“Good news, Jon,” Hope said as he came into her hospital room. “You don’t have to worry about wild mood swings anymore. Amenorrhea is officially one of the side effects from the corticosteroids.”
“That’s great news, I’m sure,” Jon answered, “but what?”
“Amenorrhea,” she repeated. “I don’t have a period anymore.”
He thought about that. “Next time,” he finally said, “you could just say your day was fine.”
Hope huffed a laugh, and he pulled the chair up next to her bed. She used to pat the bed next to her knees, to let him know that she wanted him as close as possible, but she didn’t anymore. He hadn’t asked, but he was afraid that meant the extra pressure hurt her, the same way everything hurt her nowadays.
“You look lovely,” he said, leaning in to air-kiss her cheek.
This was a bald-faced lie; in short fact, she looked like a cancer patient. Medication had bloated her skin, chemotherapy had soured her color, and two tumor removal surgeries and the required pre-surgical shaves had revealed the shape of her head. Jon had never known his wife’s head was that knotty. She looked like a tree stump.
A couple of weeks back she had called him on it. He had hesitated for just a second – and, by the strained look on her face, nearly a second too long – then in a moment of brilliance began describing their children, all the holes in the living room from when she had insisted that every single picture in the room needed to be shifted two inches to the left, the way her smile brightened every room it happened to be in, and Jon was working on a description of her breasts when he finally broke her and she insisted, between laughter, that he knock it off. She hadn’t meant it.
It was the exact moment he had remembered that his wife really was still lovely.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said, once he had taken a seat. “You should remarry.”
Jon rolled with it; that’s what you did when you were married to Little Miss Plan Ahead. He smiled too, to make sure it stayed a joke. “Sounds like a great suggestion, honey. Would you like to be invited to the wedding?”
She attempted to smack him on the leg, but her fingers barely touched his knees, bruised arm drifting back onto the white sheets it had half-heartedly tried to escape. “I’m serious. It’s the best idea I’ve come up with in weeks.”
Jon had to be amused, to keep from being something else. “We both know I married you to keep my life in order—” the fingers came up for another smack, but couldn’t quite reach him this time “—but you’ve gotten a little ahead of yourself this time, hon.”
“Maybe,” she said. “But it’s important to me that you know I won’t feel insulted if you fall in love with someone else. I want you to.”
Jon played along. “Anyone in mind?”
“Yes, in fact,” Hope said immediately. She was smiling, but quite serious. “Maria is a good candidate.”
“Maria, as in Janet’s Sunday School teacher, Maria? As in: floral-print-dress-and-extremely-salty-chicken-noodle-soup-every-pot-luck Maria? Giggles like a hyena?”
Hope sounded irritated. “Or Cindy. Cindy’s a little more serious than Maria, but I think you’ll always need someone practical to balance you out.”
“Or maybe Gladys,” Jon added. Hope tsked and opened her mouth to argue (Gladys was, among other things, sixty-three years old), but Jon wasn’t finished. “Or if we’re really going to shoot for the moon, I wouldn’t mind Kate Beckinsale.”
“She’s married,” Hope said, like that was the problem.
“You know what,” Jon said, grinning fully now. “Let’s get them all down here for a formal evaluation.”
“Jon, that’s not what I’m—”
“We can line them up – you’ll be in charge of the actual interview, naturally – and I’ll—”
Hope was trying not to smile now, but he could spot it in the lines deepening in the creases of her paper-thin cheeks. “If you’ll just listen a moment—”
“—have approved their head-shots first, of course—”
“Maria has experience with kids already!” she tried to interject.
“—because, remember, you can’t leave it to the doofus dad—”
She actually crossed her arms. “If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a hundred times: you’re always the Stand-up Dad.”
“—but goodness knows you couldn’t count on me to make money with a real job—
“You did so!”
“—so why believe that I could possibly choose a decent woman – another decent woman, I might add, but won’t – to marry?”
“Pish-posh,” she said, smile revealing her teeth. “I never suggested such a foolish thing.”
The hurt that startled Jon into dropping his smile was immediate, though he did his best to cover it. When Jon had first been thrown into the unintelligible mumbo-jumbo of exactly what was happening to his wife (though Hope, with years of PR in the medical field behind her, had tried her best to translate) he’d started privately quantifying each day in best and worst moments. Today, best moment was Dylan laughing maniacally while he ran full-tilt through the sprinkler; worst was hearing Hope mispronounce a twelve-year-old inside joke she had started without even realizing it.
“This race isn’t done,” he said. “You had better believe I know you better than to think you’ve finished your run.”
