“You don’t know me, though. I’m jealous. I’m more jealous than…” A pause. “…You can’t imagine.”
On weekends, when his mom told him he could stay up to nine ‘o’ clock (but no later), he’d tuck the book under his arm, along with one of his dad’s heavy-duty metal flashlights, and pull his blankets over his head in a make-shift fort. In the harsh, yellow light he frightened himself with stories about rabid rats mistaken for dogs, and spiders that burst out of young girls’ faces. While the kids down the street were at home reading Harry Potter with their mommies and daddies, Frank was looking at pictures of corpses with their mouths torn off. He would have read a full chapter of stories when his mother came in and warned that he only had five minutes left before lights out. They’d argue for a few minutes- Frank get to bed, no, yes, five more minutes, two more minutes, MOM!, bed- until she bundled him up in his covers and looked forward to when he could delve back into horror. He was strong. He feared nothing.
But sometimes he would be afraid. He’d push the book off the side of his bed as if it might bite, half smothering himself in a cocoon of too-hot blankets in a poor attempt to imitate the illusion of security. Something would itch on his face and he feared reaching up to scratch it, terrified that his fingertips might brush against a colony of insects that had burrowed their way into his skin. Nights like those became stretched until minutes were distorted into hours. The sound of crickets outside his window was cadavers wanting to eat him. The groaning of the house settling was monsters killing his parents. If he was lucky he could rush down the hall on his tip-toes and curl up in his sister’s bed. If he wasn’t, he had to survive through the night alone. His parents never let him sleep in their bed. He was a big boy. He had to sleep by himself.
Frank was twenty-three now and he no longer scared himself through reading children’s books. The things that frightened him had evolved from the living dead to America’s financial crisis. He no longer feared maggots in his skin because in the tenth grade he learned in biology class that maggots only eat dead matter. Now he worries about nuclear warfare and if his health insurance will cover a doctor’s appointment because the cough he’s had for a week isn’t getting any better. It’s been more than ten years since he was afraid of the dark or bad guys outside his door.
Fear had felt different when he was a child. There was the subconscious knowledge that there was no real danger and in the morning he would wake and his mother would make him cinnamon toast for breakfast then send him off to school. In some deep part of his mind there was indeed safety, despite how far back it was buried.
Frank clawed at the closet door, trying to shake it open, but Gerard had removed the handle on the inside. He kicked at it, his back pressed hard against the wall behind him. When it didn’t give, he moved back into the corner and grasped his head, clutching it as if it might pop off his shoulders or explode. Somewhere outside the door Gerard was listening to his struggle against the door and Frank imagined the man sitting at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and staring absent-mindedly towards the wall where he was held. With that thought, he turned around, against the wall that was facing the kitchen, and he slammed his fist against it. LET ME OUT LET ME OUT!
He pressed his ear against the wall to listen to for any movement, but he heard nothing. No thudding of footsteps or sipping of coffee. It had been so long since he had heard anything that he had begun to think that Gerard might not be in the house at all. He became aware that his pants were warm and with sick humiliation he realized that when he’d been thrown in the closet he’d pissed himself. Sweat from his lips made it into his mouth. His tongue tasted dirty. There was no hope of safety. He couldn’t wake himself up in a better place. He was trapped in a hot, dark closet and he couldn’t leave.
“I have to get out,” he panted, getting onto his knees and leaning down to try and peer under the door. The carpet blocked all but a few tiny rays of light from getting in. He tried to slip his fingers underneath. It was too tight. Panic and frustration welled up inside him and he released it in the form of a tiny sob. Biting on his index finger he tried to squish himself in the back corner, attempting to create more space to breathe; but he couldn’t even stretch out his legs without his feet hitting the opposite wall and bending his knees. The space was slightly shorter, but just as wide, as a coffin. It smelled like dust.
He felt around the space again, outstretching his arms, extending his fingers, around the wall, feeling oddly apprehensive about exposing himself in the darkness. He remembered again the fear he had felt as a child and likened it to what he was feeling now; with the absence of site it felt like a monster could reach around him and take him. With a pang of fear, Frank remembered a piece of folklore he had heard as a teenager about going into a dark closet and being eaten alive. Sweat squeezed from out his pores as heat pulsed like a heartbeat behind his skin.
Some time must have passed because Frank’s throat had become dry and tight. His face was wet from crying and the small part of him that still retained some pride was glad that none of his old friends saw him sobbing like a baby. It was hard, if not impossible, to tell how long he’d been locked up and assumed that it was just “a very long time”(or maybe just a little more than an hour) judging by how thirsty he had become. He tried not to think about it, but there wasn’t much else to think about. The smell of his own piss made his head ache.
