Behind the Closet Door
Murray turned the front doorknob with trembling hands and opened it just a crack to the night beyond. Sweat rose on his forehead and trickled down his temples. He glanced all around to be sure no one stood on the cracked sidewalk outside the one-story apartment complex. His apartment was on the end. Tonight he was more thankful for that than he'd ever been. It would help him conceal what he was doing and what he had done. He crept out into the cool air, his heart racing, and hobbled to his rust speckled pick-up truck where he quietly lowered the bent tailgate.
A humid breeze wafted in from the city below and smelled of exhaust fumes and asphalt. The street behind him was relatively quiet at this very early hour. He glanced north and south for the glow of headlights. Seeing none, he yanked the cotton sheets from the supplies he purchased at the lumber store the day before.
He clumsily lifted the four-foot by eight-foot panel from the truck and wrestled it inside the room that served as his kitchen and living area. The thin wood sheet twisted and creaked as he moved around the scarred kitchen table and bounced it over the stained, plaid couch. In the bedroom, its corner snagged on the shag carpet. Once he reached the closet, he rested the tall sheet against the wall and dug deep into his shirt pocket. A nail pinched his fingertip, but he pressed down deeper until he had all of them in his palm. He dropped them on the dresser at his left next to the dainty wedding ring, scratched and dingy with age. It matched the rope design carved into the one he wore on his thick finger.
He slid the wood sheeting over the door, congratulating himself on making such a good match to the existing paneling design. He kicked the bottom of the wood into place with his stocking foot, gripped a nail between his yellowed teeth, tasted the blandness of the metal, and held another in position at the top corner. The hammer shook in his hand. He stroked the soothing coolness of the handle with his fingers. It was almost as soft as his wife's skin.
The nails sank into the wood under his hammer strokes easier and faster than he expected. After completing the task, he gathered the doorknob he removed from the closet and a few red-stained rags left over from his attempt to clean the mess he'd made. Andrea was the true house cleaner. She always teased him about his inability to spot dirt, but she wasn't there to help this time. He dropped the rags and doorknob into the garbage bag where Andrea's suitcase rested.
She had packed it full of her clothes and a few precious belongings when she thought she was leaving him.
Murray stood back to admire his work before turning to the bag and suitcase again. He would have to take it to the dump soon but he needed to relax and have a beer first.
In the shadowed kitchen, he opened the refrigerator door dressed in dozens of magnetic animals and notes. Andrea was a collector of such things. The frigid air swirled around him and chilled his sweat-covered skin. He scratched the back of his neck, tousling his graying hair, before grabbing a six-pack of cheap beer from the bottom shelf. He let the door thump shut and snapped open the first can. He broke the aluminum tab from the rim and flicked it toward the overfilled garbage bag in the corner. Andrea had asked him to take it out days ago. The tab bounced from an empty milk carton and landed with a ting on the floor next to the table leg.
Then there was empty silence. There was no one there to talk to or argue with. He was utterly alone in a dark and dreary place not so different from the basement his father had often locked him in for being bad. He spent a lot of time in his parents' damp basement and had no desire to go back there. He had learned not to complain, not to argue, and not to speak unless spoken too. He'd learned to behave.
Loneliness had plagued his childhood, but then he met Andrea, beautiful, loving, attentive Andrea. She had shown him happiness. She taught him life was good.
But he'd been bad this time. Shame and regret weighed heavy on him even though he knew there was nothing he could do to change what happened. Once something was done there was no going back, but he also knew he could hide it. He'd mastered hiding things when he was young.
He swallowed the lump of lonesomeness hanging in his throat and went to the recliner he had shoved to the center of the windowless room.
Sitting only feet from the television, he punched the remote and sat back as the faded picture grew and filled the small screen. Soon he found a comedy show to keep him company.
One after another, he guzzled the beer. He went to the refrigerator for more even though he knew Andrea wouldn't be happy to have him in such a state. All he had ever wanted was to make her happy. He worked his life away for her. It wasn't his fault his paychecks couldn't buy the house she wanted. It wasn't his fault he needed to stop at the bar each night and have a few beers and relax. She didn't understand the stresses he faced at the factory, but none of it mattered now.
Returning to the recliner, he thought he should get busy removing Andrea's stuff from their bedroom, but he flopped into the sticky recliner anyway. The cracking vinyl snapped under his bulk. Andrea didn't have many things, it wouldn't take him long to dispose of it all.
Murray's gaze shot to the walls. He thought the sound must have come from the next-door apartment. The couple living there was young and probably still awake doing something he didn't care to dwell upon. He decided to wait a little longer before loading his pick-up.
The racket continued and rattled his thoughts. It grew louder and began to sound like a jammed door jiggling loose. Metal squealed and nails screamed as they ripped from wood.
Murray sat straight and stared ahead. His heavy breaths pumped his chest. He was certain the noise must have been a coincidence; someone in the next apartment was prying something open, that was all. But he had to be sure.
His throat was sticky and dry as he forced his booze and fear stricken legs to move so he could stand. He clutched the high back of the recliner, slid his foot forward, and then the other until he had traveled the few feet to the bedroom door where he could see into the cluttered room. Andrea's lamp glowed from the center of her neat and dust free vanity to illuminate the small room.
