The first time Claire opened the closet door and found a long, dark hallway, she closed the door and left. A silver jolt of adrenaline snarled up from her stomach to her heart and then constricted around her throat. Her fingers curled arthritically around the door knob and her hand felt separated from the rest of her body by static, but she managed to close the door.
Closed the door and left the room.
Within a day, the memory had taken on a surreal, fuzzy tone and by the fourth day, she could not think about it in the same space as reality. She’d had vivid dreams all her life. She could remember certain dreamscapes more clearly than the house she was born in.
She did not go back and open the closet door. She knew she didn’t have to. Didn’t have to prove anything. Her older sister, Jen, and her boyfriend, Marco, opened it all the time and there was always just a closet.
It was the trauma.
The sleepless nights and the new surroundings.
I’d stayed with Jen before and I’d known Marco almost as long as Jen had, but this wasn’t a sleepover in my big sister’s city apartment. This was Dad finally losing his job again and Child Services finding his stash after I had to drive him to the hospital. I hadn’t been able to stay in my own lane on the drive there and had been pulled over. Dad and I had been loaded into the cop car and taken the rest of the way to the hospital. The cop said I wouldn’t be in trouble, I was only thirteen. I’d done what I thought was right and blah, blah, blah, did I know what had happened to my father?
His nose was bleeding and he was puking and seizing, of course I knew what was wrong with my dad.
Marco cleared out his office the day I got there, stacking all his stuff in the corners of the living room. He left his desk in there until he could reorganize the living room.
“We’ll look into something better than an air mattress soon,” Jen promised.
Which means they think this is permanent. Marco’s sacrificing his office and Jen’s buying me a bed. Dad’s gonna survive, but they don’t think he’ll keep custody. Jen thinks she’d be a better guardian than Dad. She’d never say it, not now that she’s outta the house, anyway, but she still thinks it. Marco thinks so too, but he comes from a real family. He thinks Dad should always get another chance anyway.
No one talks about custody. We talk about him, but not about it.
“He’s agreed to go into rehab again.”
“He’ll get it straight this time, it never sticks the first try.”
“We’ll make a trip over there next weekend.”
Dad loves Marco. Loves him. He knows Marco believes in family, knows Marco will always give him a second chance. And a third. And now he knows Marco will make sure Jen can’t keep me away from him. She wouldn’t, but he worries.
Weekends came and went before Claire opened the closet again. This time she brought a flashlight. Because it was only her. Because Jen and Marcos and that one dude who had bunked here during a road trip all opened the closet and it was just a closet. Because when Jen had been busy making breakfast and asked Claire to grab a jacket from the closet, she had faked sick to avoid opening the door and seeing that not-closet.
So while Jen was at work and Marco was out to meet her for lunch, Claire grabbed a flashlight and went to the closet.
The closet opened into darkness. Claire’s thumb slipped off the button twice before she managed to click on the flashlight. The beam twitched and swayed. The hallway’s floor was made of what looked like chain link fencing, but the links were much smaller and closer together. The walls were corrugated sheet metal. When Claire turned the beam to the ceiling, she felt the floor lurch beneath her feet slightly. Above her was pure blackness and even with the flashlight, she could not see the ceiling. She turned the beam back downward.
The walls wept rivulets of corrosion and rust down its ridges.
At the very edge of her flashlight’s beam, Claire could make out a wall where the hall branched right and left.
Crouching just outside the threshold, she tapped the end of her flashlight against the floor. The beam flickered off briefly and the floor clinked. Claire waited—
…One hundred twenty-one thousand.
—and nothing changed. The floor didn’t fall away, there was no scrabbling within the walls, and no voices calling faintly from within. Claire pressed her hand lightly against the floor and then pressed down. Harder and harder, but the metal links barely bowed at all. Which, she knew, meant it was time to decide.
She stalled a minute longer, turning the flashlight over in her hand and rapping the butt of it loudly against the wall. The sound echoed down the hall a ways and she counted off sixty seconds. She stretched out her right leg, straddling bedroom and the closet. And then she brought her left foot across.
When her father hadn’t paid the cable bill, he’d joked about ants taking over the TV when all they could see was static. Little black and white ants rioting across the screen. Her chest felt like that now, like roiling waves of insects skittering around inside of her.