At some point he must have fallen asleep because soon enough he was dreaming. He dreamt that he was married to Gerard and the two of them were sitting together in their living room. The TV was off, but they were pretending to watch it anyway. Frank turned, and Gerard kissed him. In one fine burst, Frank vomited onto Gerard’s lips and nose. He turned away and picked up the newspaper on their coffee table, resting his feet on the back of their dog, which was sleeping soundlessly in front of the couch.
The only reason Frank awoke was because his foot was moving. In his head, it was the dog beneath his feet; it was nudging his foot with its nose. Vomit still dripped down his chin. But it nudged his foot again and he emerged from sleep like emerging from a fog. His eyes were glued together with gunk. The closet door was open.
Gerard was nudging Frank’s foot, which had originally been against the door and had slid out into the bedroom when it was opened, with his own. He bumped it only gently as if he might be deciding whether or not he really wanted to wake him up or keep him asleep. Frank pried his eyes open and looked up at the other man. Gerard was clad in black from head to toe, his skinny pants and thin, fitted sweatshirt making him look like a character from a Tim Burton film. His hands were behind his back and his eyes were somber and red, as if he’d been crying.
Frank heard himself make a strange sound with his dry tongue. “Nyuh?” There was sweat in all his crevices.
Gerard bit down on his bottom lip and looked at the ground. He stood there for a moment without speaking, then turned and picked a pile of clothes off of the bed in front of the closet. On bent arms he held out the pile. His voice was low and quiet. “I brought you some clothes.” He breathed, and it was shaky. “I don’t know if they fit.” Frank didn’t know if he should move or not.
“…How long was I asleep?” Frank whispered, his throat so dry that he couldn’t increase the volume of his voice.
“A couple of hours.” His voice was soft and thoughtful. He turned and put the clothes back on the bed. Turning back to Frank, but not looking at him, he said, “You can put them on if you like…I’ll be in the kitchen if you want to…come talk to me.”
Frank stretched out his legs, his muscles tight like knots, and he tried to blink the stickiness from his eyes. Gerard stopped at the doorway to the bedroom, his pale hand looking utterly white and statue-esque in contrast with his black sleeves. He was gripping the doorframe.
He left. The door shut behind him. Frank sat in the closet for a moment, waiting until he could hear that the footsteps had made it all the way into the kitchen. There was the low squeal of a chair being pulled out and he could tell that Gerard had sat down at the kitchen table. He still didn’t want to move and now felt more secure knowing where the other man was. The smell of his own urine made him get up and change.
Gerard had brought him a white T-shirt, a pair of slightly too long jeans, some white socks, and even a pair of boxer shorts. Frank picked them up and examined them, holding them between his thumb and forefinger by the waistband, unsure if Gerard had ever worn them before and bothered by the idea. They seemed clean, and either way he was currently stewing in his own excrement so it didn’t leave him many other options. He changed into the clothes, finding that they fit pretty well, and stood in front of the bedroom door. Through the mostly closed blinds, evening grayness made the room gloomy and dark. It looked like it might have rained. In a last ditched-attempt, he checked the large window to see if it would open, but found that Gerard had nailed it shut. Breaking it wasn’t an option; if the man could pin him against the wall and lock him in the closet for some odd hours then he could chase him down. Maybe he was even expecting it. Maybe he was waiting.
Frank moved back to the door and slowly opened it, feeling vulnerable on every inch of his body and half-petrified with the idea that Gerard might just be hiding around a corner with the same knife as before- or a larger one- and just waiting to stab him. He turned around the corner and moved down the hall. In the kitchen, a yellow light hung over the kitchen table. Gerard heard him walk in, looked up, then quickly looked down. He had his hands folded. Frank stepped in and halted around where the island began. His socked feet slid on the linoleum floor.
“Hi,” he muttered, his voice coming up like sandpaper in his throat. Gerard glanced up at him again, this time holding his gaze for a few more seconds.
“Hey,” he responded. Soft. There was a bit of silence, then, “…You can sit down if you want.”
Frank didn’t know if he wanted to. Gerard would be sitting across from him and the table wasn’t that big; if he was hiding a knife or something else under the table then he could easily reach out and strike him. Simultaneously, it was possible that if he didn’t sit down it could lead to something violent. Part of him chanted, Run now, run now! but he didn’t know where the door was and there wasn’t enough time to break a window. Frank’s thoughts of finding an escape route were cut short at the sight of Gerard laying his head on the table. He ran his hands over the back of his head, through his hair.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said in a quiet voice, and Frank felt like charging at him. Not because of what he said or what he meant, but how he said it. In his quiet, might-be-sad tone that maybe meant he felt guilty about locking a stranger in a tiny closet for a day with his own piss. Frank slid forward a couple of inches and he could feel the disbelief crawl onto his face.
