By Jacob Yaple
Dust motes danced in the sunlight that slanted through the blinds onto the bare floor. The room was silent. Empty. Waiting.
A commotion arose down the hall, in the direction of the freight elevator. Voices and noise came steadily closer, until three people burst into the room. They were each carrying a cardboard box. “Papa Bear” set down his large box and hurried back down the hall, eager to finish the job. “Baby Bear”—no baby now, looming over both his parents–gingerly lowered his small box to the floor, as if he or it might break. “Mama Bear” set down her medium-sized box and dusted off her hands briskly.
“Robert, you have to know where your valuables are in a city like this,” she lectured the young man. “Pickpockets love to rub up against their victims on crowded street corners.”
“Yes, Mom,” Robert said.
“Don’t put your wallet in your back pocket—the flesh there is fatty and less sensitive. Put your wallet in your hip pocket, where you can feel it if someone tries to reach in.”
Robert and his mom returned to the hall. Robert’s dad was on his way back with another box. They carried more boxes into the room, and then Robert’s dad started assembling something in the middle of the floor. It had wheels at the corners and thin metal slats connecting them. The family dragged a twin size mattress and box spring into the room and placed them atop the assembled bed frame.
Robert’s dad wiped away sweat from his forehead with a white rag. He shook his son’s hand and patted him on the back. “Congratulations, Son,” he said, “your own place. There’s a lot of stuff I had hoped to teach you by now, like riding a bike, and swimming, and driving a car—“
“He doesn’t need to drive a car,” Robert’s mom said. “This city has a perfectly good bus system. A car is just an added expense. Just think of the money he’ll save on repairs, insurance, gas, tires, all that. You don’t need a car, do you, Robert?”
“Of course not, Mom,” Robert said. Just the thought of driving made him queasy. He was sure he would hit somebody his first time on the road.
“Well, we’ll let you get settled in, Honey,” she said, hugging him briefly. “Tomorrow’s another big day!” The parents left the room discreetly, closing the door behind them.
Robert sat down on the edge of the bed and looked around. The room would probably look less stark when he had a chance to unpack. Tomorrow was another big day at the job his parents had found for him. It was at a warehouse on the edge of the city. Heavy lifting figured heavily in his future since he’d flunked out of high school.
Robert lay down on the bare mattress and stared at the cracked ceiling. My own place, he thought. Welcome to life. Was that what this was? He didn’t know.
That night, Robert slept lightly. Among all the other new sounds to get used to, ambulances and fire engines screamed past the building regularly. That’s what he got for moving in across the street from a hospital and down the street from a fire station.
The apartment was just one room with a kitchen counter along one wall and two doors: one to the hallway of the building and one to the bathroom. His bed took up most of the space, dominating the center of the room. He was kept awake by the glare of light from under the hallway door. He would stare at the light, then turn over and face the wall, but there was no escaping the light. It diffused through the room, making it just a little bit too bright for sleeping.
As he drowsily tossed and turned, a childhood memory crept into his head. He had never needed a night light, because the living room was only a few steps away in his parents’ cozy ranch-style home. His parents would stay up talking long after he had been put to bed, and he used to take comfort in the light and voices filtering under the bedroom door. Sometimes there was the smell of wood smoke from the dying embers in the fireplace, and the tinny sound of old-time music on the radio.
Robert focused on the light coming from the hallway. He imagined his parents chatting on the other side, winding down after another big day. Suddenly he felt all warm and cozy, and before he knew it he was asleep.
Over the next few weeks, Robert worked harder than he had ever worked before. This was his first paying job, and doing chores for his parents and receiving an allowance just didn’t compare. It seemed like every day his boss had something new for him to do. Every job required its own special training session, and his boss never stopped checking up on him and giving him pointers. At the end of each day, Robert was worn out physically, mentally and emotionally.
Even as tired as he was, he could only fall asleep by focusing on the light under the door and pretending his parents were on the other side. He even began to imagine himself as a grade-school kid, wearing footie pajamas and hugging a teddy bear. The pajamas and the stuffed toy were long gone, of course. It comforted him to remember a simpler time, when he didn’t have to show up at a job every day in order to pay his rent.
Then one night as he drowsed, staring at the light from the hallway, the quality of the light seemed to change. It grew dimmer and more intimate, seeming to come from lamps and glowing fireplace embers instead of overhead fluorescents. Faintly, he heard tinny music and smelled the tang of wood smoke.
He shook his head to clear it. It couldn’t be his parents’ voices he heard so distinctly on the other side of the door. Some other tenants just happened to be talking outside in the hall, that was all. But he was curious, so he got out of bed and opened the hallway door a crack, peering cautiously through the gap.
The hallway as he knew it had ceased to exist. Gone was the stairwell door with its glowing red exit sign, the freight elevator, and the regular elevator with its almost permanent out of order sign. Instead, a single large room opened up the space. It was late at night. The familiar shadows of furniture crowded the edges of the room. A pool of light from a table lamp illuminated two armchairs pulled up close to an old flagstone fireplace. The occupants of the armchairs were chatting in muted tones. Old bluegrass music played on the radio.