She stomped one foot against the floor and the chain links chink and chime sharply. No light pushed into her peripheral vision from behind, from where the windows in Jen’s bedroom were. The air smelled stale and damp and little motes of light flew in little flurries across her flashlight’s beam. Deeper into the not-closet, metal groaned softly. Her legs wouldn’t carry her another step forward. The sound of her foot first clanking against the floor had severed all lines of communication between her brain and her extremities.
Which is all the same in the end because the only signals her brain could send out involve complicated strings of shrill, panicked denials.
A shining sliver of panic lodged into her brain. Behind her, where the closet door should have been and through which light from the bedroom windows should have been shining, she heard hoarse, labored breathing. Close enough to cut through her brain’s vapor lock. She spun back toward the door, dimly aware that it must’ve been her own breathing that startled her, and saw the doorway was still there. The bedroom was just as she left it and sun was still shining in through the windows. The light just didn’t reach the not-closet. It was like an unfinished drawing, the light just ended at the threshold. So did the distinctive smell of the heavy duty laundry detergent Jen used. The room had reeked of it since Marco had piled all the clean laundry onto the bed to be sorted, but just a foot into the not-closet, the smell was totally absent. So were the sounds of suburbia. No cars, no lawnmowers, and no kids running around on the weekend.
Just a low, bubbling snarl that rolled through the corridor.
Her brain shut down entirely. Survival instincts older than the human race kicked in like hotwiring a car. Exposed wires touched and the engine coughed to life.
Marco found her crying in her room when he got home from lunch. She didn’t answer when he knocked on the door.
“Claire, I gotta know you’re okay. If you can’t tell me you aren’t concussed or bleeding, I have to come in, alright?”
She grunts something wet and hoarse and not nearly coherent enough to appease Marco. He comes in, eyes circling her. Looking for any sign of injury. No blood, no heavy fallen objects, and no holes in the wall so he shifts gears. Loud, concerned, and authoritative softens.
“Hey, hey, hey, Claire—Claire what’s wrong?”
It takes a couple minutes of cajoling just to get the ball rolling, but eventually Claire remembers the basics of human speech.
“Nothing, Marco, nothing. Sorry, just forget about it.”
He crouches down next to me and puts a hand on my forearm. His hands are delicate and slim and Jen always makes fun of them when they pretend to bicker. I turn my head so none of the tears trickle down onto his hand.
“You know the house rules, I’m not allowed to forget about it if you keep crying.”
“That’s not a thing, you made that up. Just—”
“C’mon, kid. I know I’m not Jen, but I am almost a fully-functional adult and I’m engaged to a psychiatric nurse. That has to make me qualified to help out a crying middle-school girl, right?”
“Marco, it’s—I don’t wanna talk about it, okay?”
“Was it a boy? I’m not much good at fixing heartbreak, but I can call Grandma Fuentes. She’s got hook-ups with some nasty folks. Cartels and shit, y’know?”
I hiccup and snort. Grandma Fuentes is short and plump and the smiliest person on Earth. When I look up at him, the world comes into focus. The new room filled with my old stuff. The baseboard of my bed that I’m leaning against, the brightly colored pillows and blankets, the mess on the floor, and the light from the window coating almost every surface in sight. Outside sounds come filtering in. The gushing tears subside into a leaky, snotty mess.
“Shut up, Marco. I’m gonna tell her you’re lying about her again.”
Normalcy slowly reasserts itself. The impossible starts feeling impossible again. Closets are just closets and I’m just some little girl crying on her older sister’s fiancé.
I drop my head, so my hair covers my face, and wipe my nose.
“How was lunch with Jen?”
It takes a second for him to respond. If he answers, it takes us completely away from whatever I was crying about. I keep my head down until he speaks, putting my face back together and letting the fabric of reality knit itself back together.
“Good, good. Went to that little pub thing, McArthur’s.”
“Talk about anything fun?”
“Eh, I think they’re gonna cancel one of the comics I’m working on right now, so I don’t need to be three issues ahead anymore.”
“Aw, which one?”
“The ghost story one.”
