Horror & Dark Fantasy

PRIMITIVES

Advertisement

Fiction

The Closet Game

You know the game, don’t you? All you need is a closet, and a book of matches—and a willing participant. Not much to it, considering. Jesse first heard about it at twelve from his older sister, after she came home drunk from a party and was trying hard to scare him. Sleepover shenanigans when you lacked a Ouija board, bullshit kid stuff, he knew that much. A game of pretend. Still, she managed to strike a nerve.

You can open a door to another dimension, she whispered across the kitchen table, breath thick with the tang of spiked Red Bull. You can conjure up a demon from hell. He smiled with an air of disinterest, but his arms goosefleshed nevertheless.

Later a longhaired spindleshanks at seventeen, forehead splotched with a constellation of acne, Jesse is popular enough to be invited to parties of his own. Up in Craig’s parents’ bedroom sharing a joint with Tina and Beth, the four of them seated in a rough circle as the kegger rages below, he takes a slug of beer from his Solo cup as Craig explains the rules.

First, you turn out all the lights. Next, you stand inside the closet and close the door. You wait for at least five minutes, and if it’s time, you hold out an unlit match and say,

Show me the light, or leave me in darkness.

How will you know when it’s time? Tina asks, and Beth reaches over and takes hold of Jesse’s hand. Beth is not the one whose hand he wants to hold. What are you supposed to be waiting for?

You’re listening. For something inside the closet. His eyes tick toward Jesse, who looks away, shifts in place on the spongy carpet. You might hear whispering, or scratching. Or maybe something else. But when you do, you have to light the match as quickly as possible. If you don’t . . .

If you don’t, what?

Craig taps the joint into the ashtray. If you hear something and you don’t light the match, they say you’ll be plunged into everlasting night.

We could play seven minutes in heaven instead, Beth says, and slides Jesse’s hand into her lap.

I’ll do it. Jesse grabs the matches and leaps up, wipes his damp hands on the seat of his jeans. I’ll go.

He enters the closet in darkness. Barely large enough to call a walk-in, but he can stand inside well enough, the airy flutter of clothing and the cling of dry-cleaning plastic lapping from their hangers. He closes the door, rocks on his heels, and he waits. Okay, he thinks, this is going to be, like, nothing. Pulse loud in his ears, his brain judders back in time, to last week and making out with Beth on a dilapidated lawn chair behind her house. The hungry way she straddled him, the pasty icing taste of her lipstick as she fumbled with his belt buckle.

Don’t, he’d said, and grabbed hold of her wrists. Let’s wait until Saturday night, okay? At Craig’s party. We’ll do it then.

And soon the intrusive thought appears. The one his mind has conjured too many times: Craig’s mouth pressed to his instead, the smell of his best friend’s beery breath as his tongue snakes its way between Jesse’s teeth. The very thing he has wanted for over two years now, but will never fully admit, not to himself or anyone else. God, he wants Craig so bad he thinks it might kill him. Everything is so fucked up.

A creaking noise behind him, and he starts. The house settling, someone jumping up and down on the improvised dance floor, the dull bass thump from the speakers below. Still, he turns to look. All that’s here is the silent and expected gloom on all sides, and he faces the door once again, stares up at the ceiling. He wonders how long he’s been inside, whether it’s been long enough for him to give up.

The creak from behind again. Only this time it’s more like a scraping sound, a large dog scrabbling across floorboards, and Jesse spins. A mouse trapped in the walls, a squirrel or something, and he’s had his fill now. He’s done. He reaches for the door, his hand flailing forward into empty space. He tries again, this time to the left and right, thrashes around for a wall, for the hanging clothes, anything. There’s nothing here to hold onto anymore, nothing at all.

Oh shit. The match. Hands shaking, Jesse fumbles with the matchbook, equilibrium dissolving so he is no longer certain what is up or down, whether he is standing on solid earth or floating in an ink-black void. The touch of a hand upon his neck, and he yelps and drops the matches. How far they fall he cannot say. Maybe feet, or light years, or eons.