Robert opened the door the rest of the way. It creaked loudly, and the whispered chatting stopped abruptly. Robert took a few steps into the room, but that was as far as he got. His parents got up from their chairs, looking around the room nervously. Their gaze settled on Robert. His mom approached him, her face pale and her eyes bugging out, as if she was confronting an intruder. Robert looked down. He no longer wore the T-shirt and shorts he habitually wore to bed these days; instead he wore sky-blue footie pajamas. He remained the same size, though, so the pajamas were stretched to the breaking point in some spots and showing ragged holes in other spots. His hairy stomach protruded above the waistband of the pajamas, and the feet of the pajamas were almost disconnected from the legs as his long, hairy legs stretched the material. No wonder his mom thought he was an intruder. Even though he was still a six-foot-tall adult, he felt three feet tall again as his mother confronted him.
“Robert!” she said, white-faced. “You’re not supposed to be out here! It’s way past your bedtime! Now, go back to bed before I count to three. One, Two…”
Robert backed away until he reached his bedroom door and hurried inside before his mother could say “Three!” He closed the door behind him and discovered that everything was normal again. He was back in his apartment wearing shorts and T-shirt instead of the disintegrating pajamas, and the light under the door came from the hallway. (He double-checked by briefly opening the door again.) After standing there thinking fuzzily for several minutes, Robert got back into bed. Just a dream, he thought. A little sleepwalking, too, maybe. Probably caused by focusing too much on the light under the door. Just a little homesickness, that was all it was.
He had almost gotten back to sleep when the phone rang.
“Dad? What time is it?”
“Son, your mother is dead.”
“Your mother is dead.”
“What?!” Robert made his father repeat it a few more times before he understood the news, although he never really accepted it. In a shocked, whispering voice, his father repeated the doctor’s post mortem judgment: Robert’s mom had suffered an aneurism, a blood clot that went to her brain and blocked off blood flow. Even though she was healthy and relatively young, this kind of thing was not unheard of.
“She was sitting in the living room after dinner,” Robert’s dad said, “and she suddenly stood up, said, ‘Three!’ really loud, and fell down dead.”
“She was sitting in the armchair next to the fireplace?” Robert asked.
“Yes,” his dad said. “Why do you ask?”
Robert and his dad numbly went through the motions, planning the funeral, tying up loose financial and legal ends, etc. The funeral was horrible. Besides feeling numb with grief, Robert felt guilty because some friends and relatives showed up even though Robert had never attended their close relatives’ funerals. He hated funerals. He had hated them ever since his first one, his grandfather’s, after which he had recurring nightmares of Granddad chasing him through the cemetery. People asked the usual questions: What’d she die of? How old was she? She was young, but Robert had thought of her as ageless and wise, always his senior. Since she was young, people said it was a Damn Shame. If she had been old, Robert knew they would have said: well, it was Her Time. He didn’t blame them; he was guilty of saying the same things about other people that died. It was an open casket, with his mother in heavy makeup and not looking natural at all, and his dad made a fool out of himself, trying to make a tender speech with tears pouring down his face until he collapsed onto a chair. Luckily, Robert was not asked to contribute to the fiasco.
Robert left his father in the care of loving friends and neighbors and took the bus back to his apartment. On the way, he had an idea: his mom may be dead here, in this world, but not in the world beyond the hallway door in his room! Could he bring her back from that world, so she could be alive in this one? It was worth a shot. Never had he wanted to believe in something so bad as he wanted to believe in this plan.
It was late evening when the bus arrived in the city. Robert grabbed his suitcase and hurried through the streets, impatient to get home so he could go to bed and stare at the light from the hallway. When he did get home he threw the suitcase into the corner without bothering to unpack, turned off the light and lay down on the bed fully dressed. He glared at the light under the door, grinding his teeth as he willed it to change. For a long time nothing happened. Then Robert’s exhaustion from the ordeal of the funeral finally took over his body and produced the half-aware state needed for the magic to work.
Again, the light under the door dimmed, tinny music played, and wood smoke tickled Robert’s nose. Without waiting for the spell to be complete, he flung the door wide and barged in to his parents’ living room, yelling, “Mom! Mom! Where are you?!”
Startled, Robert’s father stood up from his armchair. “She’s gone to bed, Robert,” he said.
“I need to see her,” Robert said, tears spilling down his cheeks. “I need to take her back with me.”
“You can’t see her,” his dad said firmly. “She’s probably sound asleep by now. And you should be too. It’s way past your bedtime, young man. Don’t make me take off my belt.”
Robert didn’t need to look down to know he was wearing the same disintegrating pajamas as last time. His father was starting the burlesque routine of taking off his own belt. He always used to threaten to hit Robert with the belt, but always stopped with it halfway off, and slowly put it back on in response to Robert’s tearful pleading and promises to do better. The belt never came completely off, which was good because his pants would have fallen down. Robert had been terrified of the belt as a grade-schooler and embarrassed by it as a teenager. Now he was an adult, and his dad hadn’t threatened him with it in years.
In the magic room beyond the door, Robert was once again terrified of the belt.