“Campfires? But your art was so good on that one!”
Marco smiles. “Yeah, but did you actually read it? Dude had no idea what to do with the story after they gave him a second story arc.”
“True.” I pause. “And he wasn’t a great writer to start with.”
“Heh, at least he sent me the scripts on time.”
The normalcy briefly butts up against what happened earlier, but my brain is getting less and less willing to process it with every second. “Not like Duncan.”
He rolls his eyes dramatically. “Duncan is an artiste, what does punctuality mean to a work of such literary import?”
I turn up my nose haughtily—the image slightly offset by the sniffling, “The critics simply adore your collaboration though, Marco.” My hand flutters. “The, the…symbiosis of your pencils and his words is simply transcendent.”
“Ugh,” he grimaces “Now you’re just reading the back cover of the first trade paperback. And don’t let Jen hear you talk like that, she still likes Duncan.”
I snort. “That’s because she thinks it’ll be an easy out-patient procedure to get his head back out of his ass.”
Marco laughs. “Don’t swear like that. Jen’s gonna think you’re picking up bad habits from me, kid.”
The metal floor rattled and clinked as she walked across. Halfway between the door and the wall ahead, Claire uncapped an oversized car marker and drew a huge orange arrow pointing back toward the door. She capped the marker and swung the flashlight beam over the arrow, it lit up slightly like a reflector on a bike.
Sleep deprivation and wildly inconsistent eating habits have taken their toll. Her brain felt stuck between gears, a single-minded, obsessive focus on the not-closet and a floaty disconnect from the world. Her skull felt a size too small for her brain and her scalp tingled. The ant riot raged across her chest.
She’d almost brought Jen or Marco along with her this time. The closet was just a closet when they opened it, but what about when she opened it in front of them? Almost. She’d been stymied by the other side of the coin. What if she opened the door and there was nothing? To be crazy and unable to tell reality from fantasy or to be sane and thought crazy. Those would be her options at that point and she might never figure out which was true. Jen worked at a psych ward for teenagers. Just a couple days ago they’d admitted a girl because of a psychotic break. Couldn’t figure out what was real.
Jen came home exhausted that night, looked completely heartbroken telling Marco about that girl. It was that look that kept Claire from talking to them. Because that girl was only two years older than Claire and couldn’t figure out what was real.
So she’d walked over to Wal Mart, bought two car markers and a backup flashlight. She’d loaded her hand-me-down satchel bag with the markers, flashlight, a bottle of water, and a bag of Chex mix and waited for the house to empty out.
Trying to get a grasp on her own thoughts felt like trying to pick a single conversation out of the din of the gym right before an assembly started. It was all jumbled fragments and foggy murmurs that never solidified.
Carrots and peas. Carrots and peas.
Her dad had told her that when actors needed to create noise like background conversations, they would say things like “carrots and peas” and gesture like it all meant something grand. Nonsense sounds to round out the silence. But the bit players in her head weren’t doing their jobs right. The din was becoming a rising tide, drowning out the important dialogue. The leads were tripping over their lines and only a few useful bits of information could reach through the noise.
Leave an arrow.
Shine a light down the hallway before walking.
Drink some water.
Carrots and peas.
The fragments that made it through, they weren’t really her thoughts. She was vaguely aware of that. The car marker was just breadcrumbs. The light was just look before you leap. The water was just her Dad’s voice, ironic advice about her health. All external thoughts that had lodged into her brain.
The beam of her flashlight bobbed from wall-to-wall-to-floor and it occurred to Claire that something had changed. The floor was no longer rusted links of metal, it was cement. Rough like sandpaper and, in places, damp and stained. A sharp, acidic smell wafted towards her.
One of her own fragments shouted to be heard. Over and over, the same sentiment tumbled softly through her mind.
What if Jen comes home?
What if Marco comes into the bedroom during a break?
Over and over.
What happens if someone closes the door?
Claire turned a corner without uncapping the marker. Freezes. The last seven seconds rubber banded back to her brain. Like having a conversation where you didn’t quite hear what the other person said and your brain takes a second to process it, getting the information straightened out even as you say “what?”
