Short Listed for Surrey International Writers’ Conference Contest
By Jeanine Lipp
His head slammed into the back wall of the closet. Hangers rocked, shedding clothes over the boy’s bent back. The closet door slammed shut behind him, smashing against the already splintered frame, blocking out the light cast by his Spiderman lamp. The lock clicked into place while the voice from the other side raged on.
“You miserable gutless turd! No son of mine is gonna turn out to be a freakin’ wimp.” This last remark was punctuated by his father’s meaty fist as it punched into the flimsy wood of the closet door. Splinters rained down on the narrow rectangle of light that seeped through the crack between the carpet and the bottom of the door.
The boy retreated backward, carving a path between clusters of outgrown shoes and discarded toys until he had wedged himself into the corner. He swallowed hard, grateful that the door had taken the brunt of his father’s rage. But to be imprisoned in this dark place, this origin of evil that haunted his nights was worse than facing his father. Or is it? The last time his Dad had been like this, the boy’s jaw had been the target. The time before that, his left arm, the time before that . . . he didn’t want to remember anymore.
“COLE!” Dad waited a beat. “Answer me when I’m talking, moron.”
“Yes, sir,” Cole whimpered. Sweat dripped from the short bristle of hair above his brow and snaked down the side of his face as he focused every ounce of his concentration on the narrow band of light on the carpet. Dad would leave in a minute. And when he did — he would turn out the light. When that light went out, it would come back. And this time there would be no escape.
His father’s shadow loomed larger, almost extinguishing the narrow strip of light. Cole hugged his knees to his chest and began to rock, chanting in a harsh whisper; Don’t block the light. Don’tblockthelight. Don’tblockthelight.
Voice muffled against the door, Dad taunted, “Are you gonna cry? No one’ll hear you. Your Mom won’t be back until tomorrow night. She can’t save you this time.” The strip of light reappeared as his father stepped away.
Not taking his eyes from the precious light, Cole took in a deep, shuddering breath, desperately searching for the right words that would win his father over, words that would magically open the door and flood the closet with the light from the Spiderman lamp. He cleared his throat, praying that his voice wouldn’t betray him. “You’re right Dad. There’s nothing in here but clothes and old junk. You can let me out now.” Something shifted in the dark recesses of the opposite corner. A squeak escaped from Cole’s dry, papery lips before he could clap a hand over his mouth.
“Hymph,” his Dad grunted through a mouthful of beer. The sound of crinkling aluminum came from the other side of the door as his father crushed the empty can in one hand.
Cole had learned to hate that sound.
“You’re nothin’ but a damned liar,” his father growled. “You’ve got your Mom wrapped around your little finger, but I know you’re a little piss-ant coward. It’s time for a change around here. You’re gonna learn to face your fears. If you can’t, I’ll give you something to be scared of.” Dad gave the closet door a parting shot with his fist. The strip of light vanished at the click of the switch.
Engulfed in dreaded darkness, Cole’s heart pounded in his chest. He held his breath and listened as his father’s footsteps shuffled away down the hall. Dad was making his usual beeline for another six-pack and another old episode of “Sons of Anarchy”.
In a panic, Cole scooped up the fallen clothes and layered them in a tent over his bent knees. He had to prepare, but for what? Shapes began to emerge in the darkness as his eyes adjusted. Don’t want to see it. No, no, no. He squeezed his eyes shut, a ghost of the strip of light floated behind his eyelids. He prayed that the light would last, but it soon faded, little by little as if the darkness had absorbed it. That’s when he heard the second thump and felt his bowels twitch. The stench came next. An overwhelming noxious cloud — sickly sweet. Much more powerful than the other times, but then again, Cole had never been inside the closet with it. Gagging, he felt one helpless tear escape from the lashes of his closed eyes.
“DAD! SOMETHING’S IN HERE. DAAADDD!”
The volume went up in the living room, drowning out his cries. Cole would get no help from his dad. If only there was a light, just a little light. Every horror story he’d read or movie he’d seen had proved beyond a doubt that evil monsters hated light. He picked up one of his old shoes thinking he could use it as a weapon. At that instant his eyes popped open, he remembered. The shoe box. His collection of key chains were kept there on the closet shelf above. The keychain he’d discovered in his Christmas stocking last year had a flashlight on it.
