Chapter 5

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A double life. That was what Jangmi was proposing.

I’ll move, she said. People move from one building to another all the time. I don’t see why I can’t move closets.

But you said you can only live in your rightful closet.

I never said that.

You didn’t?

I said something along the lines of: you need an object to cling to in your rightful environment if you are to become a ghost. But afterward? Who cares?

But then… I thought you liked the closet. That’s why you wanted me to guard it.

Jangmi sighed. The only reason I wanted you to keep me and my closet safe was so I could stop wandering. But since you won’t be there at your old house, I don’t care if I move.

Oh?

I’m saying I care more about not wandering from you, Elmer.

Then she turned pink and I turned pink too.

And that was that. More suave guys probably would’ve made something out of an emotion-charged confession like that, but I wasn’t one of them.

Because all things that had been neglected, abandoned, or simply forgotten connected in the realm of thoughtlessness, no matter what place Jangmi called home, she could serve as a portal-keeper. I could go to any overlooked place. It needn’t be somewhere scary. It could be as harmless as the mirror in Doctor Campbell’s restroom.

I made it back to that restroom in time. The guards hadn’t needed to break down the door. The receptionist smiled tensely but not unkindly. And that, too, was that.

Doctor Campbell signed the papers. So did my lawyer. So did I. Officially, I was insane but harmless. Several months passed. Court appearances were made. Statements were made in firm, objective voices, as well as my own shaky voice.

They placed me in a low-security mental hospital. Darla was to come to visit once a week, accompanied by a social worker.

And I asked for a closet. It needn’t be expensive or fancy, but I wanted a new one, one that still smelled of paint and polish. I figured, if this was the last time Jangmi was going to move into a new closet, she should get to feel like purchasing a new home. The paint and polish smell would make me a little bit dizzy in my small private room, but it would soon fade. And once it did, I’d feel glad about having been the source of a modicum of delight for Jangmi.

I moved in. Winter hadn’t ended yet and it was yet another rainy day. But I was pleasantly surprised to find my room relatively bright with a big window overlooking the rain-drenched park. I could hear the downpour drumming on the glass. Quite musical. And I could smell the grass; the life overflowing from the park was overpowering.

Besides, I liked the door that separated this room from the outside world. It was a regular door to anyone else but particularly great for me, because it creaked softly whenever you closed it or opened it. It satisfied me to know that I wasn’t in Doctor Campbell’s office anymore. The friendly staff here had their hands full taking care of all the patients. A little bit of creaking went unnoticed. It wasn’t something that anybody put on the Must Fix Soon list. Which was good, because that might mean that my little plan would go unnoticed too. And if someone did notice, they’d have to open the creaking door, so I wouldn’t be caught off guard.

The door, understandably, had no locks that I could control from inside the room. Instead, the lock was to be used by the staff only, from the hallway side. Every night, they locked all doors so the patients couldn’t attack each other. Every morning, they opened the doors for breakfast. This was perfect for me, actually. And this was low-security enough for me. They didn’t treat their patients here like prisoners. This place wasn’t a five-star hotel, but totally livable, with a touch of melancholy beauty.

A sort-of-happy ending. Just as my lawyer had predicted.

I only had one bag. I put its contents in a drawer. Just some sweaters and socks and underwear and such. The bag, I put in the little side room. No other patient at the hospital bothered me in my quiet appreciation of my new home. They were all at lunch, the nurse who’d accompanied me had told me. I was fine with that. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to meet them. But there’d be enough time for them later. My whole soul and body were presently focused on Jangmi’s impending move. So I’d told the nurse that today, I was tired, not hungry. I would join them for breakfast tomorrow and officially meet everyone.

The closet that I’d asked for stood across from the single bed. I hadn’t specified the design and they’d picked a quite neutral light-brown one that was twice as wide as me and came up to my waist. Two doors were attached, each with a little knob as a handle. I knelt on one knee and opened them wide. Nothing in there, except for the strong smell of paint and polish.