The part of her brain focused on walking herself through this maze, the part dedicated to breadcrumbs and hydration, and the part overrun by anxieties and questions, they all drew her attention in rapid-fire bursts.
The brain doesn’t really multitask. Not the way people like to think. A teacher had explained it when a student tried to say she was paying attention to the assignment and texting. You can do multiple things at once—breathe, walk, listen to music—but your brain isn’t focusing on those things all at once. Breathing and walking and idly thinking, those are all automatic. The brain can do them without any conscious thought. But trying to do multiple things that require real brain power at once doesn’t work. The brain can’t really manage it. Instead, it splits its focus, jumping from one to the next to the next in rapid succession. It gives the illusion of multitasking, particularly to those who can shift focus very quickly, but it’s imperfect. There are gaps. Holes. Overlap. Places where something gets lost in the mix.
Something Claire had missed finally caught.
The last time she turned, she hadn’t left an arrow. And maybe the time before. She had made three turns in fairly rapid succession, had she marked any of them?
The floor changed to concrete, but the walls were also different. Painted cinderblocks, instead of rusted sheet metal.
Footsteps. Soft, almost inaudible footsteps approached from off to her left. Still a ways off, but moving towards her. Until they stopped. For a second there was silence and then she heard footsteps again, softly clop, clopping like the wingtips her Dad wore to work and to court. Another hall cut across up ahead.
Clop, clop, clop, clop, clop... clop, clop, clop, clop,
The footsteps crossed at the intersection ahead, but nothing crossed Claire’s flashlight beam. Just little motes of dust, drunkenly tumbling to the floor. The footsteps trailed off to the right and Claire took two hurried steps forward. Keeping tight to the left wall, she craned her neck out to see around the corner. She heard footsteps still faintly marching forward, but whether they were real or not delved down too many levels for her to process.
From around the corner behind her, something rumbled a cracked, wheezing bass tone.
Claire dropped her flashlight and pushed off the wall. She turned to run, stepped on the flashlight, and tumbled to the ground. The flashlight’s beam spun sickeningly. Her left ankle, her forearms, and hands shot flares up to her brain. Until Claire looked in the direction of the rumble as the flashlight’s beam came to a stop. Half of the beam splashed against the corner, but enough of it went down the hall to completely disable Claire’s fine motor skills. Her brain gibbered and howled.
It was humanoid, hulking and malformed. One enormous arm rested against the wall. The other arm was shorter, swinging uselessly at its side. Its head lolled sideways against its massive right arm, looking downward. Spittle and what looked like blood dribbled down off its face and onto the floor. Some part of her brain connected the stains and dampness. The creature shivered, lurched a half-step forward, and made a gurgling, retching noise. Something wet and stringy plopped to the floor. It shook harder and rumbled again, deep and fuzzy, like a blown-out subwoofer. Not just spit and blood, stomach acid. It was so hunched over it could barely lift its head to walk. Barely illuminated, its face looked like rotted flesh that had melted like wax. Its stench was a tangible thing, hands pressed tightly over her mouth and nose.
Her brain struggled to start back up, but kept tripping over itself.
How had this thing snuck up on her? How had she not noticed it sooner?
It stumbled and vomited again, blood and stomach acid and foamy spit splotching the floor and her brain finally coughed to life. For a brief second, she had seen the image of a person superimposed against the hulking thing. Moving forward with stumbling, rubber-legged steps and a hand against the wall, blood and spit and vomit trailing behind. The image held for half a second before fading, but it was enough.
Claire spun, kicked up off the ground, and ran. Her stride was uneven, her ankle swollen, but she was back on the rusted chain-link floor in seconds. Seconds after that, she saw the doorway back to Jen’s room. A small voice bristled at the impossibility of finding the door so quickly and so close, but Claire pushed that voice down as far as she could. She needed the door and the door was there, that’s what mattered.
“Is Dad crazy?”
And just like that, it’s out. Completely circumventing the thinking-things-through part of my brain and going right to the let’s-blurt-out-all-the-edgy-paranoid-things-running-around-my-head part. Something happens to Jen’s face, but I don’t look too closely to find out what.