Cold and impossible fingers begin to stroke at him. The touch firm and familiar, as if the hands are his own, amputated and soldered to the arms of a stranger. Terror floods his brain, and the scrabbling increases, the air permeated with the pungent scent of clove. It’s measuring me, he thinks absurdly, and he cannot scream, cannot breathe as a white-hot pain sears into his chest like a brand.

An unearthly pressure on his spine, and for a moment there’s the sensation of another figure passing through him, a rippling shadow but more like an antishadow, a being made of unseen light. Jesse is jerked forward, while some essential part of him is dragged back into the endless dark.

And just like that, the door is before him again, exactly where it should be. He stumbles shaking from the closet and falls forward into his small circle of friends, the ashtray upended as he gets to his feet. What the fuck, dude? Craig says, but Jesse doesn’t answer, doesn’t look back, only races to the bedroom door and thrusts it wide. He staggers down the hall, knocks a framed family portrait from the wall as he descends the staircase, breathless as he bounds down the steps two at a time. He dodges bodies on the dance floor, his classmates leering and wasted and delirious, and Jesse’s here with them now, but also not here. It feels as if he’s split between worlds, this and another one increasingly far away.

He closes the front door behind him, the night crisp and scentless as he drops down onto the porch swing and greedily sucks air into his lungs, his thirst for it that of a drowning victim. Heart pounding, he tries to shuck off the fear, to find an adequate explanation. It was just the weed, the beer, his imagination. Chill. Try to chill. It was nothing, nothing at all.

Only why did those hands feel so familiar?

He spreads his palms wide and stares down at them, flexes and straightens his fingers. For a fleeting moment, he doesn’t recognize these hands as his own.

Jesse? Beth appears in the doorway, her features washed out in the muted glow from the porch light. Are you okay?

Yeah. I’m good. He swallows and stands, and what’s left of Jesse smiles. I’m ready now.

He takes her by the hand and leads her back inside.

• • • •

It’s six weeks later that Beth drags him to the pharmacy for the pregnancy test, and of course the line on the pee stick turns baby-bold positive. If she didn’t get knocked up at Craig’s party then it was a few days later at her parents’ place, but either way she missed her period, and this is really happening. Jesse’s father is his anti-role model—the man disappeared for good into the never-never land of the Central America surfing world when Jesse was a toddler—so at least he knows what not to do. He offers to marry Beth, and to raise the child together, already resigned to his fate by the time she reluctantly agrees.

They get hitched over the winter, and it’s well into spring when Kayla is born and the three of them move into a small apartment over Beth’s parents’ garage. Jesse didn’t know he could love anything like this—he certainly never cared all that much for babies before—but here she is, his little pride and joy, and by the time Kayla’s one month old he’s already bringing home the bacon (well, some bacon anyway) at his cousin Sherman’s auto body shop, where Jesse does the inspections and tune-ups, changes the oil and windshield wiper fluid, all the things that don’t require too much knowhow, not yet. He’s not going anywhere, unless he screws up and gets fired. He still has time to learn.

When he’s not at work or at home helping Beth with the kid, Jesse drinks down at the Barrel Inn off Exit 25. They don’t care that he’s not of age, as long as he’s respectful and tips the bartender and doesn’t appear too trashed when he heads out for the night. He forms a little circle with some of the men there, and next to them he’s a real goody-two-shoes, even if he also smokes weed now and again. Decent stuff too, a lot better than the shwag he and Craig used to score from the dealer behind the 7-11. Jesse makes a mental note to call his old friend and invite him out some night, just the two of them, but the thought soon evaporates.

Ever since that party, he can’t shake this strange feeling of being watched. At home, at work, even at the bar, a pair of narrowed white eyes staring out from the hidden corners of mirrors and picture frames and, yes, closets too, their cracked-open doors an eerie invitation to some unknown place. Jesse tries not to look, to forget what happened that night in the dark. And still the shadows threaten. As movement in his periphery, shifting and fleeting figures that cannot be seen straight on but nevertheless haunt the edges of his vision.

