think a bunch of stupid girls should count.”
“You haven’t dusted since—” Boy’s father cut himself off, hastily righting the Lemon-scented cleaner Boy had nearly knocked to the floor and simultaneously catching the bucket of water Boy was trying to slide off the counter. Boy was not very good yet at anticipating action and reaction. Boy’s father took the heavier burden, handing off the rags and pointing Boy to the Den. “You’ve had a three-year break from cleaning, along with the rest of us. This won’t kill you.”
For a second, the phrase “kill you,” ALMOST meant something to Living Room.
I remember…I remember… it tried, but Entrance Foyer, unable to sleep while Kitchen and Living Room continued to trade words, broke in with Boy’s dramatic groan, cutting off Living Room’s words.
I expect you DON’T, Kitchen said kindly. We haven’t had a bad thing happen in forever. It’s better to think it’s not real.
It’s NOT real, stupid, Entrance Foyer snapped.
But why can’t I remember? Living Room asked.
I hate you, Entrance Foyer said, which was not an answer. Kitchen said nothing, back to dreaming about company, and Living Room asked, just one more time before it gave up – like it always gave up – Why can’t ANY of us remember?
Not enough words, Closet knew, listening in from the quiet rot of an upstairs it had eaten long ago. You can’t say what hasn’t been said and you can’t remember what hasn’t been told. But Closet knew. Closet had swallowed every word spoken in this house years ago, had devoured every late-night secret whispered in the dark and every curse word screamed in the day, and now it was full, full, full because it had gorged on the things the rest of House could not bear to eat.
And because you cannot remember, Closet thought, pleased with the breadth of its stomach, hungrier the more it ate, and quietly, secretly stretching out from between the broken hinges of a house gone mad, you’ll never stop the not nice things I am ready to vomit back into your throat.
Closet reached. Down this time instead of out, as it had done when it took the rest of the upstairs. Down, down, down, where the Widower and his son cleaned a mark off the wall.
Fourth secret: Closet was coming for Den.
Jon took the mouse, dragged the cursor over “the Widower,” and let the delete button swallow it. The house on Pine Avenue was based on their own foursquare-gone-rogue on South Meyer, yes, but there was no need to overindulge in the kind of autobiographical claptrap that too often weighed down modern fiction. The last section was sloppy anyways, and sounded like he didn’t know what the bad thing that had happened was. Probably because he didn’t. Jon was what was known in the business as a “pantser,” someone who wrote by the seat of his pants, rather than a “plotter,” who planned everything out ahead of time.
Hope was a plotter, he thought idly. If she’d written, she’d have always known exactly where she was headed.
He snorted humorlessly at the thought. Yeah, well, she didn’t plan for the cancer to—
Jon cut himself off, a little shocked at the sudden, bitter thought. Where the heck had that stupidity come from? Yeah, blame your dead wife for not seeing the brain tumor coming, Jon. He had never even blamed God for the cancer, let alone Hope, though he had certainly gone through the begging/pleading phase of grief. The constant, internal refrain of “no please, no please, no please” had stayed with him, right up until he found himself leafing numbly through a binder of funeral service options, absently wondering what type of wood Hope preferred for her coffin. He’d stopped pleading the moment he realized that she no longer had an opinion on that or any other subject.
No you didn’t, Jon remembered suddenly, leaning back from the computer. You stopped asking God to keep her alive when—
He slammed the door on the memory. Hope was a wonderful woman. Had been a wonderful woman. His focus back on track, Jon scanned the document for any other unconscious references to a dead mother-figure, because that hadn’t already been done to death in storytelling. The search soon resumed its halfhearted nature as Jon tapped his fingers on the keyboard, weighing the pros and cons of brainstorming what exactly had happened in the Closet now or letting it come to him later. He was still chewing over all the major edits he’d have to shoe-horn back in if he waited to figure out what the Closet was up to when Dylan, standing with the front door open, finally got his attention.
“Dad! He needs money!”
There should have been ominous silence in the house. There were some things you needed if you wanted to nail the mood of a brooding, schizophrenically constructed house, but of course there wasn’t anything like silence (let alone an ominous one) at half past five on a Friday night with three extra girls in the house and a pizza guy that needed paying.
