I watch the closet door.
I watch around them as they pray above me, their eyes closed and their hands clasped in ecstasy. Their voices drown out all other sounds—like, for instance, the creak of a slowly opening door.
So I can’t close my eyes, though my head is aching. I have to watch the door.
Their prayers rise and fall and bleed into one other, a nonsense incantation of sacred gibberish. They’re crying and sweating. There is no air conditioning in the old farmhouse, and the humid bedroom is fragrant with their body odors.
My wrists are handcuffed to the metal bars of the twin bed’s headboard. I watch the door.
“Please, let me go,” I beg raspily for the dozenth or twentieth time, but they seem not to hear me at all. It’s like I’m calling out voicelessly, in a dream. “Please. You don’t have to do this. Just let me out. Let me go.”
Then they leave. I’m alone again in the little room, chained to the bed, confined in my vigil. I’m alone, and I keep my watch of the door.
• • • •
It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a room with a door.
Almost three years, actually. I remember it to the day, that last time. I’d been sleeping in my car for months, curled up in a cramped curlicue across the cargo space in my ancient Volvo. Washing up in gas station bathrooms and beneath campground faucets. Everything ached. I was lonely and dirty and perpetually afraid.
So I came into town. I went to a bar and I met a guy. I liked him and he smelled good, I thought, like someone who had a place to bathe, and when we kissed in that dark corner by the bathroom, I felt a million sparks shoot through me. That connection that courses between two people when everything feels amazingly right between their two bodies. I’d forgotten.
So I went home with him. I thought, just this once. A real bed. A real shower. A real connection with another person. A way to remember just briefly that I was also still human and deserved all those things that humans deserve.
And it had been a long time since the monster had come through a door. I’d begun to think that maybe it never existed at all. What if I’d simply imagined it? Just another nightmare? (I’d seen it more than once, but who doesn’t have that one recurring bad dream?) What if I’d been on the run all this time, fleeing something that had only ever existed in my mind?
Maybe I just missed the feeling of sheets.
We sloppy drunk fucked on his bed in his dirty bedroom and it wasn’t great, but it was enough. He passed out on his back, arms flung outward, chin tilted back and mouth open like a baby. I allowed myself to rest in the crook of one of those arms, my cheek against his chest. I was sated. I was comfortable. I was touched and I was human again. I fell asleep.
Somehow it woke me in the stillness: the muffled click of the closet door, slowly and gently easing open, followed by the creak of the hinge. There was just enough light from the bathroom across the hall to make out the door’s dark edge as it moved.
I didn’t need to turn my head to watch; without even noticing, I’d positioned myself with my eyes on the door. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. I lay there transfixed in horror, watching the widening gap between the door and its frame, the thickening slice of dark, dead air.
Then a pale hand with claw-like fingers emerged from the crevice. Fluttering and groping as if trying to navigate some unseen obstacle. The hand gripped the door frame. The door swung open.
And like that, I was in motion. I moved faster than I ever have. I tripped over the nameless guy’s clothes that were flung across his bedroom floor and I sprained my ankle and I kept running, grabbing up my phone and my wallet on the way out, not stopping once to look back. I sprinted to my car, jumped in, and ground my key into the ignition, trembling so violently that the only way to find the match between key and hole was to jam it with brute force. I peeled out and laid on the gas for ninety miles without stopping once.
At least now I know. It was always real.
• • • •
Since then, I’ve been on the run. Crisscrossing the country as if I could outrun the thing that’s haunted me for years.
I don’t really think I can outrun it. What I actually think is that it’s a sort of liminal thing that exists in the space between everything else. I don’t think it moves in the same ways or the same places as we do. I think it’s somehow both always at the edge of everything and right in the center. It’s weightless, and that’s why it waits for a door.
I don’t really think I can outrun it, but to be safe, I put miles between myself and my childhood haunts. I stay nomadic and I stay alert. I do odd jobs here and there, whatever’s outdoors—picking strawberries, hauling gravel, clearing brush, splitting wood. In the evenings I read in the failing light and polish off whatever booze the day’s labors can afford. I camp by the beach, I camp in the woods, I sleep in the car in the lurid glow of parking lots. Most crucially, I avoid structures, and specifically, I avoid doors.
That aimless wandering takes me to forests and mountains and beaches, but I always feel easiest in places like this: flat and empty, sight lines for miles, the vast depleted earth rippling outwards beneath an even vaster sky. Places where nothing ever sneaks up on you.
I love a place like this, a place where the corn or wheat or the scrubby plain stretches toward infinity and the highway lies ahead as straight as a ribbon, that shimmer of heat and light hovering just above it, and all I have to do is drive. In those hours, I feel something that approaches peace. I can imagine what it feels like to be content. To be on my own and in myself enough.