Hope faltered. “Nothing is sure yet,” she said. “The doctors…”
“Come on,” he said, putting a gentle hand on her white knuckles. He kept it hovering a little above hers, just brushing the papery skin. “This isn’t like you.”
Hope looked out the window. “The tumor has been debulked twice. I’ve been through radiotherapy and chemotherapy—”
“Still going through chemo,” he interrupted.
“—and they’ve got me on dexamethasone now.”
“Which,” he added, “has been making you feel better.”
He watched Hope’s eyes follow a bird he could see out of the corner of his eye, dipping below the window before darting back up again. There was a hopeless almost-frown between her eyes that he didn’t like when she spoke. “The doctor’s are starting to talk about palliative care.”
“Jon, please. I need you to understand. It’s about improving the quality of my life. It’s a nice way to say they’re trying to make me comfortable for…for the rest of my life.”
Jon nodded, refusing to listen. Refusing to understand. Because not now. Not yet. Not like this. “What else are we paying them for?” he asked. “’Comfortable’ is the least of what we’re going for here.”
She finally looked at him, expression resolute. “I just want you to think ahead a little. I’m not saying it needs to be Cindy or Maria, but I want you to know it’s okay to look.”
There was a long, still silence.
“Hope,” he finally said, “there will never be anyone but you.”
“Oh, Jonny boy,” she said, bringing a hand up to her mouth. She started to cry. “I don’t want to die. What will you do without me?”
“Dad,” Dylan hissed urgently, and Jon woke up.
The memory was still there in Dylan’s feminine features when Jon opened his eyes; a second later, Jon remembered that Hope could not possibly be here. He reached for his glasses with bleary comprehension, and Dylan’s expression – mouth pinched, eyebrows drawn, and stare intensely focused on his father’s face – came into focus.
“What’s wrong?” Jon asked, pushing himself up on his elbows. He glanced back at the clock, saw that it was a couple minutes short of two in the morning, and managed not to groan. Night was always a bad time (trying to fall asleep while your thoughts went round and round again with fruitless vigor), but somehow 2 a.m. managed to be the worst.
Dylan looked up at him, face set with grim fear. “Can I sleep with you?”
Jon found himself whispering, drawn in by Dylan’s tone. “Nightmare?”
Dylan jerked his head, left-right, with fearful shortness. “The closet.”
Jon waited for more, but none was forthcoming. “The closet again?” he prodded. Without waiting for the answering nod, Jon brought the volume of his voice up to a low murmur, abruptly realizing that this was ridiculous. “What’s wrong with it?”
Dylan played with a corner of Jon’s comforter, worrying at a hole he found in the fabric. “It’s just…I don’t like it,” he whispered. He looked up sharply, bottom lip between his teeth. Jon could see his mouth quivering anyways. “Can I sleep with you?”
Jon didn’t sigh; not exactly. But he must have done something that suggested he was blowing off his son’s fears because Dylan’s jaw tightened. Jon sat up rather than answer the unspoken accusation, swinging his feet to the floor and forcing the nine-year-old, still crowding the space next to the nightstand, to move. “Be quiet,” he said softly. “We don’t want to wake your sister. Let’s go see this closet of yours.”
Dylan shook his head mutely, but Jon wasn’t going to be deterred. He had sympathy for night terrors, having had them himself when he was a kid, but Dylan had a tendency to form a fear and never let it go again. He’d be coming into Jon’s room every night, and as much as Jon loved his son, he could do without the nightly 2 a.m. wake-ups. Besides, this move was their fourth and hopefully last; time to get used to the idea of permanence again. Dylan had been fine for the three months they’d already been in their new neighborhood and Jon needed him to keep being fine. If the widower could learn to be fine, so could his children.
The wood floors chilled Jon’s bare feet as he padded down the hall, Dylan a creeping shadow behind him. The days were still mostly warm, but fall had crept into the night air. Jon shivered in his boxers and shirt. He’d have to start using the heat soon. Another expense on The Barton Family finances.
Dylan’s room had become strange in the dark, an orange strip of flat light from the only lamppost on their pocket of S. Meyer bleeding weakly down the wall from beneath the window shade. The nightlight next to the door shone with cheerier brightness, but the competing lights had twisted the shadows from the bed, the desk, and the bookshelf crowding the walls. The closet door looked pregnant with thick, black gloom.
