by E. M. Francisco
“The Thing in My Closet” placed second in Southern New Hampshire University’s 2019 Fall Fiction Contest.
It’s like this every night.
First, I open my closet to get my pajamas. I ignore the inhuman corpse hanging from the bar in between my shirts, despite the fact that its lipless mouth is opened far too wide in a silent scream of terror. It would be scary, if I hadn’t been dealing with this sort of thing for almost two years now. I gather my shirt and the plaid flannel pants, and the shut the closet door.
The bathroom isn’t safe either. I set my pajamas on the counter and start to get undressed. When I turn to get the shower running, I catch a glimpse of the shadow person in the mirror. It hangs threateningly over my head, fingers reaching towards my neck and shoulders as if to strangle me. Instead of reacting, I step into the shower and begin trying to coax hot water out of the ancient pipes. It’s better to try at night, when most people in the apartment building have already showered.
I scrub shampoo into my hair, my toothbrush clenched between my teeth as I work the suds into my strands. When my fingers come into contact with another set of fingers that definitely don’t belong to me, I just sigh, let the water wash the suds off my hands, and return to brushing my teeth. I’ll have to get more mouthwash soon – I grind the enamel off my teeth in my sleep, and the fluoride-rich mouthwash is the only thing that allows me to eat sweet things.
As I’m toweling myself off and getting changed into my pajamas, I stare at my feet rather than my reflection. I’ve learned over the months that paying attention to the apparitions – or whatever they are – just encourages them. So, despite how badly I want to check my hair for obvious tangles and my face for zits, I just tie off the drawstring on my pants and head back to my room.
When I open my closet to put my dirty clothes in the hamper, the hanging corpse has disappeared. Part of me is relieved, but another part of me is convinced that there’s something else hiding in the closet for me. I dump the clothes into the hamper. My head knocks into something as I step back, and I lift my head to see an emaciated woman with stringy black hair and grey skin grinning maniacally down at me from the shelf above the hanging bar. Her dangling hand is about level with my eyes, fingers curled as if poised to grab me.
I stare up at her with a dead expression for a minute, long enough to see her smile disappear, before I shut the door on her.
My shoes get tucked under my bed, a habit left over from childhood. I catch sight of a porcelain face covered in cracks, and a set of blue eyes staring at me as I bend over, but I ignore this too, instead choosing to crawl under the blankets, turn on the nightstand lamp, and read my book.
It’s an interesting read about a cult, the scam artists who run it, and a man looking for a woman he may or may not have been romantically involved with. There’s none of the flash-bang scenes or setups that I would find in an American novel; this one has been translated from Japanese.
I get about forty more pages in before someone clears their throat.
I freeze, a chill sinking into the pit of my stomach. I’ve been dealing with a lot of haunting nonsense since I moved in here, sure. But all of it has been localized, predictable: the closet, the bathroom mirror, the shower, and underneath the bed. No other part of the admittedly tiny apartment has any apparitions, or any kind of paranormal activity.
And they never make any noise.
I let out a slow breath, trying to calm my jangling nerves. Then I brace for the worst, and look up.
Four entities stand at the foot of my bed. I recognize the shadow person from the bathroom mirror and the woman from the closet. There’s a vaguely person-shaped figure that looks like… moldy wet hair and soap suds. I assume that must be the entity from the shower. And last, a creature with purple tentacles, no eyes that I can see, and a maw with teeth like a lamprey. By process of elimination, probably the one hanging out under the bed.
The woman from the closet waves. Floored, scared out of my mind, and at a loss for what to do, I wave back.
“Can I help you?” I ask. My knuckles are white from clutching the book, and it’s taking all of my willpower not to pull my legs up underneath me.
The shower creature’s voice sounds like it’s gargling water. “Look, what does it take to scare you?”
I blink. “I-what?”
The shadow makes a buzzing noise, and the emaciated woman nods.
“We have a long-standing competition,” she explains, fingers with too many joints coming together as she steeples them. “Whichever one of us is the… straw that breaks the camel’s back gets a point. And we’re all currently tied. And you won’t leave.”
I blink again, this time in disbelief. “I’m sorry about that.” It’s all I can think to say. How else am I supposed to respond?
The mass of tentacles lets out an unholy screech that makes me drop my book and clap my hands over my ears. The shadow holds out a hand, presumably shushing the creature. After I see the shadow nod, I take my hands off my ears.
“We don’t want your apologies,” the shower creature says. I haven’t ever heard angry gurgling before, but this is probably what it sounds like. “We want one of us to be winning.”
I spread my hands out in an apologetic shrug. “Look, guys, I don’t know what to tell you, but I can’t leave.”
There’s a moment of silence, and the four entities look at each other before looking back to me.
“What do you mean, you can’t leave?” the woman asks.
“Rent in this apartment is really cheap,” I explain, picking my book back up and trying to find my page. “Like, really cheap. And I’m in college in addition to working.” I find my place and slide my bookmark back in before returning my attention to the creatures at the foot of my bed. “There’s nowhere else for me to go.”
The shadow buzzes again, and the woman from the closet translates.
“You’re not staying because we aren’t scary?”
It takes me a moment to parse meaning out of the oddly worded sentence, but then I nod. “You guys are terrifying,” I say in a reassuring tone. “Trust me, if I could leave, I would have left a long time ago. But for the moment, I’m stuck here.”
There’s another long moment of silence. I fold my hands and place them on the cover of my book, watching the entities absorb this information. I better not die tonight. I’m so close to graduation. I’ve spent too much money on this degree not to use it.
Then, without saying anything, they leave. The woman walks across the room to the closet, opening the door and shutting it softly behind her. The tentacle mass pulls itself across the creaky hardwood floors and underneath the bed. The shower creature and the shadow person head out into the hallway, presumably back to the bathroom.
I sit stock-still in my bed, watching as the shower creature wrap tendrils of old hair around the doorknob and pull the door shut.
After several minutes of bated breath, nothing happens. So I let out the breath I’m holding and pick up the book again. Maybe it’ll allow me to relax enough to sleep.
When I wake up in the morning, I can’t hear my alarm, but there’s sunlight streaming in through the window, so I know I’m late.
I throw my blankets off the bed, and then freeze before I’m all the way out. There’s an outfit laid out on top of my bedspread. My favorite pair of blue jeans, paired with an old Barry Manilow t shirt my dad gave me years ago. When I get the rest of the way out, my feet land on my sneakers, which are pushed out from underneath the bed. A pair of matching socks rest in them.
After I’ve shaken myself out of my confused stupor, I dress as quickly as I can. When I get to the bathroom, my toothpaste is sitting on the counter, even though I left it in the shower. I glance at the curtain suspiciously, but it doesn’t move. I smear toothpaste on my brush and look up into the mirror.
The shadow person is standing behind my shoulder. It waves at me.
I smile through the toothpaste and wave back.
Category: Competition, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student