I only came back for the funeral. I was already five miles out of town and heading west when it all went south. Up ahead, embedded in that shimmer of heat and light, two cop cars parked nose-to-nose, a simple but effective blockade across the narrow two-lane country highway. What is this? What do they want? Should I stop? I have to stop. I took a moment to assess my options and collect my bearings. My gaze drifted to the two cars, the officers lounging just behind and to the side, and I wondered if I knew them or if they knew me. I took my eyes off the road. I didn’t see the strip with the spikes until it was too late to slow.
I hit the spikes at full speed. I felt the firework cascade of punctures and then the tires blow out. My old rusty Volvo careened wildly toward the highway’s narrow shoulder of gravel and scree. Everything was slow—as slow as a moment alone with a door that begins to creak open of its own accord—and then there was a jolt of coming to rest, the nose of the Volvo foundering in the dry grass of the ditch. I felt the collision as a shuddering impact, a burst of light, a searing pain in my temple. My vision went dark around the edges and my body went limp.
Some minutes or seconds later I saw the cops peering in the driver’s side window, looming tall over the car that was half in the ditch. They wrenched open the door. Easy there, honey.
“Uncle Bob?” I whispered through dry lips.
They dragged me out, handcuffed me, and hauled me home.
• • • •
I’ve never seen the monster’s face. I know that seems unlikely. It’s been chasing me for years, emerging from door after door, sometimes inevitably and other times when I least expect. Once in the long hallway that stretched the length of the schoolhouse, empty and sterile with the scent of lemon cleaner and floor wax. It came for me as I loitered briefly by the lockers with my bathroom break hall pass. It emerged from the janitor’s closet and chased me down the hallway, all the way to the double swinging doors that led to the concrete steps. In my haste and panic I fell down the stairs and took the skin off my knee.
When I looked up, the monster was gone.
The school secretary found me, sitting on the steps hyperventilating and cupping my bleeding knee. Where were you going? Why did you run away?
I couldn’t explain. Just like, much later, I couldn’t explain why I had to walk out my first day on the job at the local grocery store, when the monster found me alone in the stock room. I hadn’t even known the stock room had a closet. I didn’t even see the door.
I try not to look at the monster. So I only see it in bits and pieces and I don’t know its face. I know the feeling I get as it approaches: the hair on my arms standing to attention, a gnawing dread that feels like I’m holding a wolf on a chain. I sense its need for me. It longs to devour me; to sink those fingers into my flesh as deep as they’ll go, then deeper still.
“You’ve really never looked at it?” asked Laura, once. Laura, who I loved. “Just one good look, why not?”
“Why would I?” The sound is bad enough: a scratching, skittering, chirring, like the legs of a hundred chitinous insects marching across a roof. The smell is worse still: something pale and rotting in the dark.
The feeling it carries is worse than that.
Laura was my best friend, and I told her everything. It was the end of high school and every other night I’d climb from the small window of my bedroom in the farmhouse and scamper across the fields to her house where I’d climb the lattice and tap as gently as I could on the ancient window. I can still feel that heart-racing moment as I waited for her to raise the sash. On other nights, she came to mine.
For a year, we never spent a night apart.
She believed me, or at least I thought she did. “When it comes, you wake me up. We’ll face it together. I’ll get a good look so you don’t have to.”
Yet in that year of sleeping under the same ceiling, spooning in one or the other of our two narrow beds, across from the same two closet doors, we never saw it even once; my monster never came.
She found her own. He was just some guy, and his name was Aaron; he drank too much and got mean when he did. I begged her not to marry him.
Of course we fell out over it, as friends always do. She thought I was just jealous. And I was, jealous. But I also saw him for what he was. She didn’t, blinded by love or whatever passes for love when you’re nineteen and you feel like you’re running out of time.
(It takes another decade to understand how slow time goes, how unbearably much of it we really have).
We’re grown-ass women, Rebecca. We can’t keep sleeping in each other’s beds forever.
But the monster in the closet?
Come on. There’s no monster. You know there’s no monster.
We fell out and I couldn’t bear to be in that place, this place, without her.
So I ran away and I never came back.
Last week, her monster finally killed her. It was in the local papers and of course I saw it. Young mother, slain at twenty-eight. Husband held in the county jail.
So I made a mistake. I decided to come and say goodbye.
I didn’t stay. I didn’t even talk to anyone. I didn’t enter the door of the simple white clapboard church where I once squirmed for hours. I only stood in the cemetery, far from the crowd gathered around the fresh open grave, far enough that I hoped no one would recognize me.
And I thought no one did, until that impact-dazed moment, staring up at the state troopers looming above.
• • • •
Now my mother sits at the edge of the bed with her hands clasped over me in that never-ending narcissist’s monologue that passes for prayer; she’s older than she used to be, her hair all gone silver now, still pulled back in that graceless bun. My aunt Virginia is configured in the same general arrangement beside her. My own sister, a couple kids deep, slouching toward the same shapeless future. There are occasional pass-throughs: dad, Uncle Bob, assorted other relatives, church figures and figureheads, complicit neighbors.