“Don’t know what to tell me?” he began, his voice coming out louder than he had imagined it would. With the lack of water in his system, it sounded like his voice was being rubbed against a piece of bark. “You don’t know what to tell me?” Gerard looked up at him with emotionless eyes as Frank continued on.
“You locked me in a closet!” he exclaimed, steadying himself with one had on the island and the other open palm on his chest. “You told me you were going to stab me!…Are you?! “ Gerard stood up, with his hands palms-down on the table. Frank felt a sudden pulse of fear. Covered in black, Gerard looked like he was made of shadows.
“No…I won’t…” He paused, then opened his mouth as if to say something else, but Frank stopped him.
“Unless I try to leave?”
Frank took a step back. “What…if I try to leave anyway?” he asked, and his voice was quieter this time and lacking the authority he hoped it would have. “And you can’t catch me? What then?”
Still looking guilty and despondent, Gerard murmured, almost to himself, “You won’t try.”
A pang of aggression surged through Frank’s body. “Why? Why won’t I try? I…” He took a glance down the hall, in search of a door to the outside, but he didn’t one. There must have been one in the living room- which was behind Gerard. Even if he made a run for it, he couldn’t get past Gerard without being in reaching distance. “What makes you think I won’t…go out a window? Or leave through the front door when you’re sleeping?”
“You haven’t left yet,” he said simply. “I left you in that room alone, when I gave you the clothes. You could have locked the door and broken the window. I know you thought about it. There was a lamp in there and you could have thrown in and jumped out and ran. But you didn’t.” Gerard bit down on his lip, and watching, Frank thought he might bite clean through it. “You came out. To see me. You knew I could have killed you. Did you think about it? I could kill you now, but I won’t. You know I could kill you now.”
He took a step away from the table and Frank’s legs seized up. There would be nowhere to run. Maybe to the bedroom where he could press the lock on the door, but Gerard could break it down or go around to the window. There was nowhere to run.
“I figured that if you got away when I left you alone, you deserved to. And eventually I would find you. But if you stayed here…you deserved to stay.” The yellow light above cast evening shadows on Gerard’s face. Frank couldn’t see his eyes. They were just gaping holes of shadow. “You’re…I don’t know how to say it…precious? Precious to me. That’s what you are.”
Frank stepped backward and his back hit the handle of the refrigerator. “I’m not precious to you,” he whispered, his voice now unable to go any louder. “…You don’t know me. I have people who love me, I have to get back to them.”
“No you don’t,” Gerard said. “You live alone.”
“I live with my parents,” he bluffed.
“You go to school. Your student ID was in your wallet.”
“I dropped out.” That part was true.
“Then you’re living alone,” Gerard said forcefully. “If you had a girlfriend or a friend or whatever you wouldn’t have been out by yourself at a bar.”
“…Roommate? What if I have a roommate.”
Even though he couldn’t see his eyes, Frank watched Gerard make a movement with his head as if he was rolling them. “Nice try.”
Frank tried to swallow but his throat was too dry. He dropped his gaze to the floor. “What now then?” he asked. “…What are you gonna do?”
Placing a finger to his mouth in a thinking gesture, Gerard responded with, “I think…you should take a shower.” He bit on the finger. “I’ll clean out the closet since it kinda seems like you made a mess in there. “
Frank could still feel where urine had dried on his legs and groin. Sweat stuck under his arms and on his scalp. “Okay.”
“Okay then.” Gerard said it as if he hadn’t been expecting any other answer. “Come on. I’ll show you where the bathroom is.”
Gerard stepped away from his place beside the table and approached Frank. He stopped in front of the other man, who had shrunk back slightly, and gently wrapped his fingers around Frank’s wrist. “It’s okay…I won’t…bite.”
The bathroom was exactly where Frank had remembered it being. It was a tiny, square room with a bathtub/shower against the right wall, a white sink on the left, a cabinet above that. There were no windows. The walls were painted pale yellow. They stood in front of the open door for a few seconds.
“There’s towels in that cabinet up there,” said Gerard. “And to get the water hot you just turn it to the H, ya know?”
Frank nodded slightly. “’kay.” His legs were still trembling and he found it hard to stand.
