There’s a thing in my closet, crouched in the dark, black lines accentuating every crease and fold of its shriveled face. A cherry-red eye peeks at me. The slash of a frown hints at untold regrets even as its croaking voice spills into the silence.
You should have died in your sleep and saved me all the trouble, it says.
After taking a moment to compose myself, I slip out of bed and hurry past that raw, corrupted space. In the gloom of the living room, I open the blinds and let the day pour through the slats in glowing strips of light. Breakfast consists of three bowls of cereal and a handful of pills meant – among other things – to squash the thing for good. I unfold the newspaper and try to cloud my brain, stuff the gaps with distractions so that, for one slivered moment, I might forget what’s waiting in the other room.
Not that it does a lick of good. For three years it’s haunted my life and there’s no rhyme or reason for when or where it will manifest next. A week ago, it appeared hunkered beside me on the porcelain ledge of the bathtub, its eyes staring curses – but only visible through the chrome reflection of the overflow plate. A month ago, it hid beneath my pillow, its fingers worming out from the edges like heavy tongues lapping at the air. Before then, it was behind an air vent, scratching and sobbing inside the living room walls, and on and on, through more days and places than I care to remember.
I head to the bathroom and dawdle through my morning routine: brush my teeth, wash my face, scrub my skin in the shower so it shines the pink of old, healed bruises. But after toweling off, there’s no more time to waste. My feet drag across the carpet like dead weights, room to room, until the bedroom closet looms before me.
A chill digs through my skin as I reach into the infected recess of the closet. The thing flattens against the wall, like it’s pretending to be a shadow or a patch of mold. As if it thinks I can’t hear the sound of its spectral lungs pulling in the thought of air. Though I know it will not scratch or bite, it takes some time for me to steady my nerves, assemble my clothes and prepare for work.
There’s a thing in the espresso maker of my barista station. It fiddles with the inner workings, making the shots burn too hot or steep too thin. Its scalded fingers wiggle from the spouts, deep red filling the gossamer cracks in its broken, bloated skin.
We’re slammed at exactly 6 AM. The line of vehicles stretches across the parking lot, like the boxcars of two stalled freight trains. My co-workers scurry around – with a manic intensity that makes the Café Stop’s interior feel small as a tomb – all of them barking orders.
On my best days, I can knock out eighty drinks an hour. But my best days never come when the thing is around. Its blood sprinkles into the milk pitchers, and I have to dump them out in the sink to start again. Its spit dribbles down the espresso spouts, forcing me to remove the portafilters and wash them. It even reaches out from the water reservoir and whacks at finished drinks, upsetting their lids and spilling the contents across the counter.
My boss yells at me for the mess. “Damn it, Tom! If you can’t get your shit together, maybe you should find another place to hang your apron!” Like a parent scolding an unruly child. As if I hadn’t trained him the day he stepped through those doors.
I almost say as much, until the thing knocks against the espresso machine’s plastic interior. Its whispered taunts, hidden behind the screech of steaming milk, are as stark as any shouted voice: Can’t you do anything right? You’re useless. A waste of air.
It drains the fight from me. I nod, apologize and promise, “It won’t happen again.”
There’s a thing in my cigarette lighter. It wets the wire so it can’t spark and clogs the jet valve so the butane won’t release. Sometimes it sticks its head into the torch stream, infusing my cigarettes with the scent and taste of rotting flesh and burning hair.
My co-worker, Cara, slips out of the Café Stop entrance and heads for the dumpster cage where we’re forced to spend our smoke breaks. She stands aloof, snatches the cigarette from behind her ear and lights it up. She avoids making eye contact with me, same as everyone on any given day. Because I’m intense, they say, and they sometimes catch me talking to the thing even though only I can see and hear it.
“Hi,” I say, to lighten the mood. Because Cara’s one of the good ones – beautiful inside and out – no matter how shy or scared of me she is.
“Hey, Tom.” She pauses to take a drag. “Mike’s a real asshole for yelling at you like that.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Don’t let it get to you. He knows you’re a good worker and it’s not like he doesn’t have his off days too.”
“Any plans for after work?”
Now is the perfect time. I take a breath to calm the vicious beating of my heart, assembling the words I’ve rehearsed since the day she and I first met. “Actually, I was wondering if maybe you’d like to–”
But the world around me comes alive, spewing the thing’s vocalized disdain. Lardo, from the gray smoke leaking from Cara’s mouth.
“No what, Tom?”
Fatty plumpkin, from the insects burrowed in the dumpster’s rotting food.
“Tom, I’m not doing anything.”
Chubby little bastard, from my own shadow wedged beneath my feet.
“Just go away, goddamn it!” I shout, swatting at the voices hording in, crawling all around me.
She runs for the café’s entrance before I can explain, and I’m left alone. Same as always.
It proves too much. Though I’ve managed to push the rage aside till now, the pressure builds, causing my inner parts to tear from all the strain. The thing can’t hurt me, I tell myself. But I know I’m wrong because it always does and nothing – not therapists, doctors, or even pills – can fix it or make it any better.
No more. Today’s the day it ends. After three years, the time has come to put the thing to rest. I flick my cigarette away and head inside, to finish my shift and make my plans for later.
When work is through, I fill a cup of espresso dregs and take it with me. Down on Main Street, I stop by the florist and buy a red rose and then drive along Old Sutter Road. Before stepping out of my car onto the sun-baked cemetery parking lot, I ask myself what the point is. But I know the answer all too well: because there’s a thing haunting my life and it will never, ever go away until I finally confront it.
The quarter mile walk to the plot is a winding, deserted path of grass and static trees, all hedged in by a gaudy chain-link fence. Heat bears down like a crack to hell has opened up above me. I find the proper row, skip a few graves over and I’m there.
There’s a thing in my mother’s coffin. It scratches at the inside of the lid, shouting curses reduced to babble by the six feet of dirt above it. Nevertheless, the emotions are clear, stuff I’ve heard so many times I know it all by rote. Utter disappointment. Hate. But mostly regret for the life and freedom ruined by my unexpected birth. She killed herself three years ago. She should be dead and gone and yet she returns as the thing in all my things, a malignant voice manifesting the poison words she fed me all my life.
But now I’ll say my own words, kept locked away because of fear, because of deep-seated self-contempt. Because it hurts too much to voice aloud, no matter how true they are.
“For thirty years, you were a terrible mother. A monster, a hateful, selfish thing. I never said it before because I loved you, but I can’t let you hurt me anymore. You’re dead and buried and that’s all you’re allowed to be.”
I lay the flower on her plot, a symbol of my enduring love. As for the rest of me, the greater part? I dump the cup of espresso dregs, as bitter and cold as was her constant disposition. It drips down her tombstone, trickling across the words, “Loving Mother, Died Too Soon,” etched into its face. Then I spit on the grass above the remains of what has always been her small, decaying heart.
There’s a thing in my head, inhabiting the darkest grooves and wrinkles of my brain. It tells me terrible, degrading lies – lies that poke and prod and tear and hurt – and sometimes I still believe them. But now, for the first time since my mother’s death, my memories are the only place it haunts.