Closets


Tommy is coming for me again. I can hear him through the slatted closet doors, through the heavy wool of our grandfather’s coat, the one Mom doesn’t have the heart to take to Goodwill. I’m buttoned inside of it with my feet shoved in Dad’s galoshes. If Tommy opens the door, he’ll see a wall of bad weather clothes, and hopefully he won’t notice me tucked inside. If we were playing hide and seek, this would be a good place to hide.

I can hear Tommy calling from the back of the house, probably the TV room. If he’s lonely, he’ll want me to play with him. If he’s bored, he’ll want a snack or he’ll boss me through his chores or maybe he’ll just want me to change the TV channel because he’s sick of the show he’s watching but is too lazy to get up and do it himself. If he’s mean, though, no matter what he wants and what I do, he’ll hurt me.

The old silk lining of our grandfather’s coat smells of mothballs and ancient sweat and maybe pipe smoke. I can’t remember if he liked pipes or cigars. He died four years ago, when I was six. Dad’s galoshes feel comforting around my shins. Tucked in like this, I feel protected by the two men who might have stopped Tommy from hurting me, if one hadn’t died and the other hadn’t left.

I didn’t start hiding ‘til pretty recently. Since he turned thirteen, something worse than mean has been showing up in Tommy. I’ve watched him pull leg after leg from a spider ‘til there’s just the one left, then toss the frantic ball of its body at me and laugh as I scramble out of the way. I’ve watched him fill water pistols with ammonia to shoot at the cats that come through our yard. I can’t tell what’s the worst he’ll do anymore. So I hide.

Tommy’s stopped yelling now, so maybe he didn’t want anything big. Or maybe he was looking for me and got distracted. One time, when he couldn’t find me, he went through Mom’s stuff and found a letter that one of Dad’s girlfriends wrote to her. He sneaked it out of Mom’s room, and later that night, when Mom was doing the supper dishes, listening to the radio and drinking her pink “Barbie wine,” which is what I call it to make her smile, Tommy read it to me. I tried to stop him, because I didn’t want to hear it, but he’d already closed us in my room and he said he’d punch me in the stomach if I didn’t listen, so I listened. She wasn’t even Dad’s girlfriend anymore, but was the ex-girlfriend who got dumped for Denise, the girl Dad left us for. She said she was writing to let Mom know about Dad cheating. She said it seemed like the right thing to do. Tommy stayed silent after he finished reading. The letter made my stomach hurt, so I made a joke into the silence, something about her wanting to do right when she’d dated Dad herself. After I spoke, Tommy stood up, hauled back, and punched me in the stomach anyway. I didn’t cry, not aloud. I sat alone in my room until Mom came upstairs, speaking in her careful, after-wine voice, and told me to get ready for bed. I didn’t mention the letter. And I didn’t tell her about the punch. It doesn’t help to tell.

“I don’t want to hear about it. I’m not getting in the middle.” Mom used to say it all the time, back before Dad left even, before she had to work, when she had time to get involved. Only once did I force her into the middle. Tommy was chasing me, hitting and punching, extra mad, and I ran to Mom. I sheltered on one side of her and Tommy raged on the other, and she stood in between, her arms out to shield me from Tommy’s flailing. He battered against her, and her face rose in a shocked bubble between us, and her mouth cried out, “Stop it! Stop it right now!” like she couldn’t believe it, like it was just this once. But it had been happening forever. And it’s still happening, and maybe will forever.

The house is quiet again, but normal quiet. I can hear the hum of the TV. Tommy’s no longer yelling, but he’s not creeping and searching either. That kind of quiet, the extra-silent stillness of him trying to track me down, is the scariest. But for now it’s just normal. Mom should be home in a while. The slats of the closet door started out gray-white in the cloudy winter afternoon. Now they’re close to indigo, a color I learned about last year, but still my favorite, because it’s hard to pick it out from the blue and violet that surround it. Once it gets dark enough for the streetlights to click on, the slats will brighten. I wish I could lean forward and inch the doors open and look outside. It was starting to snow when I walked home. I want to know how bad it is. If I wake to see the yellow circling light of a snowplow behind my bedroom curtains, then Tommy and I will be home together all day tomorrow. All day is long. I can’t hide for a full day.

People would probably think that it was Dad leaving that made Tommy mean. I even had a neighbor say it to me once, Mrs. Riley, who saw Tommy knock me flat in the front yard. She ran over to help me up and dust the grass and dirt off me.

“Poor boy lost his father,” she murmured, as if Dad only left Tommy, as if Dad were dead, not just living with Denise. Maybe Mrs. Riley didn’t say it so much to me as to explain it to herself, this tall, heavy boy knocking his twig-thin sister flat in the yard. But Tommy was always mean, even before Dad left.

The worst time, a few summers ago, we weren’t even alone. We’d been left with old Mrs. Wilson, who used to sit in our kitchen drinking Tab and reading Harlequin romances while she stayed with us. I can’t remember how Tommy got me into the garage closet, but he closed us in and said he wouldn’t let me out until I’d lit a match. It was hot and stuffy in there, with a too-bright bulb overhead, and I was trapped, because I couldn’t strike the paper matches hard enough. I was scared of getting burned by that spark that comes before the flame. I was more afraid of Tommy than anything, though, so I kept trying. Eventually I started begging to be let out: I’d clean his room for him; he could have my TV-choice nights for the next month. He was already mad and the begging made him madder, but I cried and begged anyway. And then, with a whoosh of air and sunlight, it was over. The closet door opened and Mrs. Wilson’s annoyed face appeared and she ordered us out. Mrs. Wilson wasn’t going to admit she’d lost us, so Mom and Dad never found out.