“I mean, it’s a disease, right? Addiction’s a disease in your mind. That’s what everyone kept telling us. ‘It’s not his fault.’ ‘There’s nothing you could do, don’t blame yourselves.’ All that stuff.” Somebody’s cut the brake line to my mouth. I’m hot and I’m shaking and I can’t stop talking. I think I’m actually melting from the inside-out. “So something in his brain isn’t wired right or, or, or, it-it’s not firing right or not producing something. It’s not voices-in-your-head crazy or seeing-something-that’s-not-there cr—”
Whatever I was ignoring in Jen comes to a head. She wraps her arms around me and presses her cheek against mine so fast and so hard that my head bounces off of hers. Little bruised, purple splotches creep around the corners of my vision. For a second, I wonder if I really am melting. Jen’s squeezing me like I might slosh through her fingers and the left side of my face and neck is wet. Until I actually hear her softly sob, it doesn’t hit home that she’s crying. I lean into her and we sit like that for a minute. Jen softly crying and me too stuck between babbling and hugging to do anything else.
She leans away for a second, splotchy and snotty and staring intensely. She rests her hands against my cheeks. “How long have I taken care of you?”
Automatically, I think: Twelve, almost thirteen years.
Mom and Dad had figured out how badly they worked right around when Jen started developing adult perceptions of the world. And then they screwed up and had another kid. I have no idea why they stayed together as long as they did, but Mom was gone within a year of me being born. Dad told me once that he’d had to fight tooth and nail to keep me from being aborted. I don’t think he remembers telling me anything about it. Dad loved kids, but wasn’t the sort to anchor an entire family all on his own. He had his hands full balancing keeping a job and hiding his drug abuse. Jen managed the home front. Made friends with our elderly neighbor, Miss Williams, so someone could look after me while she was at school and kept the house running after she got out.
She’s turning twenty-seven in a month and a half and she’ll have spent nearly thirteen years of her life taking care of me.
“Forever,” I finally say. “Even after you moved in with Marco, I spent more time here than at home.”
“And now you’re here with me full-time and I’m seeing less of you than I did before.” She runs her thumb across my cheek, wiping away a leaky drip I hadn’t even noticed. “I’m working too much, I—”
“Jen, you’re busy. You’re covering shifts. Your job is importa—”
“I’m making myself busy.” She blurts. “I’m picking up too many extra shifts, way more than I should. Zari’s told me she’s gonna stop letting me cover shifts if I keep this up.”
Zari lost a nurse last year. Suicide. She was sweet before, always fawning over how I’d grown at Christmas parties and the like. Since then, she’s looked a little ragged. Spread thin.
Jen’s stopped crying. Her face is red and her nose is runny, but she’s back to what I always think of as The Core of Jen: ignoring all the white noise and focusing in on what she wants. Nursing school, taking care of Dad and me, or making a relationship with Marco work through it all. Whatever she wants, whatever she centers her focus on, is all there is in existence. It’s probably why she and Marco have made it work, despite her splitting focus between him, nursing, and her family. It’s probably why Dad gets so worried sometimes, he knows he has rightfully earned her ire. And it’s why, when my mind drifts towards the closet again, I finally have a moment of clarity.
I wash my hands for what feels like the seventh time in the last ten minutes and splash water on my face. I turn the knob all the way to the right and then splash some more water on my face. The skin around my eyes whines about the cold and my stomach threatens another rebellion, but I am in control of all this. The cold water cleared my head and my stomach has already emptied itself completely. I close my eyes and just breathe. Deep inhale through my nose. Hold it. Even, measured exhale through my mouth.
I must have picked up a dozen calming and relaxation methods from Jen when she was in school. It doesn’t stop my legs from shaking or my stomach from trying to collapse in on itself, but it uproots my feet from the tile floor and starts me out toward Jen’s bedroom.
Jen would be thrilled to know that some of the relaxation exercises she practiced on me actually got put to use. Maybe I’ll make up a story about a really hard test and tell her I breathed my way through it.
I wrap my hand around the doorknob and turn slowly so that the latch retracting doesn’t make a sound. I swing the door halfway open in one motion and it groans softly in protest. Any further and it’ll really start to creak. I turn sideways and squeeze through the gap, careful not to lean forward or backward and bump into anything.