Before it, leaning on the unmade bed, he saw the paneling he had nailed over the closed closet door. The sharp points of the nails glistened in the dim light. Body heat dripped from his fingers, siphoned away by terror.
The closet door swung open and the blood he washed away from it had returned in glowing strength. A heavy decayed odor permeated the room.
Something streaked from the darkness. He jumped back against the bedroom wall and gripped the dresser with sweaty fingers.
A figure stood at the full-length mirror beside him.
"What did you do to me?" Andrea said. Her voice was hollow, flat.
She stroked her once beautiful, golden hair now dull and ripped from the roots in places. She turned and peered at him with gray eyes. Her face was broken and dried blood covered her chalky, rubber-like skin.
"Good Lord," Murray gasped. His knees quaked.
"How could you do this to me?" she said.
"I...I'm not talking to you, you're dead. You're not real. This is not happening."
Murray closed his eyes. He shook his head to rid her image from his mind, and a moment later peeked from one eye.
She was gone.
He relaxed his shoulders and leaned heavily against the wall. He wondered how many beers he'd had.
"You bastard!" Andrea yelled.
He turned just as she shoved him and forced him further into the room.
Spinning, he searched for her, but saw no one.
"What's the matter darling?"
Still Murray didn't see her. He whirled around again. Objects streaked by him. He glanced over his shoulder and into the dark closet before turning forward again.
She was there, so close he could only see her dead eyes and smell the reek of her stale, decaying breath. She reached for him and brushed her icy fingers over his neck.
Murray stumbled back and tripped on the corner of the bed. He swatted at the bony fingers.
"No, don't do this," Murray said. He squirmed along the floor until he reached the wall and could go no further.
"You murdered me you bastard!"
"No Andrea, no I didn't mean it...it was an accident. An accident, that's all."
She moved closer. The image of her battered face, a face he had loved dearly, seemed to burn his eyes. His knuckles tingled as they had when her bone collapsed beneath them.
"For twenty years I put up with you and your self pity," she said, stepping forward.
Murray curled into a ball, shrinking away from the decaying hands.
"Please Andrea. Please. I'm sorry," he said, repeating the words he had said the week before. "Don't do this to me."
Ice-cold fingers clamped around his neck. Breaths barely seeped into his lungs. Murray stared into Andrea's eyes and saw no reflection, no life. His lips burned and he licked for air with his tongue still tasting the bitterness of the beers.
"Too many tortured years for us Murray," Andrea said. "I can't let you escape the life you kept me trapped in. I have no pity for you now."
Murray tore her rotting flesh from his neck. He gagged and his stomach tossed from the awful smell of her.
"Please," Murray hissed through his collapsing throat.
Andrea shook her head, slowly, methodically.
Sparks speckled Murray's darkening sight and he slowly drifted into the empty void of death.
Harry fought with the key, trying to find the one for the first apartment. He struggled to steady his wrinkled hands. In all the years he had been landlord, this apartment was the one he entered the least, but now the other tenants stood behind him, demanding to know why no one had been seen coming in or out for several days. And the next-door tenants were complaining of a horrible stench.
Finally, one of the keys slid into the slot and turned. The lock clicked and the latch released. Harry gave the rickety door a shove. It bounced against the wall. A stink rushed over him and forced him to clamp his frail hand over his nose.
Well, are you just going to stand there?" Mrs. Burk from apartment five said.
Harry grumbled, wishing he could somehow make her go in. He stepped over the threshold. A small television hissed from the far wall. A smell of garbage spoiled to slime gagged him. He pulled the collar of his t-shirt over his mouth and side stepped further into the room. Sweat dripped from his scalp and soaked his bushy white brows. Something wasn't right here.
"Go on, Harry," Mrs. Burk called after him, swatting her jewelry-covered hands through the air as if to push him onward.
He sidled around the scratched kitchen table and plaid couch. Nothing was out of the ordinary here except for dozens of dirty dishes piled in the sink, covered in gnats. He had always thought Mrs. Chandler to be a neat and clean housekeeper. She was light spoken and extremely sweet. He never could figure out why she stayed with a lazy, angry man like Mr. Chandler.
Harry spotted the doorway to the bedroom. A dim yellow light hovered in the thick air. Tightening his hand over his nose, Harry stepped inside.
Mr. Chandler's faded eyes bulged from his skull. His throat looked as if a beast had chewed it apart. Flies buzzed around the wound. His shoulders were limp against the wall, and blood and flesh covered his hands and clung to his fingernails.
Harry quickly glanced around the room. He thought there had once been a closet in the far corner, but the walls were solid and everything seemed as in order as clutter could get. He hurried on his old legs toward the front door, and hoped Mrs. Chandler was okay but he wouldn't do any more investigating. A phone was the only thing he would look for now. He escaped into the hot parking lot and gasped for a breath of unspoiled air.
Half an hour later, the police taped off the apartment. They spent days there and discovered Mrs. Chandler's battered body hidden in a concealed bedroom closet. Harry's heart grew heavy from the news, but what haunted him the most was Mr. Chandler's autopsy report. It didn't state death from murder, but suicide. Harry shuddered to think what devils could drive a man to tear out his own throat. It was something he hoped he never learned.
Copyright ©T.C. McMullen
No part of this story may be copied or reproduced without authors permission. Any similarities to person places or things is used fictitiously or is coincidence.