Gerard held onto Frank’s wrist. Not tight, but just as if he didn’t want to let go. “When you’re done, we can…talk if you want.” Frank didn’t want to talk. He wanted to home. “I just think…No, I know I should tell you some things.” He let go of Frank’s wrist, his fingers sliding down the back of Frank’s hand.
“I’m sorry about all of this.”
Frank stepped into the bathroom, then turned around to look at Gerard. “Yeah,” he said. “Me too.”
Frank hadn’t realized how dirty he really had been until presented with the opportunity to get clean. As soon as that shower turned on and the glass mirror on the outside of the cabinet above the sink began to fog over with steam he could feel himself getting cleansed. He tried to speculate how much time had passed. It was almost completely dark when Gerard had led him to the bathroom. It had been morning when he was put the closet. Eight hours? Ten? Twelve? And Gerard had been either very silent or not in the house.
He turned up the heat of the water. It didn’t matter where Gerard had been because he didn’t let him out. Frank’s headache was back. There really was no hope.
Frank stepped out of the shower feeling like he had peeled off an extra skin. And if he could thank Gerard for anything it would be that he had access to running water. He ran his hand over the mirror before opening the cabinet to get a towel. His hair was brown, dark but not black, in his face. His jaw strong but his face youthful. Handsome by normal standards, maybe. There was a tattoo of a scorpion on his neck, under his ear, and his right ear was pierced, gauged ever so slightly with a black plug. He remembered his parents telling him when he was seventeen and had strolled home one day with his lip pierced, You’re too old to be doing shit like that to your body. You’re not a rock star and you’re not trash. Take it out. He didn’t, but he did learn a lesson in discretion.
He felt around his lip with the tip of his finger. He hadn’t put the ring in before he went out.
After he dried himself off with a large, fuzzy blue towel, he dressed himself, his mood improved tenfold. But he was still shaken, still thirsty (although he had caught some of the water from the shower in his mouth, finding that it wasn’t very satisfying), still wary of Gerard’s rapid changes in mood, and newly hungry. He bent down over the sink and drank from the faucet. At least he could check one discomfort off.
He left the bathroom, feeling again the sensation that he was exposed, fragile. He could hear Gerard in the kitchen, the sound of metal clinking. The sensation of safety returned in a small dose. It was easier to move around when he knew where Gerard was. It alleviated the fear of being pounced on or stabbed suddenly. In the kitchen, Gerard was back on the table stirring a mug of coffee with a spoon, a look on his face that was either bored or thoughtful; Frank was having a hard time discerning the differences between Gerard’s facial expressions. Another mug of coffee sat at the opposite end of the table, along with a plastic container of Coffee Mate and a tiny bowel of sugar. Two red aspirin sat beside the mug.
“I made you some coffee,” Gerard said in a light voice. He clutched his own white mug tightly, as if nervous. “…And I brought you some aspirin. It’s been more than twelve hours so I thought you could take some more if your head still hurt.” There was a paused. Then, “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
Apprehensively, Frank approached the table. “No, thanks, I will…” He sat down across from Gerard, the distance between them closed to only about one and a half feet. He scooped up the two pills and popped them in his mouth, swallowing them down with black coffee. There was the awkward feeling of being treated like a guest more than a hostage, and despite the fact that it was more comfortable, it was still…uncomfortable. A paradox of feelings. He wanted it to go away. Gerard wriggled in his chair inconspicuously while Frank sweetened his drink.
“…Thanks,” he whispered. Gerard nodded.
After opening his mouth several times, only to close it again, Gerard began, “I don’t want there to be any trouble. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable or scared. I just don’t want you to run away.” He played with the spoon in his coffee, tracing it around the rim of his mug with his finger. “…And you probably don’t believe me, but I hate what I did. What I’m doing. But I can’t let you go.” He frowned.
“I would have been your friend,” Frank replied, looking down into his coffee. He glanced up quickly, nervously. “You don’t have to do this…Whatever this is.” He looked away, at the wall.
Gerard seemed aware of the building tension and kept his voice soft and inoffensive. “You don’t know me, though. I’m jealous. I’m more jealous than…” A pause. “…You can’t imagine.”
Frank didn’t know if he was asking because he truly cared or if just in attempt to keep Gerard calm, but he asked, “Why?”
Gerard folded his hands, like he first had when Frank saw him at the table before he took a shower, and sighed through his nose. Thinking, maybe. The wait in between persons speaking was not uncomfortable; it should have been, Frank thought, but it wasn’t. There was something scary about that. Gerard suddenly cracked his knuckles and said, “I don’t know.” His voice was flat. That was the end.
In a moment of curiosity, Frank asked something that he had been wondering since he first saw Gerard (or first remembered seeing him, if Gerard’s accusations that they had met before Frank woke up were true). Looking down again, he asked, “Gerard, how old are you?”