He learns to live with these unnerving and quivering beings until he grows so used to their presence it’s as if they’re a part of the natural environment, his everyday world. So Jesse tells himself his vision is going, that he should get his eyes checked, or maybe his brain, something. He tells himself these things as a kind of story, one he’s trying to convince himself is true.

As for Craig, he and Tina get married after high school and have a kid themselves, and after Craig’s parents die one after the next (his mother of cancer, his father of a blood infection) he and Tina move into his old childhood home. They have another kid, as do Jesse and Beth, the two couples on a similar trajectory though they’ve fallen out of touch. Occasionally they run into each other—Craig and Tina have their car serviced at Jesse’s shop, though usually it’s Tina who brings it in—but other than a passing hello, their paths largely go uncrossed.

Jesse consigns his old friendship to a figurative cardboard box beneath a bed, along with his baseball trophies and comic books and browned-out bong. Kid stuff all, part of some other life, another time now vanished into the past.

Eventually, he forgets about the closet and the game, forgets that he’d ever been attracted to Craig, or to any man at all. It was a phase, of course, a typical one for kids that age, isn’t it? So what if when he and Beth sleep together (on Friday nights, the ones when they manage not to pass out first) Jesse imagines someone standing just behind him, another one of his shadowy figures doing to him what he’s doing to her, just to keep himself up? It’s no big deal. That’s just the way it is.

• • • •

Years later, Jesse, now twenty-seven, comes home late from work on a Tuesday, the kids already asleep in bed, to find Beth crying at the kitchen table, a half-drained bottle of red wine in front of her. When he asks what’s wrong she has him sit down, and she takes his chapped and worn hand in hers.

Tina Fisher called, she says. She came home from dropping the kids at school this morning and found Craig in the garage. There was an old gun of his dad’s in the house, a rusted pistol they kept in a lockbox under their bed. Craig waited until she’d left, and then—

Beth clears her throat. Rough, as if there’s something stuck there. He killed himself.

Oh, wow. Jesse’s stunned, he doesn’t know what to say, and a chilly feeling creeps over his skin. It’s almost like déjà vu, but that’s not it exactly. It’s more like he’s forgetting to forget something he never knew in the first place, and the odd and uncomfortable sensation throws him into cold shadow.

It’s horrible, Beth goes on, her eyes on the table. I met up with Tina for coffee last year, she told me things had gotten bad between them. He spent lots of late nights at work, then would come home freshly showered, she could smell the soap on his skin. She found porn on his computer, and it was all . . .

She looks up at him. It was all gay.

Oh, wow, Jesse says, again, like an idiot. He risks a glimpse past Beth, where the dim and narrow space above the refrigerator shimmers, a crouched and otherworldly figure made of darkness and light peering out at him from the gloom. They stare at each other full on.

He swallows hard, and forces himself to look away, and back at his wife. That is horrible.

I know. Beth pours herself another glass of wine and shakes her head. I can’t imagine what she’s going through.

The funeral is family only, but the wake is open to anyone, and a few days later Jesse finds himself back at Craig’s house for the first time in years. For the first time since that party in high school maybe, when they were all so young and stupid, instead of old and stupid. The kids take over the backyard, and Beth plants herself at the table in the kitchen doorway, where she helps Tina’s mom unwrap and serve the many dishes that keep arriving: macaroni salad, meatballs, rolled-up slices of ham and bologna and cubes of cheese on platters from the Stop & Shop. Jesse’s not hungry though, not thirsty either, not feeling all that great to be honest. He tugs at the collar of his starched dress shirt and excuses himself from the heat of the grief-heavy room, and he heads upstairs to be alone.