That’s the lie of the big space beneath the bigger sky. It lulls you into that sense of safety; what monster could be hiding, and where? Here in the middle of nowhere, they’ve got whole towns’ worth of monsters. And they don’t even try to hide.
“This is my fault,” my mother is saying tearfully. “You always needed more discipline. I wasn’t strong enough then, but I am now. We will save you, Rebecca, whatever it takes. God is with us.”
There are murmurs and amens.
“Please. You don’t have to do this. Just let me go.” They’ve trapped me here with the door where it started.
“You were always like this. Running wild. Running away. We’d discover your bed empty in the morning and look for you everywhere until we found you in the field, sleeping past dawn with your back against a tree. Who even does that?”
They talk above me as if I’m not even here; they talk about the kind of girl who does that. A headstrong girl, a sinful girl, a lost girl. A girl that needs a chain, a cross, a stronger hand. And they pray for the Lord to give my family that strength: the strength to trap and tame me, once and for all.
I do remember bolting from the house one of those terrified nights when the monster came; I remember the way I ran across the fields until the pain in my lungs became too much and I finally found the courage to look back, and the monster was just a pale and fading blur behind me, shimmering into nothing in the dim light of the full moon sky. I dropped at the foot of the old oak tree, too tired to move. For a few minutes, with that solid trunk against my back, it felt like coming home.
Here with the door where it started. The small, enclosed place where it first began.
The first time it came I was just a small child, and the boundary between life and nightmare was still porous and liminal. I thought it was a dream or at least somewhere on the continuum of horrors that were only somewhat or sometimes real.
But then—it kept on coming. And coming. Sometimes, having built my whole life around running from it, it feels like the only real and solid thing I know.
Strengthened by the fervent prayers of her community in Christ, my mother grants me one small sip of water from the glass they’ve been keeping on my bedside table, just beyond my reach. She smooths my damp hair away from my sweating face.
“You don’t understand. I have to go now. I have to get away.” I’m more incoherent than ever. Dehydrated from sweating in the heat. Exhausted from watching the door. I keep remembering that I suffered a head injury; then I forget about my head hitting the steering wheel; then I remember all over again. That’s probably not a good sign. “Please. Let me out.”
She shakes her head sadly. “I’m afraid it’s for your own good. If I were you, I’d do some thinking about what happens next.”
“I haven’t even done anything—”
They go and they close the door and they turn off the light.
It’s late. Past midnight perhaps. And I’m alone with the closet, alone with the door.
• • • •
It’s for your own good.
The words are a key, and they unlock a memory, filling in a vivid reel where before lay only empty space. I remember a time before:
Long ago, when life and nightmare were all muddled together beneath the sky’s great expanse. This door. That closet. The distinctive creak of the tarnished knob and the key in the lock as it locked me in. The infinite dark; how depthless it felt. My fingertips reached for an edge.
Have you ever so desperately hated the skin that holds your body and despised the head that holds your gnawing brain and raged against the beating heart in your stupid aching chest? Have you ever known a self-loathing so central to every cell of your unloved little being that you long above all else to somehow unmake yourself so you can finally get away?
Please, I begged then, but no one answered. I’ll be good. I promise. I’m sorry. Just let me out.
There in the dark and depthless silence, my fingertips kept reaching for an edge, but there was no edge. Inside that closet, where they locked me for my own good, the darkness went on forever.
Have you ever hated yourself so unbearably you could tear yourself in two?
I slipped away into the spaces between everything. I only wanted a moment where I could feel free.
• • • •
I wait, now. I toss and turn and writhe, staring longingly at the glass of water that’s so close and yet forever out of reach. I rattle the handcuff against the bedframe. The chain grates against the metal. I rattle it again.
The closet door clicks open, oh so softly. The monster loves these wee hours; always has. Its pale fingers slide with imponderable slowness through the crack beside the jamb. Slowly it shows itself: the tip of an upturned nose. The shock of tangled hair.
It tiptoes toward me and it’s smaller than I expected, deformed from lack of love, stunted by its decades in the dungeon between worlds, demented with rage at everything it’s been forced to hold, all the nightmares without comfort, the loneliness, the dark. Oh God, all of that dark.
It reaches for me, jerky and unfocused. And yes, it still smells like rotting, and I don’t want it to touch me, but I have no choice. Still, with that slowness that seems to take centuries, it extends a trembling finger. It traces the fingertip along my temple and the little finger is clammy and cold, and the little nails are untrimmed, unloved, ragged and sharp.
For the first time I let myself see its face, the face I already know.
There is just enough room in the narrow twin bed. I nod my head at the sheets until the little monster understands. “It’s okay,” I say. “I let you out.” And the monster opens its starving little mouth and slithers into the space beside me to bury its face against my fiercely beating heart.