It was clear why a child might find it frightening; Jon, glancing back for his accompanying shadow, saw that Dylan had gotten scraped off at the door where he stood just outside the entryway, another nightlight from farther down the hall lighting up his bare legs. There was a crawling sort of atmosphere to the room, and though Jon couldn’t quite feel it as he used to, that would still make a good description when he used it in his story. The closet hinges whimpered when he opened the door, and the ugly thought that immediately followed (Hope sounded like that, near the end) shocked him. Jon clamped down on it with three years of practiced force, shoving it to the back of his mind. He’d had to bury a lot of thoughts in the bleak dark of night.
Fortunately, he found no monster behind the door. The closet was a creepy bit of construction, about half as shallow as a regular closet, with a back wall that slanted from the floor until it met the door side of the closet, tenting the closet to a sharp angle only a couple feet above Jon’s head. He felt like he had to lean back to fit himself into the closet as he shoved several empty hangers (the clothes, Jon noticed, had apparently never made the final journey from laundry basket to hooks) out of the way. The back bottom of the closet was deep, hidden by the boxes that Dylan still needed to unpack.
Jon put his hand to the wall, and didn’t know what to do next. There was nothing more than those few shallow feet of crowded nothing. There wasn’t the space for hiding monsters; not even any secret holes from which they could ooze once he re-shut the door. Jon looked back into the room, still bent into the closet as he absently rubbed a dark spot on the wall, and saw that Dylan had ventured to a point near the foot of his bed.
For the life of him, Jon could not remember how he used to handle these things. He had nothing but a four- or five-year-old memory of turning on the lights in his son’s bedroom in a demented attempt to shrivel any exposed monsters into nothing. It had been silly, and Dylan had been cranky the next morning without his usual ten hours of sleep. Afterwards Hope had told Jon that he should’ve explained the reasons why houses creaked in a calm and reasonable tone, so that’s what he did.
“Lots of houses make noises,” Jon explained. “Sometimes it’s the wood, other times it’s the pipes.” That didn’t seem like enough so he added, more jovially than he felt, “Old houses just like to moan around the joints, bud.”
Dylan nodded like he didn’t believe him. In the middle of that room (with the light coming in at all the wrong angles and undoubtedly sensing that his father didn’t know what he was talking about let alone how to explain it), Jon couldn’t blame him. He stepped out of the closet, closing the door with as much care as he could in the hopes that it wouldn’t protest. Though the hinges squeaked against each other, it otherwise stayed quiet. Time to break out the WD-40, still packed away in a box marked either “junk” or “misc.” Jon couldn’t actually remember which.
“Houses settle when they get old,” he continued, still trying to visualize which cardboard box he’d tossed the ten-year-old lubricating can into. He’d been at the oh-who-flippin-cares stage of packing at that point. “That and it’s been getting colder, and temperature changes—”
Dylan stepped back with such a horror-stricken look on his face that Jon cut himself off to whirl back again, 99% sure an axe-wielding madman had just leapt in through the window, if his son’s expression was anything to go by. For one wildly frantic moment Jon saw nothing; but no, there it was: the door to the closet had slid open, silently, while his back was turned.
Jon heroically kept his annoyed yet relieved sigh to himself, still feeling his heart hammering in his chest as he opened his mouth to explain to Dylan what an overreaction was. He closed it before the words made it out. Nine-year-olds were still too young to appreciate sarcasm. Instead, Jon pushed the door shut like he hadn’t been gripped by an image of a bodybuilder jumping two stories into his son’s bedroom. The hinges made a sound like an asthmatic cartoon character, but Jon felt the latch click into place so he released the knob, turning back to say something reassuring.
Dylan, naturally, was out in the hallway.
Jon smiled (hopefully confidently), and wondered what emotion he was actually conveying. “There’s nothing—”
The hinges tee-scree-eed like a witch this time as the closet door creaked open, but Jon just pushed the door shut again without comment. There was the sense that it wouldn’t hold, so the head of the keep-my-child-happy squad opened it, stepped in, out, then realized:
“The floor’s a little slanted.” The floorboards complained when he shifted his weight, but Jon simply kept his eyes on Dylan as he tried to explain away the sounds, who’s expression remained stiff with the fear of 2 a.m. and thing that go bump in the night. “Door’s probably warped too.”
When this earned him nothing Jon turned back, setting both hands on the door. He pushed up and back with as much force as he could muster. There was a shot-like CLACK, and Jon trusted himself to let go.
The closet door bulged out from the wall, nearly on top of him, and for just a moment, only half-consciously aware of how far he was leaning back, like it might get him if he stood too close or turned too soon, Jon remembered what it felt like to be nine, and afraid.
Dylan finally spoke. “Will you fix it?”