At the end of the hall is Craig’s parents’ room, which of course is now Craig and Tina’s room, or was. Now it’s only Tina’s room, and when Jesse eases the door shut behind him the smell of her perfume lingers in the air, a spiced scent, almost like clove. His eyes flit to the corner, where a sheath of dry-cleaning plastic hanging from the back of the closet door shudders in the wake of his entrance.

The closet door. He remembers now: the strange party game, the unforgiving darkness, the thing that had touched him inside the closet. As he recalls the sensation of its cold and appraising fingers, Jesse’s arms gooseflesh, the hair there standing on end. Despite himself, he’s still afraid there’s something out there watching him, waiting for him, something he brought forth from the closet, and in truth, there’s been times the feeling has damn near made him lose his mind. Now that he’s back where it started, he can finally admit that much to himself.

There’s a danger in not being honest with yourself, isn’t there? A real danger, not some kind of metaphorical one. Isn’t it this very same danger that had finally gone and killed Craig?

Craig. His stomach lurches, the depth of his feeling suddenly more than he’s allowed himself until now. The loss of his onetime best friend is so . . . immeasurable. Jesse hasn’t let this kind of raw emotion pass through him in far too long. Maybe as long as it’s been since he was back in this very room, and still in love with Craig. It was love, yes. He can admit that now too. It really was love.

Without another moment’s thought, he strides over to the closet and grasps the doorknob, the dry-cleaning plastic rustling again as he opens it.

In the light from the doorway he examines the closet’s contents, one length of the hanging clothes made up of Tina’s orderly and bright assortment of skirts and dresses and pants, while the sloppy side is Craig’s, a dark palette of slacks and patterned shirts and a sports jacket or two hanging in disarray from the metal rod. Jesse runs his hand down Craig’s half, until he reaches hard and cracked leather hanging at the back of the closet.

It’s Craig’s old letterman jacket, the one he earned for junior varsity wrestling. Jesse would have joined the team their senior year, if he hadn’t knocked up Beth and dropped out for his job at Sherman’s. He takes hold of the lapel and leans in to smell it, but it makes him think of that gay cowboy movie where that dead actor who played the Joker did the same thing with Jake Gyllenhaal’s shirt or whatever, and he takes a step away instead.

Back in the day, Craig looked damned good in this jacket, and he knew it too; he used to wear it to pool parties in the summertime, even in the blazing heat, nothing underneath but a pair of skintight swim trunks and maybe some flip-flops. Jesse grins at the memory before his smile fades, and he wonders for the first time in far too long if there ever could’ve been something between them. Even something so unlikely as a kind of future together, like the ones they both made with Tina and Beth. Maybe, maybe not, and now he’ll never know, will he? For Craig, there’s no such thing as the future anyway, not anymore.

Jesse turns to leave the closet, and his shoe crunches down on something. He lifts his foot up, and in the light from the open doorway rests a book of matches on the carpeted closet floor. How funny, he thinks, it’s just like from that game. Only it’s not so funny at all, is it?

He knows he should leave it alone, but even as he tells himself to walk out the door, to head back downstairs to his wife and kids and the others that have gathered to mourn their collective loss, he finds himself reaching for the matchbook. Jesse fingers it in one hand, and uses the other to draw the closet door closed, just as he did ten years earlier. Sleepover shenanigans, he tells himself, bullshit kid stuff, and he tears away the cardboard matchstick.

He knows that he’s lying to himself. He’s become so good at it, and at this point it would be out of character for him to believe the truth, close to an impossibility. He was right about the game in the first place, after all. Like so much of Jesse’s life, it’s only a matter of pretend.

He can’t remember the rules, but he can remember what went wrong: he never lit the match. This time he waits for a minute or two, and goes ahead and rakes the match head across the striker. Once it flares, he squints past the golden glow and finds the closet door before him, not a single thing different or strange.

Show me the light, he thinks, or leave me in darkness. He reaches out for the knob and turns it, and pushes the door wide open.