Everything, as requested. Everything, as planned. Come nightfall, Jangmi would cross from the old closet to this new one, with all her seven-year-old children in tow.

That old closet, by the way, was presently kept by some auction house. Apparently, it specialized in the collection, restoration, and sale of the most morbid collector’s items. There’s a market for that, my lawyer had said, as he’d handled the sale of our house and everything that was in it. Even if you don’t advertise your history, people into such things will find out. Darla’ll be taken care of, money-wise, at least until she graduates from college. And if your investments happen to earn more than expected, then why, she might even attend graduate school—if she’s so inclined.

Nightfall came. The sky turned dark. The sun colored the clouds in strips of warm orange and violet over the black silhouettes of the trees in the park. The rain had stopped. No more drumming on the window.

By then I lay in my bed. The wooden frame creaked, but if I lay still, which you’d want to do anyway if you wanted to fall asleep, that wasn’t a problem. And the mattress was new. I’d paid for it. Might as well, since I was gonna stay here forever. The sheets were new, too, and neutrally light-blue. Blue is supposed to make you sleep deeper and longer. I was about to test whether that theory still held in an unusual setting like this.

Through the closed door, I could hear the other residents chatting in low voices in the hallway. They didn’t sound particularly crazy to me. Some did laugh abruptly and hysterically, like the woman at Doctor Campbell’s office who’d preferred to bury her face in a magazine until I’d talked about peeing. But that could hardly prove someone’s insanity. Maybe the medicine that the staff here gave those patients worked. That was why presently, they sounded so harmlessly happy. Maybe without those meds, everyone would cry and scream, weep and wail. I would soon find out…

I jerked awake.

“Mr. Warde?” a woman was knocking on the door in that soft tone that wanted to know that you were there but didn’t want to wake you if you were there and asleep.

I hurriedly closed my eyes. The door creaked open.

“He’s asleep,” the woman whispered.

“Oh, good. Must’ve been exhausted after the long train ride,” a man whispered back.

The nurses. They closed the door with another creak, then locked it from the outside.

I opened my eyes. The sky had turned less orange and violet, more deep-blue. The patients’ gentle voices and laughter had stopped in the hallway. Lights-out came early at this hospital. It was quite peaceful, really. The most peace I’ve had in a long while. I wondered if someone was taking good care of the mice at the lab…

A child laughed softly. I sat bolt upright. Promptly, the bed creaked.

The closet’s doors stood wide open.

“Darla,” I whispered, in a sigh of relief.

She shut the doors and ran up to me, hopped on the bed. I fell back and the bed creaked even more loudly. Like in the olden times, before the closet and before my job at the lab, a time when I used to have lots of worries about paying the bills but also lots of free time, we tickled and poked each other, “attacking” the other until that person tapped out.

“I surrender!” I said, tapping on the mattress. “You win!”

To surrender was my job as the significantly older brother.

Darla’s laughter turned into a brief shriek of delight, then she hurriedly covered her mouth with both hands and looked left and right. With her hair cut short, my baby sister looked even more like a baby when she did that.

We couldn’t hear anything from the hallway. No movements. We were safe.

“I missed you,” Darla said.

“Me too.”

We hugged.

“Jangmi came to visit me at the shelter through the drawer.”

“And nobody noticed?”

“It was just after dinner. Everyone was eating ice cream downstairs.”

“Why weren’t you?”

Darla grinned knowingly. “It wasn’t because they were mean to me. Everyone is super nice. I just wanted to unpack while I had the room to myself. I have two roommates now.”

I nodded. “How’re Jangmi and the others?”

“She’s fine. All the kids are fine. She said to take our time. Said she’ll be in the closet all the time, unlike me, so she and you can say Hi whenever you’re bored during the day. ‘Don’t waste precious nighttime,’ she said.”

Suddenly, I choked up. Tears. That Jangmi. She’d given us so much hell but here we were, my sister and I, together thanks to her.