“Keep the change,” Jon said, handing the pies off to a girl as Dylan watched the steaming boxes pass over his head with the hopeful look of a man in the desert spotting a mirage. Jon had earned a couple of pizza vouchers after writing up an advertisement for Hot Tomato Press! but there hadn’t been enough for four teenagers, an adult, and a nine-year-old bottomless pit. His youngest ate pizza like there was a black hole where his stomach should have been.
The pizza guy pocketed the extra 78 cents, said, “Yeah, awesome,” and Izzy or Marissa took off with the pizza in another direction.
“Thanks, Mr. Barton!” she called, which settled the matter. Izzy it was. Marissa never thanked anyone, only imperiously arched her eyebrows and adopted an adult-like attitude of confiding superiority that Jon found grinding. She’d told Jon, on more than one occasion, that she too knew what it was like to take care of children on your own. “My parents,” she had said with some pride, “are divorced.”
“Ugh!” someone shouted from the den. “Get out of here you little twit!”
The sound of Dylan’s laughter followed this edict, and not for a million years would Jon have ventured into that pit to work out who should get out of whose hair. Besides, Jon might not know where the evil closet story was going, but writing had an infinitely stronger pull than refereeing. He sat back down on the living room couch.
For a moment the words wouldn’t come. He didn’t like that he’d let Boy, Boy’s father, and Sister (who hadn’t made an official appearance yet but was definitely there in the back of his mind, waiting for her cue to enter stage right) become them in his head; the familiarity was somehow both boring and uncomfortable. Even the background noise – the boy and his father scrubbing the den wall as the rooms “talked” – had come from a real event, though Jon had definitely asked Dylan how exactly he’d gotten a shoe print that high on the wall. Snorting a little at the thought, Jon tapped his fingers along the keys without pressing down yet, considering where he should go next.
Closet considered the general assembly of rooms.
There you go. Bland, boring, used both the words “general” and “assembly” and still managed to not get to the point.
Those of them that were left.
There was another screech from the den, but Jon ignored it after a moment’s pause.
When Closet had first taken over the upstairs, it had done so by creeping in through the closets in the other rooms. You are what you eat, and it had felt almost…right. Natural. The bedrooms had barely bucked when it had stretched out from the shadows under the door, swallowing their thoughts whole. Like a diabetic, numb to pain and unaware of the rot in his own foot.
Lovely. Take that metaphor and watch this piece tangent. Jon could already see the eight rewrites he’d be doing on this piece, but he let his fingers go again.
This was a little different. There was no closet in Den, just a crawlspace under the floor and a long picture window, already darkening to an ash color in the falling light.
And…now what? Jon thought, looking up. Dylan wandered out of the room, carrying a piece of pizza on a plate. Jon watched him without being aware of it, until Dylan waved at him, drawing Jon’s focus a second before disappearing into the kitchen.
His fingers tapped on the keyboard.
Fortunately, Den slept heavy, and that would have to do.
“Dylan,” Janet snapped. She’d emerged from the giggles coming from the Den, going through the living room to get to the kitchen. Dylan almost ran into her when he came barreling back out again, cup in hand. “I told you to stay in the den! You’re going to get pizza on the carpet.”
“Sorry, sorry,” Dylan said, hurrying past her. She shook her head, and went into the kitchen.
Jon looked down at his screen.
It would have to move slow, and careful. Den shared a wall with both Kitchen and Living Room. Kitchen didn’t want to see, but Living Room would make it look if it noticed that Closet was busy murdering Den.
Closet tested the junction between Den’s ceiling and wall, feeling for weakness. It crept along the hairline cracks in the paint, searching for an opening where the drywall had swelled, peeling away from the frame. It needed a good hold, something to work the nails of its reaching fingers into, so that when it finally struck it could do so—
Den groaned; Closet froze. It waited. Listened for Living Room to roll over and notice. For Kitchen to blink and look upwards. For Entrance Foyer to grumble into awareness. But there was nothing but
“Sorry, Dad,” Janet apologized, interrupting. She was holding two cups, probably on her way back from the kitchen. “I know you’re trying to focus, but I need to know where the sheets are. We don’t have enough.”