“Please, no! I’m sorry, Daddy! Put your belt back on! Anything but that! Look, I’m going back! I’m going back to bed! Don’t hit me, Daddy!”
Robert backed away from his father and closed the door of his room between them. Instantly the light under the door flickered back to normal and the pajamas morphed back to T-shirt and shorts. Robert sullenly opened the door again, saw nothing but apartment building hallway, and slammed it shut. Another opportunity wasted, he thought bitterly. Who knew how many more times the magic would work, and now he would have to get past his father and his own belt phobia to retrieve his mother.
His thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the phone.
“Is this Robert?” It was one of his dad’s neighbors, who had promised to take care of his dad during his time of mourning.
“Yes,” Robert said. “What’s going on?”
“I, er, um,” the neighbor stammered. “Robert, your father is dead.”
“What?!” Robert cried.
“Your father is dead.”
Robert couldn’t understand it. It seemed that his dad had retreated into suicide to escape the unendurable pain of the loss of his mother. The neighbor said they found him hanging from his own belt.
Robert hung up on the neighbor just as she was stammering her sympathies to him. His dad dead too! Not another funeral! The weight of the grief was already settling on him.
He lay down on the bed in the dark room, seething with impotent rage and grief. This time if the light under the door came, he would leap into its world and never come back. The world he was in now was missing two parents and was badly out of whack. He much preferred the world of the light under the door.
He stared and stared at the light from the hallway, willing it to become dimmer. It eventually did, getting dimmer and dimmer until finally it went out entirely. Now there was no light coming from the hall at all.
Robert stared at the darkness. It made sense: now both his parents had “gone to bed,” so they had turned off the lights and left the living room deserted. Luckily Robert had morphed along with his environment, and he knew just what to do. He reached under his bed and took out the flashlight he used to use to read Playboys under the covers.
He opened the hallway door and found himself in his parents’ darkened house. He didn’t want to give his parents advance warning, so he saved his flashlight for when he would really need it. He banged his shins on furniture occasionally, but mostly he knew his way around. He encountered a series of locked doors and jiggled the handle of each one, searching for the one he knew was not locked. Finally he found what he was sure was the door to his parents’ bedroom. He was sure because he could hear male and female voices on the other side. He wondered whether he should knock or burst in. If he knocked, they might try to escape or tell him to go back to bed. If he burst in, there might be violence; even idle threats might be too much for his grade-school alter ego to bear.
His grade-school alter ego decided that he should knock.
“Mom? Dad?” he called. Some sort of rhythmic creaking was happening on the other side, and Robert called louder to be heard above it. “I need a glass of water—and, and I don’t want to go back to bed. Can I just sleep out in the living room tonight?”
The creaking just got louder. Robert decided to go with bursting in this time.
The bedroom was pitch dark. The bed was a dim shape with two people shapes on it. But Mom and Dad were not sleeping side by side—Dad was on top of Mom! He was moving up and down, causing the rhythmic creaking sound.
“Dad!” Robert said, shocked. “What are you doing? What are you doing to Mom? Oh my God!!” He turned on his flashlight and aimed it at the faces of his parents. Then he got the shock of his life. The people in his parents’ bed weren’t his parents! They were imposters! How long had this been going on? Was the whole thing just a big joke?
The man in the bed didn’t think it was a joke. He squinted into the flashlight beam and carefully climbed off the woman in the bed. “Call 911,” he whispered to her. “Some whacko broke in.”
The woman used her cell phone to call 911. “Is this a real emergency?” the dispatcher asked. “We’re getting a lot of calls from your area because of a localized power outage.”
“Yes, it’s a damn emergency!” the woman said. “Some nut case got in to our apartment!”
“Is the intruder still in the room?”
“Yeah. Yeah, actually… I think he fainted.”
Robert was out cold on the floor, staring straight ahead and sucking his thumb.
Three weeks later, life was going on the way it normally did in the apartment building. Two burly men in coveralls were emptying out Robert’s apartment. One of the men worked for a storage unit place; the other was the handyman for the building.
“At least most of this stuff is still in boxes, so we don’t have to pack much up,” the storage unit man said. “What happened to this guy? I heard he went nuts.”
“It’s a sad story,” the handyman said. “Both of his parents died in one week, then he breaks in on the people down the hall during a power outage. He said he thought they were his parents. And—get this—he thought his parents were still alive and he was a little kid again. It broke his mind. Whacko.”
“I heard the family couldn’t deal with it all, so they’re putting his stuff in storage. If both his parents are dead, that explains why they aren’t helping us out.”
“I heard that if you stay in the mental hospital more than two weeks, you ain’t coming back. We’ll have to rent this place out to someone else.” The handyman grunted as he lifted a large box. “Damn Shame,” he muttered.
The workmen carried all the boxes down the hall to the freight elevator. The last things to go were the mattress, the box spring and the bed frame. The men maneuvered those things down the hall, and then there was silence.
Dust motes danced in the sunlight that slanted through the blinds onto the bare floor. The room was silent. Empty. Waiting.
Waiting…for its next victim.