“There, there,” Darla said, patting me on the shoulder.

I laughed—a wet cough. Darla still remembered some of our parents’ favorite phrases and used them just the way they used to use them. It sounded as if a spirit of a fifty-year-old was driving Darla’s tiny body.

“You’re not ashamed your brother is officially crazy now?” I asked.

“Who cares what other people think? They’ve always thought we were crazy. Ever since the closet.”

I nodded. “I thought you were crazy.”

“So now you know what it’s like. To be not crazy but to be treated like a crazy.” She grinned.

The drumming of the raindrops resumed. Before the closet, a stormy night like this would’ve given Darla a thousand nightmares. Not anymore.

We relaxed. The marching sounds of the raindrops muffled our subdued conversations. We talked about where Darla was going to go to school, starting next fall. That was what had been decided: that she should take the year off and join the other children in the new school year. Enough attention had been given to her this year. Her photograph was everywhere because of the goodhearted people who’d thought they were helping a “real” kidnapping victim. I wondered what they were thinking now. Did they think I was a criminal? Did they think all this was just a cruel misunderstanding? Would they never again help a child who’d really disappeared?

Lightning struck and briefly illuminated the purplish sludge that was the sky. Thunder followed. Darla only winced a little. By then, she was in my arms, on my lap. I was rocking her back and forth. Darla was still seven. Time didn’t flow in Jangmi’s closet; children didn’t get older. The only reason Jangmi’s flesh was rotten, I theorized, was because of the completely understandable grudge she held; her bewilderment while she’d bled to death; and her sense of loss toward all that which she should’ve experienced over the course of a natural lifespan but had been robbed of.

Some might say Darla was too old to be held like this by her brother. But a seven-year-old who’d spent the year in a closet, in many ways, was more like a baby than a regular seven-year-old. Darla’s sense of safety was fragile. Her view of the world threatened to shatter with every new information. Were people going to call her crazy if she believed this? How about that? Such questions would follow her around for the rest of her life. I, her brother, the one human who’d gone through some of what she’d gone through, was the only one who wouldn’t belittle her for not knowing what to think, what to say, what to do.

Besides, when she got older, at that point I’d have to agree that Darla was indeed too old to be held like this. That time was going to come. Meaning, this time was going to pass.

So I held onto her and this time, dearly and desperately. I even sang a lullaby for her. You have to know that I suck at singing. You might call it croaking if you heard it. But I did my best.

Together, we weren’t alone.

Then, a click. I tensed. Because of the constant drumming of the raindrops, I could’ve misheard this tiny noise from the room’s door.

Still, slowly, I pulled the blankets over Darla. She was fast asleep. While I pushed her behind me on the bed, I crawled to the edge. I was the shield between her and the door. This time, whatever lay on the other side, I wasn’t going to let it take her from me without a fight.

A key turned in the lock. What was this? Hadn’t the nurses checked that I was asleep? Was this customary? To check each patient in the middle of the night, just to make sure they were sleeping?

Not that I’d been entirely unprepared for this. When you think about it, if there’s a door to a room and you’re in the room but someone else has control over the lock, of course something like this might happen.

Now the door creaked open. I squinted to see more clearly. My room was too dark and so was the hallway. Only from the subsequent sound of clicking and the key did I put two and two together: this person was re-locking the door before closing it. They planned to enter this room; lock themselves in with me.

Instinctively, I climbed out of the bed. Something was terribly wrong.

When another round of lightning lit the park outside, I could see a tall man standing just beyond the doorframe, ready to enter the room.

Before the afterimage of him and the doorframe disappeared, he slammed the door shut and marched toward me. He grabbed me by my neck with both arms. The last sound I let out before I choked was a helpless gasp.

“You,” the tall man said.

Like a statue, he towered over me. A perfectly proportionate statue, as wide as it made sense for one so tall.

This was Jangmi’s idiot husband, Doctor Philip Murray.

© 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.
No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.


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