When Elena had moved away three years ago, I had dreamt of walking out through the sliding doors. Instead of coming out in our backyard, I came out in a small glass box, hovering over the neighborhood. Everything moved at double or triple speed below. Moving vans took up most of Elena’s driveway. The movers came and went, carrying boxes and furniture out into the back of the vans, but as each item was set down it caught fire. A box came to rest, ignited, burned brilliantly for a second or two, and then another box was set down on the ashes and the cycle began anew.
Elena’s family had lived in that house for years before we moved in two doors down. She was the first playdate I went on after moving in. We’d gotten on the bus together for the first day of school. We sat together every day for lunch and brought homework assignments for each other when one of us was sick. My mom left when I was too young to really understand, so Elena was my first experience with losing someone important. I remember a lot of sitting around my room, but I remember the nightmares more than anything else.
I move on my tiptoes, trying to minimize the floor’s groans. The carpet’s too thin to soften my footsteps much. Marco grunts and fidgets in his sleep and I freeze. My stomach clenches more tightly into a ball and a prickling wave of cold rolls out through my abdomen.
Two years before Elena moved, Dad didn’t come home one weekend. Left for work Friday morning and didn’t come home for dinner. He wasn’t home when Jen and I woke up the next morning either. Later that night, I woke up and walked around the house. I couldn’t see out any of the windows and neither of the doors out would open. Dad wasn’t in his room and neither was Jen. I walked around until I heard a scratching in the kitchen. As I got closer to the pantry, I realized it wasn’t just one scratching sound. Faint, like it was coming from far deeper back than the pantry even extended, I could hear small, sharp things scraping. I ran out of the kitchen and heard scratching under the sofa in the living room. Heard it in the armchair and saw something straining against the cushion’s cloth. The scratching was in the towel closet in the hall and under the sink in the bathroom and franticly clawing at Dad’s door.
I told Jen about it the next morning—Dad was still not home—about how real it was and how I couldn’t remember waking up from it, I just opened my bedroom door and was back in the normal house. She told me it was a dream, that she never left her bedroom last night. Maybe I’d heard a bird or squirrel scratching at the window and that had made it into my dream. She told me that she knew the best remedy for bad dreams—a sleepover in her room.
Dad had shown up after a dinner of mac ‘n cheese. Jen sent me to her room and the two of them fought it out. I could hear Jen screaming even down the hall. Afterward, Jen came in and we stayed in for the rest of the night. We watched movies on her laptop until it was time for bed. Curled up next to Jen, I didn’t dream of a house filled with scratching, but for weeks afterward I was convinced there was something wrong with that house.
I remind myself that tonight is just a test run. Tell myself I’m not going inside if the closet isn’t a closet when I open it. Tell myself again, that I am in control. I breathe deeply as Jen snores softly. Each part of the breath, the inhale, the pause, and the exhale, all last longer than usual. I make a conscious effort to breathe in more deeply than is natural, to pause longer than is comfortable, and to breathe out until my lungs feel empty. None of it automatic, none of it out of my control.
My arms are heavy and unwieldly, but they move when I tell them to. My hand grips the door knob. I look over at the bed—Jen is right over there—and pull the closet open.
Clothes and shoes and sheets and blankets.
The next morning, I ask Jen if I can borrow a scarf.
“I dunno, come pick one out with me.”
She smiles, doubly ready to do her sisterly duties after our talk, and leads me to her room. I slip in front of her so I’m the one opening the door. Later today, I’ll probably have a heart-shaped bruise in the center of my chest from the industrial-strength beating it’s doing.
The door opens up and I practically collapse into the closet. I don’t leave the closet the whole time. I stand in the threshold, draping one scarf over my shoulders and then the next, modeling for Jen. She chooses the striped one, an array of icy blues, purples, and white cascading down to the fringy edges.
Halfway to the door, I stop.
“Go ahead, I’m gonna go back to the closet and grab a blanket. I was a little cold last night.”
Last time. Final test.
The closet was a closet with them asleep, it was a closet with Jen in here with me, and it’s going to be a closet again when I’m alone.
More of Jen’s breathing exercises.
I wait until I hear her talking to Marco in the kitchen before opening the closet again.