Chapter 4

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The smell of rotten meat surrounded me. I coughed, frowning, covering my mouth and nose with one arm. The sound echoed here. From somewhere nearby, I could hear the scurrying of little feet—the mouse, still busy circling and circling.

But it was dark. I could barely see a thing. The atmosphere was humid and warm. It didn’t feel any safer than Doctor Campbell’s waiting room. And since I hadn’t taken off my jacket back there either, I decided to keep it on here as well. If this was the lair of a humongous tarantula and it swallowed me alive, I’d go down knowing that it would suffer from indigestion because of its inability to assimilate polyester.

“You have many friends, Elmer.”

I started and whirled around. The strongest whiff of rotten meat greeted me.

“Jangmi,” I said.

At the same time, relief and anger swelled up in me. These two were by no means opposing emotions.

A beam of light suddenly came from nowhere in the ceiling and illuminated the dusty concrete ground in front of me. The mouse seemed to be delighted at this diversion. It immediately entered the circle of the light and ran around there. Little clouds of dust formed near the ground.

Jangmi laughed softly from the other side of the light. Half of it was because of the cute little mouse, and half, I guessed, was for me recognizing her voice.

“You think this is funny?” I said. My voice shook weakly but that didn’t slow me down. “You scared the shit out of me. Do you have any idea what it’s like to think you’re actually crazy? And to think that not for the first time, but for the second time?”

“Calm down, Elmer. Calm down.”

“The existential crisis from back when I first entered your closet was bad enough. And now this? You send me a mouse? What the heck kind of a stunt is that? You think it’s cute? You think it’s funny? Why are you still laughing?”

“I missed you too.”

“You— I—”

I couldn’t continue. Relief triumphed over anger. I had to admit: I was glad it was Jangmi. This was not some stranger-ghost, but someone I knew. And I wasn’t crazy. I couldn’t possibly be creative enough to make up someone as magnificent as her, with so much history, ambition, and heartache.

If you could forget the part about her smell and the touch of her soft rotten flesh, you could appreciate the silvery beauty of her voice. She used to be an opera singer. Also, she’d died in a concert dress: brilliant red, billowing past her feet. Presently, some of the light touched its fringes. Exquisite fabric, it looked like; but I wasn’t very knowledgeable in the area of fashion. (See? A clear proof that Jangmi didn’t come from my head.) All I knew, based on this moment and from my memories of the closet, was that the dress looked stunning, even in its moth-infested current state. She must have been a vision on that last night of her life, when the dress had shown her shoulders and neck, smooth because of their health, not because of their slow decomposition post-death.

She was the ghost who’d given me and Darla a year of hell. The aftereffect of that year had only now begun to start. And yet she was the proof of my sanity. She and our collective memory. Strange ironies transpire over the course of one’s life. Fate has humor.

“I thought you were gone,” I said more calmly. “Gone from this world, after, you know.”

“After you exposed the murder weapon, got my nemesis arrested, and had my idiot husband cry in front of my grave. Yes. I remember.”

Jangmi stepped into the light. With one expert whirl of her neck, she whipped her uncombed, nightmarish long hair out of the way to expose the grisly long gash across her neck. Maggots crawled in and out of that wound. If her nemesis had cut any deeper, Jangmi would’ve been decapitated.

This was the part that I spared you earlier; the part where I figured out the magic of the closet. Even with my science background—actually, no, because of my science background—I knew that ghosts had to have a reason for haunting the living. From what I’d seen back then, it seemed that the activity of haunting was extremely consuming, energy- and time-wise. Whoever would want to commit to such an activity for an eternity for no good reason?

Hence I’d begun talking to Jangmi. Asked her some questions. Of course, the main purpose was to convince Jangmi to release Darla. But I also admit: back then, when I hadn’t known that the aftermath of the magic closet could be worse than the magic closet itself, I’d appreciated Jangmi’s beautiful voice and her magnificent dress more genuinely than I did now. Remember, I’m a guy named Elmer who feeds lab mice for a living. Girls aren’t immediately drawn to this stud. Jangmi was the first girl with whom I’d spent the night—in an absolutely platonic manner. Ah, if only she hadn’t been a ghost.

Jangmi called her idiot husband her idiot husband. She never called him by his name, Philip Murray. He was a doctor, though what kind of a doctor, Jangmi had never told me. He was a tall man and proportionately wide, instead of being on the skinny side like me. When I’d met him, he looked quite imposing. Under any other circumstances, I might have felt the sort of auto-respect that you feel in front of a large statue. But since I knew of his cluelessness regarding Jangmi, I was able to successfully suppress that feeling.

As to the nemesis, Jangmi always called the nemesis the nemesis. She never called her by her name. She’d never told me the name.

The name doesn’t matter, Jangmi had said. What she looks like doesn’t matter either. What mattered to my idiot husband was that she was the “other woman.” The idiot always thought he missed out on something because he married me.