The bedroom, it’s darker now and heavy with the sticky-sweet scent of weed, and the energy in the air has shifted. There are three people seated on the carpeted floor in front of him. It’s Craig, and Tina, and Beth, all young again, teenagers in the dirty ripe bloom of budding youth.

It’s all Jesse can do not to cry out, in both shock and in relief, and he clamps a hand over his mouth. Because now he still has time to make braver choices, to tell Craig how he really feels about him. It isn’t too late for things to turn out differently.

How long is he gonna be in there? Tina says, her voice a smoke-thick rasp as she exhales in a thin gray cloud. It’s been, like, half the night.

He’s not coming out of there, not any time soon. Craig takes the joint from Tina and rolls it back and forth between his thumb and index finger, loosening it. He’s in there hiding from Beth.

Shut up, Beth says, and she laughs, but it’s only a performance of laughter. You’re such a jerk, Craig.

H-hello? Jesse says from the doorway, the match twitching in his grasp. Guys? Can you hear me? But there’s no response whatsoever.

Oh, come on, I’m just kidding. Craig smiles, and Jesse’s heart catches. But seriously, did you see the way he jumped up before? Looked like someone lit his ass on fire. Makes you wonder what’s really going on inside his head.

A rush of air and a thud, and something shoves hard into Jesse from behind. He lurches back and reaches out to steady himself with his free hand, the other still pinching the lit match. His hand finds the column of a tapered neck, then, lower, a knobby shoulder too, the touch of a warm body beneath thin cotton. It’s one of those things, he thinks, the antishadows at the corner of his vision, he recognizes it by its dark and shivering form. Only this one, it’s made physical, turned to flesh and blood.

As he feels his way around it, the figure shirks him off and barrels past him, out the door and into the center of the room. It’s not a shadow at all, though, or at least not anymore. It’s Jesse. His younger self, as young as the others, and he watches this other version of him spill to the floor, overturning the ashtray inside the circle before he stands and rights himself.

What the fuck, dude? Craig says, no answer as the boy races from the bedroom without looking back.

From the closet doorway, Jesse looks over at Craig. He squints past the dwindling match, and in the hazy light from the dimmed lamp atop the dresser Craig’s face is newly desiccated, his features receding into his skull. For a moment, Craig appears to return Jesse’s stare, only he has no eyes anymore, just hollowed-out sockets that peer from the dim with a cold and unforgiving sight of their own.

The match burns his finger, and Jesse howls, dropping it. A wisping scent of sulfur, and he’s plunged into a new and complete form of dark, empty and soundless. Everlasting night.

Jesse gasps hungrily, filling his lungs with oxygen that he fears will soon evade him. Still, he palms the matchbook in his clammy hand, he’s not going to lose them again, not like last time. Fingers trembling, he fumbles with the matchbook before he manages to light another, the closet door shut before him once more.

Show me the light, or leave me in darkness. The match held in front of him, he reaches out with his free hand and turns the knob.

A woman stands at the dresser, alone. It’s Tina, the age she’s supposed to be now. She’s taken off her dress from the wake, and is turned away from him, busy removing her makeup with a cotton pad. Her arm works in a furious blur, the fingers of her other hand digging into the edge of the dresser so hard her nails score the wood. Jesse steps from the closet, a floorboard creaking underfoot so that she spins around to face him.

Tina’s face is gone. It’s blank but for her grimacing mouth, she’s removed all trace of her eyes and nose, her eyelashes and eyebrows.

What are you doing here? she screams. She charges at him, the pad in her hand matted with hair and gristle and pus. What are you, some kind of pervert? My God!

I’m sorry, he says, Tina, I’m so sorry. But it’s no good, and she batters at him with her fists and that menacing pad, bits of her paring from the cotton and coating his dress shirt in gore.

Go away! she cries, and he stumbles from her. Go away! Go away! She slams the closet door shut between them, the sound of her screams rattling the wood in its frame.