The feeling of the closet standing over him faded, and Jon faced Dylan again. He was more out of the room than in, so the Stand-up Dad gave him an encouraging smile. “I don’t know that it needs fixing.”
Dylan said nothing but Jon felt his disappointment. He wanted to ask his youngest what he wanted, what he needed him to do, but Jon did remember enough of his own childhood to know that Dylan still needed to believe that his dad already knew everything.
Jon found himself fighting the urge to tell Dylan that his mother was the one who knew how to explain things, that his father was still trying to figure it out, to balance himself with the things he had learned from her, but he couldn’t talk about Hope with the shadows eating the shape of the room, reaching out from the cracks between the closet and the wall.
Instead he asked, “Why does it scare you?”
Dylan regarded him as though he were pondering the question, his eyes dark in the twisted lighting, but it wasn’t until Jon could feel the closet leaning in over his neck again that Dylan finally answered. He looked past Jon’s shoulder, gaze flickering so fast that Jon thought he might have imagined it. “It doesn’t like me. I think a bad thing happened in it.”
The odd combination of generality (something bad) and specificity (in it) creeped Jon out for the second time that night. More and more he was uncomfortably aware of the closet behind him. He remembered how the wall had leaned into the closed space, like the house had poured all of its weight into the closet, who gladly and gleefully swallowed it, only too ready to disgorge the mass onto whoever happened to be standing there at the right place, wrong time when the dam finally burst. “A bad thing? What kind of bad thing?”
Dylan shook his head.
“Was something in there?” Head shake. “Did you see something?” Another shake. “Did you…get locked in, somehow? Is that what this is about?” Dylan didn’t shake his head, but his expression had started to pinch in on itself again.
Vaguely annoyed, Jon felt the closet recede as absurdity reasserted itself. “So no monster.”
“And you’re sure.”
Another head shake.
A slightly annoyed look this time.
“Really, really sure.”
Add I am not impressed to the list of expressions competing for dominance on Dylan’s face.
“Was it Colonel Klink?” Jon finally tried. “Because if Colonel Klink crawled out of my closet, let me tell you, it would weird me out a little.”
Dylan knew who Colonel Klink was. Colonel Klink was a sign that Dad had let Dylan’s bedtime slip past into the late night reruns on TV Land. But the nine-year-old didn’t so much as crack a smile.
Jon tried not to be frustrated. He couldn’t fix anything if he didn’t know what the actual problem was. Pre-widowed Jon would have at least known how to make his son laugh. “Dylan,” he snapped, “you have to give me something.”
Dylan looked at his feet.
Jon scrubbed a hand into his hair, stepping away from the closet. The air felt immediately fresher next to the window, which gave him the wind he needed to try and be the mom. “There’s nothing wrong with your closet.”
Standing in the hallway, Dylan’s body language shriveled into hurt, and that failure hit Jon somehow harder than all the rest. “Please,” he tried one last time. “What was the bad thing?”
Dylan hesitated again; Jon could’ve shaken him. Was he so disappointed in his dad that he couldn’t tell him now? Was he afraid that Jon wouldn’t understand? It was 2 a.m., which made it either too late or too early to figure out why. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, right underneath his glasses. “You’ve got to give me something, bud.”
Dylan finally nodded to himself, and met Jon’s eyes. “It was a very bad thing.”
The addition of “very” explained nothing, save that Dylan clearly thought it explained everything. Jon thought he should know what that meant, or should at least remember what it meant to be afraid of something you couldn’t even explain. He knew he should know; he used to be that kid.
“Your…” Your Mom could have explained why you don’t need to be afraid he was going to say, but he couldn’t do it, not now, not like this, not when Dylan might not know what he meant.
Because Jon was afraid of this now: not making enough money. In trying to be both mother and father that he’d fail to be either. That Janet had skipped right past her childhood in order to become everyone’s mom. That his parents were right and Jon should never have thought that he could do this on his own. That freelancing was a mistake, his job was untenable, that if he couldn’t make this work his kids would grow up latchkey kids, lonely, rebellious, hurting, neglected, wondering if he had ever really loved them, not knowing how hard he had tried.
That after three years, Dylan was forgetting his mother.
That’s what nighttime did to Jon. Made him realize exactly how big the mundane fears of living could be when you were alone and had no one to laugh at your stupid jokes or to pick up the slack when the part of you that needed someone to balance it out failed, because it hadn’t been designed to fill the empty spaces of its own flaws.
“Can I sleep with you?” Dylan asked. “Just for tonight?”
And Jon, defeated, said yeah, that’s fine.