The closet had been part of Jangmi’s dowry. After Jangmi had been mysteriously murdered in her bedroom on the night of her last concert, the idiot husband had sold everything that he associated with her. Of all those objects, Jangmi felt attached to the closet the most, because it’d stood across the room from the nuptial bed, which the idiot husband, surprisingly, didn’t associate with his dead wife. He kept it when he got remarried to Jangmi’s nemesis, a.k.a. Jangmi’s throat-slitter. So, that explained why Jangmi hadn’t attached herself to the bed, dragging people into nightmare lands that way. Jangmi had wanted a resting place for herself, and choosing an object that was to be desecrated with the fluids of her nemesis and her idiot husband would’ve been out of the question.

Jangmi had told me, there were rules to becoming a ghost—at least the kind of ghost she was. (Jangmi never pretended to know the workings of the entire supernatural realm. Or realms.) It helped to know, deep down, that you were right. Owning the environment where you were killed helped too. And you really had to mean to stay connected with the world of the living, forever, as a mere shadow of your former self.

Seven was the age Jangmi’s child would’ve been, had she not died. She hadn’t even known she was pregnant until she “found” herself in the closet, seven years after her death. (Yes, it had taken her a while to find herself.) She said it sort of happened, unconsciously, the ghostification. You don’t choose to be a ghost. You find yourself as a ghost, and when you do, you also find the object you’ve attached yourself to. The rationalization comes only afterward.

From the closet, Jangmi constructed an elaborate maze to which she lured children. Yes, children, plural. Darla hadn’t been the only one. There’d been a few other seven-year-olds before her, a few missing persons cases that’d never been resolved. But stories never died. When they couldn’t be resolved, they simply kept multiplying and compounding out of control. That was why the closet had been sold for so cheap at a flea market. The owner couldn’t wait to get rid of it. Jangmi scared the adults with the rattling of the closet, even though she never planned to invite them to her maze. That way, the owners would get rid of the closet, giving her a chance to open up her maze in a household with a seven-year-old. That was how the guy who’d owned the closet before us never waited for the cuckoo haunted-object collectors to show up. He’d been too terrified and in a hurry. Didn’t want the attention. Wanted a quick sale. My parents happened to stroll by the owner’s stall. Such a great deal! they said. Fifty dollars later, the closet was theirs.

Anyway, the nemesis was in prison now, because I’d done something very simple. Remember, I’d only connected the dots; dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s; tied up the loose ends. I’d done things that were mere errands for anyone alive, but impossible for Jangmi because she couldn’t function in the world of the living anymore.

What I’d done was to 1) track down the nemesis and the idiot husband, who were by now decades older than they’d been at the time of Jangmi’s murder, 2) pose as a handyman, 3) enter their house, 4) go through their stuff, 5) make up an excuse to return to their house multiple times, 6) reconvene with Jangmi in the closet to get some tips on where to look, 7) find the dagger inside a trophy that the nemesis had won once Jangmi was out of the way (Jangmi had told me that the nemesis had always been a meaning-craving kind of bitch who would never dispose of her murder weapon), 8) casually drop the dagger and the trophy in the parking lot of the nearest police station, 9) wait until the nemesis was arrested, 10) revisit the house, where the idiot husband now lived alone, 11) explain to him all this, 12) convince him that I wasn’t insane by telling him details about him and Jangmi that only Jangmi could’ve told me, 13) drag him to Jangmi’s grave and watch him cry—a statue succumbing to gravity and collapsing on the dirt.

Really. No big deal. Just errand-running. The last time I checked, the police were about to investigate the idiot husband, too, for they suspected he’d returned home late, on the night of Jangmi’s murder, intentionally. That way, the idiot husband could claim he knew nothing of the murder. From a purely logical perspective, that was good planning on his part. The husband/boyfriend was always the prime suspect when something like this happened. Because the idiot husband really hadn’t seen Jangmi’s body and really hadn’t seen the blood trails, he could confidently tell the truth whenever the police questioned him:

I don’t know what happened to Jangmi.

Of course, the idiot husband and the police couldn’t have known that Jangmi’s spirit had stayed right there in that room, with her closet, long after her dead body had been moved to a forest by her nemesis.

I didn’t tell Jangmi this whole part about her husband maybe having had foreknowledge about her murder, maybe not. Figured it was simply too much; or that she knew this part already without my additional input, and hadn’t told me about how she felt about it—how she hated her husband as much as, no, more than the nemesis—because she was ashamed. There was no reason for her to feel this way, but that’s what happens when people are betrayed by their loved ones: the betrayed feel ashamed while the betrayers waltz around as if they’ve done nothing wrong.

Then I got busy because of the fallout of Darla’s return from the closet.

Now Jangmi said, “I also remember, you promised me you’d keep the closet safe.”

“Right. About that,” I said.

After Jangmi had thanked me and agreed to release Darla, she’d asked me one more favor: Please keep the closet in your possession. I don’t want me or it to wander anymore. I trust you. Keep me safe.

But now, with my own fate in limbo, I wasn’t sure I could keep that promise. And I felt terrible that I’d completely forgotten about it. All I’d cared about in the past few weeks had been Darla’s well-being. And my own. Specifically, whether there was an “I” that I could live with at all.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“I’m not accusing you of anything,” Jangmi said. “I heard of your predicaments.”

“You did?”

“The mice. They talk.”

“Plural mice?”