Gerard scratched his cheek with his index finger. “I’m twenty-two.”
Frank was a bit shocked. Gerard had his own home, a car, and two fist-fulls of mental problems. And while his face was definitely youthful, his mind seemed to be ageless. It took only moments for him to switch between his adult insanity to almost child-like kindness. And he was younger than Frank, that idea felt odd. He was probably severely bi-polar, Frank thought. Or schizophrenic. Or maybe there wasn’t even a name for what he was and he was just crazy. He decided to push the conversation with another question.
“What about school? Or…work or something,” he continued.
Gerard suddenly looked a little awkward, embarrassed. “That’s where I was all day.” Frank said Oh and took a sip of his coffee just for something to do. Gerard continued, “I work at an art supplies shop. And sometimes I sell my paintings. Just for some side money.”
“That’s cool,” Frank said. An art shop meant a town was close. Maybe close enough to run to and get help.
Gerard shrugged. “I guess. I only work one job so I guess that’s why my house ‘s so small.” He looked around the kitchen as if to reassure himself it was still the size he remembered it being and mimicked Frank’s action of sipping his coffee. He looked a little unsatisfied. “Could be worse, though. Could be smaller, I guess.”
There was a sudden pressure on Frank’s head, as if his skull had become too tight for his brain. “How long do you think I’ll be here?” he asked carefully. Maybe I can find I way out before it’s been too long.
“We’ll just have to see.” Gerard drank his coffee, this time gulping it down quickly. Frank wasn’t thirsty anymore. The coffee tasted too sugary. Gerard pulled out his cell phone and looked at the time. “It’s getting pretty late and I think we both could use some sleep.” That was something Frank agreed with.
Gerard stood up and walked to Frank’s side. “Done with your coffee?” he asked. Frank nodded and said he was. The other man took the mug and brought it to the sink. He muttered something about washing them later and put the cream in the fridge and the sugar in one of the cabinets. Frank stood up and made to walk down the hall, towards the direction of the bedroom he had woken up in earlier that day.
“Hold on,” Gerard interrupted, and Frank stopped dead in his tracks. He turned back and asked what. Gerard leaned his back against the counter and folded his arms across his chest. “You don’t think I’m gonna let you sleep by yourself?” Frank went rigid. Please don’t make me sleep in his bed. God, if there is a God, please. “I’m not really smart, but I’m not stupid. You’ll find a way out. I need to keep an eye on you. At least for tonight, and maybe the next few nights. Until we establish some trust.” He smiled, just a little, as if he was doing something kind and not horribly disturbing.
Gerard led Frank to his bedroom, again by the wrist. Nervousness, dread, began to brew within him somewhere and he wanted to scream like a child having a tantrum. He kept his mouth shut, his back like a wooden board and his legs almost too weak to carry his weight. But Gerard didn’t take him to the bed like Frank had expected. He took him back to the closet. Frank reeled backwards, tugging against Gerard’s grip.
“I can’t go back in there,” he protested, trying to keep his voice low, trying to keep himself from screaming.
“Don’t worry, I cleaned everything out,” Gerard assured him, moving behind him and pushing him forward with his hands on Frank’s shoulder-blades. Frank twisted, trying to move away, but Gerard grasped his arm with an iron grip, his fingers like steel. “Come on, don’t be such a pussy. I slept in the closet a lot when I was a kid.”
And look how you turned out, Frank thought. Gerard pushed him into the back of the closet and slammed the door shut. There was a small clicking noise as the lock was shut. And Frank was a child again, for the second time that day, pounding on the door, screaming. Gerard was against the door, saying, “Just calm down. You’ve already slept in there once, you can do it again.” His footsteps moved away from the door and there was a creaking as he lay on the bed.
“Gerard, please, let me out, I won’t run away, I promise,” he begged. He started to hyperventilate. Dust was getting in his lungs. Gerard didn’t answer. He could probably stay up all night listening to Frank struggle in the closet.
Frank sat back in the familiar corner. He tried to control his breathing, the thoughts of, I have to get out of here. It smelled like some sort of cleaner now. A few controlled breaths passed through his lungs and he didn’t feel so panicked. Just shaken.
After a while he took off the pair of jeans, the denim uncomfortable against his sweating legs. The space was warm, not hot now. He could hear Gerard breathing. It was hard to tell if he was awake or not. He supposed it didn’t really matter.
Eventually Frank just fell asleep. In the small, warm space he slept curled, with his knees to his chest, like a child in the womb, but without the promise of safety.