Chapter 1


Table of Contents

What matters isn’t your sanity on paper, but Darla’s well-being.

I repeat, what matters isn’t your sanity on paper, but Darla’s well-being.

Did that sink in? What matters—

Never mind. This wasn’t doing any good. From years of living early adulthood like any normal American of the 21st century who dabbled in self-improvement audiobooks and Youtube videos about productivity tips, I’d figured addressing myself as “you” and creating an imaginary “I,” who knows better than me how to lead my life, might help me see crystal-clearly what was necessary.

But it didn’t. I was about to lie that I was insane, and I didn’t like the idea.

Ever heard of the insanity defense? That. That was what my lawyer recommended we go for. And for that, I needed to admit, on record, that I’d merely imagined the closet swallowing my little sister and then spitting her back out.

I’d asked him, If I’m supposed to be insane, shouldn’t I tell them the truth?

What truth?

That the closet really did swallow her and that was why she went missing for a year. Then it spat her back out.

He’d slowly shaken his head, which had been impressive to watch. Usually when you did that, your shoulder muscles moved in rhythm with your head at least a tiny bit, because obviously a head is connected to the body. And therefore, even if you were to shake your head, how would your shoulders remain completely immobile? But with him it was different. He was double my age, with a paunch so massive and taut I wondered if he hid something in there just like our closet had kept secret about its evil magic all those years, waiting for our parents to die in a car crash and for me to graduate from college and get a job so it could predict my work schedule, and then swallow my little sister Darla, who was only seven.

Anyway, because of that paunch, when my lawyer shook his head, all the rest of his muscles stayed remarkably still. It was like no body part cooperated with any other body part. It really looked like he meant it when he signaled Nope. No. Absolutely not.

Give them something to work with, he’d said. You don’t seem insane. You held down a job for months. You never even got into a fight with a coworker.

Really? Nobody told you I punched my boss in the face? Funny, cause remember how they told you I stole their lunch from the fridge and obliterated the water cooler?

Stuff like that doesn’t matter. That’s all it is: stuff. That’s useless in court, both for and against you. So come up with an explanation: drug abuse, childhood trauma, stuff along those lines.

You’re telling me to lie.

Son, you’re telling me an evil closet swallowed your sister, then spat her back out. I don’t think I’m asking you to lie. Figure out why you went insane and tell them that.

Folks, this was the aftermath. Ever seen one of those movies where a closet that scares a kid to death is, in fact, a closet that should scare anybody to death? But all the grown-ups tell the kid to grow up, so the kid tries to sleep through the night, but the closet keeps making a noise, so the kid approaches the closet, then it swallows it?

That kid was Darla.

For days, weeks, and months, Darla remained trapped in the closet. And me, as the only grown-up left to her, of course tried to find her. Well, no, let me back up a little. At first I became the suspect in her kidnapping and couldn’t do much. Then my lawyer cleared me of that. Then came something worse: they suspected me of her murder. But of course, there was no proof. I kept telling them, Darla is in the closet. It was the closet that took her. The God damn closet!!!

They investigated the closet. Not that they believed my story, but they did think that maybe, there’s a secret path connecting from the closet to a serial killer’s house or something.

But nope, there wasn’t one. The closet hadn’t come with the house and was completely detachable from Darla’s bedroom wall. The thing was something my parents had found at a flea market. God, I never knew why they wanted to buy other people’s ancient crap that not even those other people knew the origin of. They were the kind of people who named their kids after their great-grandparents. That was how Darla came to be Darla and me Elmer. Darla was okay, but Elmer? Come on. The name hit its peak sometime in the 1880s or 1900s and saw a steady decline ever since. It’s not the name a twenty-four-year-old wants to live with. (Sorry, everyone still alive named Elmer, but that’s what I think. At least I’m speaking from experience.)

The police went through other places in our house: the cellar, the attic, the mudroom. They interviewed my coworkers. Some said nice things about me, but some, as expected, said shit about me, such as how I’d stolen their lunches from the common lounge fridge and had obliterated the water cooler. (Both of which I haven’t done. Also, “obliterate” was the word that the overdramatic prick used. I merely happened to stand next to the broken water cooler.)

It seemed that people, more than anything else, wanted to be right. And when it seemed pretty clear that a specific person was the perpetrator in a crime, they said all kinds of nonsense about that perpetrator, completely forgetting the “seemed” part in the phrase “seemed pretty clear.”

Some of them even said they’d always suspected me of being this creepy weirdo because of my name. They said, Elmer. Whoever is called Elmer these days? And whoever actually likes to work with lab mice? Most of those poor bastards are going to die within the year, more likely within the week. Whoever likes to form attachments with such creatures?

The clear answer they had in mind: someone who kills his little sister and then shows up to work accusing the closet.

As if everyone working at the lab didn’t form some kind of attachment to those mice. If you didn’t, that should be proof of your coldheartedness. I’m not saying that we had a funeral every time a mouse died, because then we wouldn’t be working at all. I’m saying, we didn’t feel great about it when the mice died. Some tried to have as little contact with the mice as possible because of that, sure. But just because I played with them once in a blue moon, hoping that those little creatures wouldn’t feel lonely and scared, so what? That was supposed to make me a psychopath?

I didn’t even have the option to stay away from the mice. Of all the people working at the lab, I was the closest to them. I was their parent. I fed them. Multiple contacts on a daily basis were inevitable. And I didn’t hate it at all. With my parents dead when I was so young, and with all the pressure of raising a kid on me, I knew what it felt like to be lonely and scared. So it actually felt great to be able to so easily fix the woes of the mice. Unlike my position in the human world, the one at the lab was, at the risk of sounding delusional, godly. I mean, think of it from the mice’s perspective. This guy walks in, and out of nowhere, there’s food. There’s water. There’re toys. There’s lots of excitement and happiness. That’s the definition of God, if you ask me.