The match burns his fingertips, and he drops it. Palms slick with sweat, he dries the matchbook on his pant leg and plucks another from the frayed cardboard.

Show me the light, or leave me in darkness.

He lights a match, reaches forward, and opens up the door.

An adult Craig, seated on the edge of the bed. Beside him is a lockbox, the flaked tan lid already lifted and facing Jesse so he can’t see what’s inside. But he knows. He knows what’s inside and his blood runs cold, he watches frozen with dread as Craig reaches into the open box for his chosen weapon of self-annihilation. Jesse thinks don’t do it don’t do it don’t do it, but the words don’t come out, no sound whatsoever as Craig continues reaching inside, his arm disappearing up to the elbow, followed by the shoulder. Craig lowers his head, and soon the whole of him gushes forward in an unreal tide of thick ooze, down into the dark of the box.

The light in the room flickers and dims, the rushing onset of a time-lapse dusk, and the match in Jesse’s hand burns out. He fumbles for another, lighting it and hitching forward to open up the closet door.

He stands on the edge of a narrow precipice, and when he stares out into the distance there’s nothing but a starless and cold night, vast and dark. A dank and fetid smell of rot, he looks down past the lip of the jagged cliff. Far below is a sunken valley, or possibly it’s a dried riverbed, filled edge to edge with splayed corpses as far as the eye can see. Some an ancient scattering of bleached-white bones, others so recently perished they are the very picture of sleep, the bodies are stacked so high they seem to melt into one another, innumerable and of every age and race and size and shape. Jesse knows, in his heart, that these countless dead over countless centuries are those who have played the game and lost. Every one of them unable to escape from the endless dark, to survive this fatal contest of pretend.

Is Craig down among them? Will Jesse be one day himself? Or is there even some part of himself already there, lost a decade past now?

High on the cliff, Jesse weeps for them all, and through his fractalizing tears their bodies appear to glow. With lost promise, or with righteous anger, or maybe with a lingering pain, he doesn’t know. The secret parts of themselves they kept hidden away for so long shine on undiminished like embers in the valley below. They burn from within, a thousand thousand beacons in the otherwise impenetrable gloom.

The match scorches his finger, and Jesse drops it over the edge, the faint light winking out as he’s thrown into darkness.

He lights another match and holds it out, a flare and a halfhearted flutter amid the dim before it too is extinguished. A faint sulfur smell, and the heavy night surrounds him.

He lights another match and waits. It burns out as well, again with that sulfurous scent. Darkness.

Match. Sulfur. Darkness.

Match. Sulfur. Darkness.

His shoulders wracking with sobs, Jesse says come on come on come on, his voice raw as he squats on the ground and keeps lighting what seems an endless series of matches, each one burning down to his fingers and throwing him back into the dark of the closet, of his very own life.

Maybe the next match will be the one that changes everything, that gives him the present he so desperately craves, away from this world of terror and fear and cruelty. Or maybe the future he dreamed of, the one that was never meant to be but haunts him just the same, the phantom limb of a life unlived. Where is a past he can still return to, to try and change everything for the better? A world where Craig still lives, where they all do, each one of them their own bright flame in the everlasting night, a galaxy of stars loosed upon the earth like scattered sparks. That’s what he wants. That’s all he wants. For all of them, each and every one.

In his mind’s eye, these many lights keep shining, and still he’s left in darkness. There has to be another way.

He lights another match, and he waits.

Robert Levy

Robert Levy lives in Brooklyn near a toxic canal, and is expecting his mutant powers to materialize any day now. An infrequent playwright whose work has been seen Off-Broadway, his novel The Glittering World (Gallery/Simon & Schuster) was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award as well as the Shirley Jackson Award. Shorter work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Black Static, Shadows & Tall Trees, The Dark, The Best Horror of the Year, The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction, and more. Trained as a forensic psychologist, he teaches at the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing and can be found at TheRobertLevy.com.