“Plural mice. This one here knows the mice in other parts of the town, who know the mice in yet other areas, who know the mice at your lab.”

“Wow.” I’d had no idea. “But is it… Like…”

“A ghost.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah.”

“There’s a mouse heaven?”

Jangmi shrugged. “If you’re into the idea of heaven.”

“A mouse afterlife.”

“Definitely.”

“Holy smokes.”

“I know.”

“How did you get here anyway?” I asked. “Is the mirror connected to the closet? And why didn’t you come pick me up yourself? I thought it was a real mouse. If you’d shown up, I wouldn’t have reacted at all in front of all those people in the waiting room. I would’ve known right away that something otherworldly was going on.”

“The mice do it better.”

“Huh?”

“All manifestations of thoughtlessness are connected, Elmer. That’s how I had access to all those kids even though I’m ‘trapped’ in the closet. But there’s a limit to my access to your world. If I were to stay in your realm, for more than a few seconds, I’d perish. That’s why human ghosts only haunt; they don’t live as equals in your world.”

“But the mice?”

“They’re the especially-forgotten ones. People ignore the existence of living mice all the time. So, as long as they’re preoccupied with something else in their time-place dimension, the mice slip right past their notice. And that seems to help your world, in its entirety, let them slip too.”

“I’m glad something cool awaited them in their afterlives.”

Jangmi nodded, at first amused, then sadly. “We’re the products of thoughtlessness. All things that survive in this realm are places and beings that no one thinks about; or think they think about but don’t really think about. We all belong together. We all connect.”

I nodded. “Deep.”

Jangmi chuckled. Again, that silvery beautiful voice. Seriously, that nemesis of hers had robbed the world of heaven on earth. Millions would’ve applauded Jangmi, had her career had a chance to bloom. But now, even the possibility of that was gone. All thoughts about such a dream were pointless. How terrible, that one of the two people who knew everything about my sanity didn’t belong in this world anymore.

“Elmer,” she said, “I want to help you.”

“Please don’t,” I blurted out.

I didn’t have time to consider how she’d feel about this immediate rejection. Too much had gone wrong because of the closet. So, the very thought of keeping Jangmi in my life gave me goosebumps. I mean, yes, I liked her. She was the first woman I spent the night with and all that. But that and continuing to see her were two completely different stories. I’d agreed to protect the closet, thinking that all I’d see was the closet, not her.

Jangmi’s rotten shoulders slumped down. “I know,” she said. “I was terrible. I’m sorry.”

“I’m not blaming you.” Who knows what I would’ve done in her place? If someone had slit my opera-singer throat and married my idiot spouse? “And it’s not about what you’ve done, necessarily. It’s about how this world interpreted… everything.”

“I tried to convince the kids to return home,” Jangmi said. “I thought that maybe, if they all showed up, what you were saying would make sense to the living. But the kids didn’t want to.”

Jangmi was talking about the other seven-year-olds who’d vanished into the closet. That was the thing with Jangmi and her closet. It wasn’t like she’d forced the kids into staying with her. Jangmi was no human criminal. She was a ghost. And to be a ghost’s target, the kids had to be pretty darn curious about an alternate world. Jangmi couldn’t just drag them away.

All things thoughtless did connect. After our parents’ death and after I’d gotten a job, Darla had been pretty much alone. Sure, she went to school and there’d been babysitters. But she’d been alone. When she’d told me about the haunted closet, I hadn’t really listened to her. And thus one day she’d walked into it, not to return for a whole year.

Same with the other kids. They’d been children with problems at home. They’d wanted to leave. Jangmi had provided a shelter for them. It didn’t matter that the parents might have changed by now; the children didn’t want to return. Only Darla had returned with me. I doubt she would have, if she hadn’t known that I, like her, was utterly terrified of being alone. She also knew that I wasn’t one of those who created babies to merely feel less alone. (Even in romantic relationships, clinging to the partner to solve your loneliness didn’t work. Imagine the disaster that ensues if you create a human to solve your problems.) Darla knew I’d never make the same mistake again. And she didn’t want to abandon me.

“I’m happy the kids like staying with you,” I said. “It would suck, staying in the closet alone.”

Jangmi smiled. “Which is why I don’t want you stuck in a room at a mental hospital all alone.”

“I won’t be alone. My lawyer said I’d get to see Darla.”

“But only rarely, the mice tell me.”

“Well, yeah.”

“You’ll never have a job or a business. Maybe you’ll never marry. And you’ll never go anywhere.

That hurt. I only said, “I guess.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

“What other choice do I have?”

“Let me help you. All this happened because of me. I can’t die-live knowing that I’ve robbed you of all possibilities of life. That’s what my nemesis did to me and I couldn’t die-live with myself knowing that I’ve done the same thing to you.”

Some very kind people made things worse but kept offering their help because they thought kindness could solve every problem. It didn’t.

I said, “I can’t keep tapping into the powers of the other-world and expect that I’ll make sense in this world. I have to solve my problem within the legal framework here.”

“We can both get what we want.”

“Oh?”

“Ask them for a closet in your hospital room.”

© 2022 Ithaka O.

All rights reserved.
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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