Jon had to shake himself out of it. “Yeah, upstairs closet.”
“No, I know that. We’re out of those.”
“Mmhm,” Jon said, thinking. He pulled his eyes away from the screen to see her waiting impatiently. “Sorry. Check the bathroom closet, I think there’s a box on the floor marked ‘towels.’ I might’ve shoved some extra blankets in there.”
He waited for her to say goodbye, but she continued to stand there, uncertainty written on her face. The story quieted a little in his mind. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Dad…” she started.
There was the odd conjunction of two voices speaking over each other, one a boy’s “kowabunga!” and the other a high-shrieked “stop it!” Janet huffed, set her jaw, and turned back to the den.
“Do you need—?”
She waved him off and disappeared into the scene of the catastrophe.
Jon grimaced a little at the niggling feeling that he was shirking his duty, but couldn’t help grinning when he finished the sentence.
For a moment Jon almost continued, but then he frowned, looking up at the junction between the living room ceiling and the wall, trying to come up with architecturally accurate synonyms for “junction.” He was googling “junction where wall meets ceiling” when Janet interrupted him with a sharp, “Dad.”
Jon looked up to see Janet standing in the entrance to the den, frustration clearly written on her face. Her glasses were gone, but there were flat red dents on the bridge of her nose where they should have been. “Make him stop!”
“Dylan!” Jon called. Furious giggling followed that announcement – not all of it little boy giggles either, he noticed – but there was no other response. “Okay,” he said to Janet. “I’m coming.”
“Good,” she said, more to herself than him.
Jon faked getting up while she spun on her heel to return to the fray, pausing as he looked over the first couple of search results. Stack exchange, home design, answers on Angie’s list…
“Dylan!” Janet snapped from the den.
Jon sighed and stood, dropping the laptop back into his chair. “Okay, boy and girls,” he said in his best fake-cop voice as he stepped down into the room, startling everyone but Janet. “What seems to be the problem?”
The den was cave-like, the walls bare and the room set about half a foot lower than the rest of the house; the 60’s sunken floor design made the room seem even larger than it was. The green floomp couch (“floomp” for the sound it made when you hit one of the cushions with the flat of your palm; Jon couldn’t remember now who had first added the term to the Barton family lexicon) had been pushed against the wall to make space for the hodgepodge of sleeping bags and blankets spread across the carpeted floor.
Five faces swiveled from different areas of the room to look up at him, and Dylan didn’t stop what he was doing so much as put on a show of stopping, grinning as he faked a near fall off the back of the couch, a distinctly girly hat on his head and Janet’s glasses on his nose. Marissa had her hand out at Dylan, which probably made her the owner of the hat, while her blondish look-alike (Izzy, Jon was pretty sure) looked up from her phone like she’d been caught doing something wrong. Emily, dark-haired and tiny, smiled shyly past Janet’s shoulder from the computer on the card table.
Janet looked just short of furious, so Jon gave his youngest the look. “Enough, Dylan.”
“But I’m not done with my pizza yet!”
This was true, as was the fact that he clearly wasn’t actually trying to finish it. Jon looked pointedly at the food sitting on the floor. “Do you need to eat that in the kitchen?”
Janet and Dylan spoke over each other (“No!” “Yes!”), and someone giggled.
“Fine,” he said. “I will supervise the evening meal. Dylan, you get to sit next to me until you’re done. After that—” he continued over the sudden outcry (in which the clear, frustrated tones of his daughter crying, “He hasn’t even washed his hands!” piped over all the rest “—you will leave the girls alone.”
Nobody was completely happy with the arrangement, which Jon took as a sign of effective parenting. A few finger snaps got all property back to their rightful owners, after which he escorted Dylan to the bathroom, less concerned about hygiene as he was about giving his daughter a couple of minutes to calm down. Jon was soon on his way back to the den with his laptop, entering the room just in time to hear one of the sort-of-blondes say to Janet, “Just tell him.”
Izzy smacked Marissa on the arm, and the conversation died like it only can when the subject of interest has just walked into the room.
“Tell me what?” he asked, looking at Janet.
Janet wouldn’t look at him and Dylan, for probably the first time that night, did his sister a favor. He walked in, sat with grinning finality (almost in his pizza, but he caught himself at the last moment), and that pretty much cut off any chance Jon had of getting to the bottom of it.