And now it’s just Mom. But she can’t really see Tommy. She can’t see either one of us very well anymore. She comes home and opens the mail and sighs at the bills, she talks about wanting to go to night school for her associate’s degree, she drinks her pink wine and picks at a dinner of peaches and cottage cheese. If she couldn’t see before, she won’t see now. Tommy hits me pretty much every day, sometimes when Mom’s home and always when she’s not. It hurts just the same, but feels safer when she’s home, like it can only go so far.

Two weeks ago, it shifted to worse than mean. The afternoon started regular, with me getting Tommy a snack, bringing him more 7-UP when he wanted it, calling out the time when he asked, coming running when he yelled for me to change the channel. Then Tommy called, and his voice wasn’t loud and demanding, but soft and almost nice-sounding. That scared me worse than anything, but I hadn’t hidden that day, so I went to the door of the TV room, where Tommy was watching Love American Style. Tommy was lying on his stomach on the sofa, his arms tucked under him, his face turned to the TV. I didn’t want to be there. That show makes me feel funny, the scenes with nearly-naked women and men lurching at them.

“Come and watch with me, Karen,” he said, but too soft and nice.

I don’t remember what I said back, but I pretty much told him I didn’t want to.

“Come watch now,” he ordered in his regular voice, raising up on his elbows, tense, like a cobra ready to strike. So I had to choose: run, get tackled and punched, or watch.

I sat in the armchair near the TV room door.

“No,” Tommy said. “Don’t watch from there. Come lie here. Come lie on my back.” I didn’t want to, because the thought of it made me feel creepy inside. I sat facing the TV and shook my head. But then Tommy did something he’s never done before. “Please?” he asked. And it was real asking, like, begging-asking, as if for once I had something that he couldn’t just take from me. And I didn’t want to, but maybe I felt a little bit like Mrs. Riley, who felt sorry for Tommy after he’d punched me, like this time I could see poor-Tommy-who-lost-his-dad, just like she’d seen. So I went to the sofa. I climbed up and lay on Tommy’s back, face down, smelling his dirty hair and the oily stink of a shirt that needs washing, feeling his shoulder blades pressing into my chest. He didn’t turn to face me, just lay there on his stomach, watching that show, rocking some. I tried to focus on the TV, and we lay like that until we heard Mom’s key in the front door and Tommy lifted up to heave me off just as I jumped off anyway. I ran to my room. Since then, when I think of it, I feel bad, the kind of bad I can’t even tell my best friend Carolyn about. I tried, when I saw her at school the next day, but it all got stuck in my chest and the words wouldn’t come. So instead of telling, I started hiding all the time. Because now I know that there’s something worse than Tommy’s shouting and ordering: Tommy’s nice-voice.

The streetlights have come on and bars of white stab through the slats, making jagged shapes on the coats’ rumpled sleeves. It almost seems bright in the closet. Mom is late. I can hear the muffled, slow driving of cars, so it must be snowing for real. I hope Mom’s ok. I hope she didn’t go out for a drink with the girls from her office. They’re younger than her. They’re not married. They don’t have kids. I hope she comes home soon.

The house is silent. I can’t hear the TV anymore. It’s creeping-quiet. Tommy’s hunting.

“Karen,” he calls, but drawing my name out long, enjoying himself. “C’mon out Karen. C’mon out and play with Tommy.”

My heart thuds. I wonder if my trying so hard not to be found will draw Tommy to me, like my heart and brain are sending off heat that will pull him right in. But he doesn’t come this way. He goes into my bedroom. I can hear him trying not to make noise as he crosses my floor. The board at the bottom of my dresser creaks when he steps on it. I hear a click and rush as he flings my closet door open, trying to surprise me.

God, I hope Mom gets home soon. I don’t know whether to keep hiding or come out. If he finds me hiding, Tommy’s likely to hurt me worse than if I just come out, but if I come out, maybe he’ll want to play his new, lying down game, and I would rather be punched, so I’m not moving.

I can hear Tommy coming down the hall. I hold my breath as he pauses on the tiled floor of the front entryway, with only the slatted doors between us. He’s standing still and listening to the house, listening for a living noise that is more than house. I need to choose: come out quickly for a beating; delay and maybe get found and get pulled out for a worse beating. Or maybe something even worse than that. I hold my breath.

But a sudden sweep of headlights along the slats of the closet door ends it. Mom is home. Tommy flicks on the hall light, and the unexpected yellow glow feels like an all-clear signal. I stay put, though. I might need this place again tomorrow. We only have so many closets, and I can’t let on where I’ve been. I stay put until Mom has come in the front door, until she’s hanged her long down coat at the other end of the closet. I can smell the frosty air and tang of snow on it as she puts it there. She slides the doors closed. She didn’t see me, so I know this is a good place to hide.

I stay put until I hear Mom and Tommy in the kitchen, him refusing to set the table, her pulling food out of the freezer and pushing buttons on the microwave. Only then do I edge out of the closet and flatten my static-wild hair with spit I smear on my palms. I creep down the long dark hall to my room, so that I can seem to come from that direction when Mom calls me to dinner. Anything to conceal this hiding place. We only have so many.  

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