Cole leapt to his feet, shedding the fallen clothes and banging his head on the shelf above. His hand groped in the sooty blackness above, searching for the hamster-chewed edge of the box. Dad’s irritation with HamMaster’s midnight wheel exercises had reached its max just before the furry rodent mysteriously disappeared. Cole couldn’t figure out if Dad had gotten rid of the pest or if something in the closet had finished off HamMaster. If I don’t find that flashlight keychain, I’ll disappear too — one way or another. Relief rushed over him when he snagged a roughened cardboard corner. The box slid easily into his anxious arms and he stood cradling it in one hand while the other fished inside for his salvation. Blindly, his fingers raced over the edges and shapes of dozens of key chains heaped in the box; the plastic Pikachu, a disembodied zombie hand, a rubber chicken, a miniature pirate treasure box, and then, there it was, the smooth cylinder with a bulb at the end.
Empty hangers swayed and clacked above of his head, moved by an imperceptible force. Something humid and extant hovered near, the putrid air thickened. Hands slick with sweat fumbled over the tiny flashlight in search of the switch. His thumb finally flicked the ON button. Nothing. The batteries were dead.
Like me. Icy tendrils of fear took root at the base of his spine and spread upward.
It took only a moment for the cloying stench to descend over him, blanketing his head with suffocating heat. It forced its way down his throat before he could scream, swelling and blocking his esophagus until he could barely breathe. Unable to utter a sound, Cole struggled silently, futilely, his sneakers tangled in the fallen clothes. Red stars appeared in the dark before his eyes as his strength bled away. His body went limp. He gave in and let go.
At the brink of moving from this world to the next, Cole suddenly felt the pressure on his throat cease. The fetid, smothering blanket lifted from his face and shifted down over his shoulders to swaddle him – soothe him. A hum sounded near his ear, a droning buzz that made him feel sleepy and safe. The odor in the closet had changed too. The aroma was now sweet and clean; mouth-watering in fact. His arm was lifted and guided toward the corner where he had heard the first thump. A warm, sticky liquid had oozed down the wall and pooled onto the carpet. He dug his finger into it, brought it up to his nose and sniffed cautiously. It smelled like honey. The hum grew louder. Cole listened to the multitude of voices that buzzed and flitted inside his head.
The tip of his tongue rolled out of his mouth, touching gently against the syrupy substance that dripped from his finger. The honey tasted like buttered sugar, like liquid warmth, like Mom’s embrace and what life might be like away from Dad. It was laced with hope, something he hadn’t tasted in a long, long time. He crawled closer to the corner and began scooping the honey into his mouth by the handful. The more he consumed, the better he felt — strong, sure, and unafraid.
Deep within, a golden tide rose up, pulled by the dark satellite that hovered beneath his ribs. Something shifted in his belly, it slithered and lashed out against the prison where it had been locked away and long forgotten. That something had made Cole’s Mom afraid when she had glimpsed it in her son’s eyes. She’d put the lock on the closet door and made the boy promise to never let his father see what was inside.
But, it was too strong for Cole to contain any longer. He obeyed. He fed it.
When he could eat no more, Cole turned away from the corner and nestled back into the honeyed bouquet of sweetness that cradled him. He found he could see perfectly in the dark now, and watched as the golden honey that stained his fingers became tarnished, then blackened as it integrated into his flesh and stretched his stubby fingers into long, curved talons. The honey smeared on his face began to itch and he could feel his mouth expand and his teeth lengthen into sharp needles. Honey seeping from the closet corner bloomed into thick ebony veins that rapidly spun a web across the closet walls. Cole attempted a smile with his new mouth, only managing a ghoulish grin. The place he had so feared, now felt like home.
The mortal game of hide and seek, of cat and mouse has finally ended. Hunter and prey have merged into one. Now, Cole knows what he is, what he has always been. He knows that Mom has nothing to fear. His kind are guardians of the innocent. And Dad? Well, Dad is a knuckle-dragging bully, the king of assholes, but he was right about one thing. Facing up to his fear had changed Cole. Now it dwells freely inside of him, feeding from the darkness that his father had kindled, blow by blow, humiliation by humiliation over Cole’s short span of life. It has been awakened and is ready for battle, but not for the battle against fear.
What lives inside Cole has never known fear.
What lives inside Cole is powerful, ancient, and lethal.
What lives inside Cole settled down to wait for Dad to unlock the closet door.