Jon sat and went back to the computer screen, but the article on structural weakness in old houses didn’t register. What couldn’t she tell him? He found his mind racing over the possibilities. There were a lot of awful things it could be. Janet acted so old sometimes, but she was still a little girl in that dangerous age between just old enough and still young enough to do something stupid.
Then again it could be nothing, he reminded himself, looking up at Janet to see her wiping her glasses with the cleaning cloth she kept on her person at all times. Scratch that: was probably nothing. Janet had the soul of a sixty-year-old matron. It was definitely nothing.
Jon tapped the keys, wondered how the Closet could take advantage of poorly constructed overlying joists if the drywall sheets were free hanging without edge support (thank you, Angie’s List), and realized that the problem might be that his daughter didn’t trust him.
She’d clearly told her friends. Had she told her grandmother? Why couldn’t she tell him? Had he put too much pressure on her? Did she think she had failed him if she had to come to him with something? What would Hope have done?
“What are you writing?” Dylan asked, leaning into his shoulder.
“A story detailing the common types and causes of drywall cracks,” he said. “Eat your pizza.”
Jon mentally shook himself while Dylan took a rather pouty bite, bouncing his legs off the arm of the couch. He couldn’t even remember where he’d been going in this story. But no, hold on, he had it again, the closet had
found its opening. It leaned all of its mass into the corner, pouring the weight of the years and the spoiled gorge of the house’s ugliest, heaviest memories into the groaning joint, forcing the entire structure to settle, for one very long moment, into Den’s weakest point.
In the background the girls’ voices crescendoed back to normal sleepover level. Someone used the word “glioblastoma,” another asked, “Wait, what the heck is an EGFR gene?” and Jon realized, with some amusement, that Janet actually had them working on their group project.
One more hit. The Closet pulled back, coiling, ready to
“Oh my gosh, we should do a bonus section on female hysteria.”
“That’s not what we’re supposed to be looking up! Give me that.”
ready to this is impossible, I cannot for the life of me focus.
It was true. He couldn’t. One of the girls laughed, pulling a Smartphone from her friend’s hands as she started to read the website on the screen. “What the? The…the wandering womb? What the heck?”
He backspaced and tried again.
The Closet pulled back, coiling for one last strike, ready to slam every ounce of weight onto the
“Apparently Plato thought the uterus was a living creature that wanders through a woman’s body.” There was a round of immensely amused hooting, followed by, “Ooh, look at this: the lobotomobile.”
Backspace, delete a little to
slam the entire weight of the house
“The Lobotomobile,” the fourteen-year-old repeated, speaking like she was in a commercial. “For the special patient!”
“It doesn’t say that!” a small voice, probably belonging to Emily, piped up for the first time.
Jon continued to try to type: onto Den’s
“Would you stop getting side-tracked, please.” That one was Janet. “What does…” a pause as she looked over a friend’s shoulder “…the mental hygiene movement have to do with our project?”
weakening corner. The Closet dropped and the mental hygiene movement okay nice, pay attention, Jon
“Wiki-walk!” Izzy exclaimed. “One link led to another. Oh gross,” she continued over Janet’s objection (“Wikipedia is not a legitimate source!”). “Listen to this: this doctor would insert an ice pick into the brain through the eye socket and then wiggle it around.”
There was a chorus of “oohs” and “eewwws” and Dylan perked up instantly. Jon finally gave up on his story altogether. “What in the world are you researching?”
“Oh!” Izzy exclaimed, turning a grin on Jon, clearly delighted to tell him. “Brain cancer. Neat, right?”
For a moment, everything froze.
“What?” he finally asked, but no one was listening.
“I want to see!” Dylan exclaimed, jumping off the couch to leap at the pack of girls, abandoning his pizza on the off-chance that there were pictures.
There was something very studied about the way Janet wouldn’t turn to look at him.
“You’re researching what?” he asked again, knowing that it had to be a joke. Janet’s teacher wouldn’t do that to her.
“Go back to the lobotomobile!” his son demanded, trying to reach over Marissa’s shoulder to swipe the phone screen.