So yes, I liked the mice—my mice. That was what it felt like; that they knew me and I knew them. I felt sad about their fate. I couldn’t do anything about it and quite possibly didn’t want to do anything about it (they were dying for a meaningful cause, I told myself—cancer research), but still. They were mine to take care of.

At any rate, there was no hard evidence against me. How could there be? I keep telling you: the closet did it.

So I couldn’t be locked up. I was a free man. The search for Darla continued, until it didn’t. That’s the scary thing about cold cases; one day, the bureaucracy decides that your chances are so slim, it can’t invest resources anymore.

Then I single-handedly figured out the magic closet. You’ve all seen those movies, so I’ll spare you most of the details. Just know that it was particularly difficult for me. I told you, I used to work at a lab. Meaning, I used to be a quite scientific person, though some might say that a lowly lab technician who is mainly in charge of feeding mice couldn’t possibly be any more scientifically-minded than the average gas station worker or a politician.

With no one on my side in the whole wide world, I had to accept it was time to try new things. Why not address the closet directly, then? And that was how I ended up confronting the ghost that drove the closet.

She was the scary-Asian-movie type of ghost. One of those with really long hair that hasn’t been combed for years, which nevertheless doesn’t revolt against its owner, and obeys her when she commands it to creep up on you. And the whole time she suffocates you with her hair, you hear lots of wood creaking and blackboard scratching noises. And spooky giggles.

Her name was Jangmi. Her hands were freezing-cold but surprisingly soft, and not in a good way. They were soft like rotten meat; not soft like baby skin. And oh, one thing you never got to experience in the movie theaters: they smell. At least I assume they all smell, the ghosts, not just her. I don’t see why Jangmi should be the only smelly ghost.

So. I figured out her painful past that’d turned a haunting monster out of her upon her death. And, as a human, I’d run some errands to connect the dots she couldn’t connect, so to speak. Dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s. Tied up the loose ends. All that.

Then I returned with Darla from nightmare-land. Victorious, relieved, safe.

Finally, I wasn’t alone anymore. Raising Darla all by myself as an unmarried twenty-something skinny kid who feeds mice for a living had been lonely and scary, but the time without her had been even lonelier and scarier. Even my godly position at the lab couldn’t have continued to make me feel better. In fact, if Darla had never returned, I would’ve lost all hope of ever belonging anywhere or with anyone.

I promised her I’d never leave her alone again. Not literally, of course not. Privacy was a valuable thing. So, when she needed me, I’d be by her side. I promised her that. And just to be super safe, I wanted her to have many friends, have a normal life.

But all the fliers that I’d attached to bulletin boards and lampposts didn’t magically go away. The footage of me interviewing with the networks, pleading to people to please help me find my missing little sister didn’t go away either. In fact, in this age of the Permanent Internet Records, such footage was cut and pasted and edited and re-edited.

Now you understand how I could possibly have agreed to say that I’m insane, when I’m not. If I could step back just a little from Darla’s life, I could still stay in her life. The mental hospital was a nice compromise.

And so, here I was. My lawyer thought the insanity defense was the only chance I had. The DA was consulting psychiatrists because they suspected I had abused Darla. Me! Her big brother who’d dragged her out of Jangmi’s ghost hell!

Their theory: Darla had never been missing. Sure, the police had already cleared me of kidnapping, but what if Elmer Warde was cuckoo? That would explain everything: the constant mention of the closet, Darla’s apparent absence, and even Darla’s ardent defense of her big brother.

She told them the same story as I had. That’s why they thought she’d been abused. Stockholm Syndrome, they said.

My lawyer told me that if the insanity defense worked out, maybe all this could come to a sort-of-happy ending. That’s what I liked about my lawyer, that massive man of very grave headshakes. He didn’t lie. He said “sort-of-happy ending,” not “happy ending.” He could argue for me that I didn’t know what happened; that I was too clueless to commit any crime; the closet was just a little story that Darla and I had concocted to survive in this terrifying mad world of early orphanhood.

That way, at least the abuse charge could be fought off. I would end up at a mental hospital and be separated from Darla. She’d have to stay with a foster family. But, I’d get to see her under supervision.

The sort-of-happy ending.

My lawyer was right; he wasn’t telling me to lie. He actually believed I was crazy. So why not make the most of that craziness?

The first step was to get an expert’s opinion. In this case, the expert was Doctor Campbell. Hence I sat in her office on a cloudy morning at the beginning of winter, nervously fidgeting in a cushiony chair in the waiting room. My lawyer had offered to arrange for a more private session; avoid the hassle of making an appointment through the usual channels, waiting around, et cetera. I’d declined. If I was going to spend the rest of my life locked up in a prison or a mental hospital, at least I wanted to do so knowing that I’d tried to spend my last few weeks in the normal world as freely as possible. You might say that sitting in a waiting room, waiting for the receptionist to call your name isn’t exactly the definition of “free,” but considering that no one could stop me even if I were to run out of here screaming and dancing, it sure felt free.

The room was overheated and correspondingly dry, but I hadn’t taken off my jacket. It came down to my knees and had a hood, which I kept drawn over my head. I didn’t want anybody here to recognize my face. The receptionist didn’t seem to find this odd or disturbing at all. I guessed he saw people like me a lot. Besides, he was double my size, meaning, average. He could manhandle me in a heartbeat. I was on the skinny side. Way too skinny. Exactly the kind of extreme physique that people love to associate with psychopath sister abusers.

Suddenly, I heard a little sharp squeak near my feet.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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