But then did Janet’s teacher know that that’s how her mother had died? Jon suddenly couldn’t remember if he’d ever mentioned it. It wasn’t really the sort of thing you brought up in polite conversation. “Janet,” he said quietly, ignoring her pointed look of I-don’t-see-you-there. He kept his tone level and easy, trying not to grab her friends’ attention as they continued poring over each other’s phones, squealing and laughing. “May I talk to you for a minute?”
For a second he thought she was going to continue to pretend that she couldn’t hear him, but then she looked up, face carefully blanked. But also…set. Yes, “set” was a good word for the look on her face. She nodded, and followed him out of the den.
He turned to her just in time to see her throat constrict as she swallowed, glancing back into the den at the sound of her friends’ chatter.
“Hey,” he said, tone gentle and understanding. “Look at me.” When she didn’t, he took her hand and rubbed a thumb along her palm, like he used to when she was little and afraid. “I can talk to your teacher,” he continued. “I can’t imagine he’d have a problem with you switching groups if we explained that—”
“Dad,” Janet interrupted him. She pulled her hand out of his and still refused to meet his eyes. “I asked for that project. It was my idea.”
Jon was too stunned to speak.
“Mr. Calloway doesn’t know,” she said quickly. “Neither do the girls. I mean, they know Mom is…but not how she…well, you know…I just…”
She squeezed her fingers convulsively together. He watched her knuckles turn white, then back to red as she fidgeted.
His voice was very quiet when he spoke. “Is this what you wouldn’t tell me?”
A short burst of laughter brought her eyes up to the den. He watched her square herself before turning her head to finally look him the eyes. “I think we should talk about that later.”
“Later,” she said, beginning to walk away. She paused after she’d only gone a few steps. “Dad, try to understand.”
Jon didn’t know what to think. “Understand what?”
“Everything,” she snapped. Fed up. With what, he didn’t know.
“I don’t…I can’t understand if you don’t talk to me,” he said.
Janet’s face started to fold into itself like she was about to cry, but she straightened before he could do anything about it, expression smoothing into that serious pride that she had no idea she had picked up from her mother. Her shoulders, however, remained slightly – almost imperceptibly – hunched, like someone who’d just taken a blow to the back of the head. “The thing is…I’m…” She swallowed and tried again. “It doesn’t have anything to do with—”
The cracking noise that cut her off was so loud and so unexpected that Jon’s visceral reaction was that someone had been shot. The half-second of silence that followed the startling noise gave way just as suddenly to the high-pitched screaming native to teenage girls and nine-year-olds; he and Janet ran into the stampede at the door.
The six person pileup came to a sudden confused stop, voices shrieking over each other. Since Janet’s three guests and one irritating little brother were clearly alive and well, Jon’s fight-or-flight response stopped trying to give him a heart attack, kicking down a notch from DEFCON 1. Though he couldn’t understand individual words at first, the general panic seemed to be rooted in the idea that the house was about to come down.
“Calm down!” he shouted over the noise. “The house is not collapsing. What—”
He cut himself off as several pairs of hands pointed at the wall, but the gesture was unnecessary: Jon had already noticed the crack that stretched from the right hand corner of the room, running a diagonal gash nearly to the floor. It looked like a compound fracture, splitting the bone-white color of the wall.
“We were just sitting here—” Marissa screeched at him.
Over her Izzy was also trying to make herself heard. “It was so scary, are you sure—”
“We didn’t do anything,” Emily slipped in quietly, clearly afraid that it actually was their fault somehow, with the quiet panic of the well-behaved. “I promise, we didn’t—”
“You’re fine,” Janet was saying, ever composed, but Dylan’s panic rose over all the rest, his terror fresh and raw, and, unlike the others, far from over.
“That’s my room!” he shrieked, pointing upwards. “That’s coming from my room! The closet’s trying to get us! Dad I told you!”
And over all the yelling, as Jon got to work soothing shattered nerves, underneath his calmest voice as he promised that nothing bad was about to happen; that he’d take a closer look in the morning; that the house was not about to come down; that they could sleep in the living room if that would make them feel better but that no, Dylan, you do not need to sleep with me again, it’s just an old house; that’s when Jon realized:
I wrote this.