Cast of Wonders 283: Single Parent (Staff Picks 2017)
Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favorite episodes. Throughout the month, different members of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2017.
This week’s episode is hosted by audio producer Jeremy Carter.
By Sarah Gailey
The monster in my son’s closet is so fucking scary.
Here’s what happened: Jack screamed in the middle of the night and I came running because I’m his dad and that’s what dads are for. He’s been doing that for a month — screaming like someone’s in his room murdering him with a screwdriver. And even though there’s never, not even once been anyone murdering him, I couldn’t just let him scream his little head off all night. If I didn’t come running, his mom would have risen from the grave just to come and slap me upside the head.
I know what you’re thinking, but the monster in the closet is not his mom. It is not my dead wife, come back to watch over him and protect him. This isn’t that kind of a story. It’s a fucking monster, okay?
Anyway, he screamed like he’s screamed every night since we watched Denise go into the ground. I came running like I’ve come running every night since we threw dirt at her coffin, which seems like it’s supposed to be important and respectful but really just felt like throwing dirt at my wife’s corpse. He was sitting up in bed, sweating and crying and smelling like little-kid-piss and I remember thinking that this was the last straw — that tonight I would be Tough Dad and tell him I wasn’t going to put up with the screaming anymore.
I didn’t end up doing that, though. I’ve never been a tough guy. Denise was always the tough guy, but she’s being tough on Abraham up in heaven somewhere and I’m down here sitting on my kid’s wet bedsheets.
Anyway, I burst into his room and put my arms around him. I kissed his sweaty head and told him that everything would be okay. I asked which nightmare had woken him up this time. Usually they’re nightmares about his mom coming back, which breaks my heart to hear, but the therapist said I have to listen. So I braced myself, and tried to be ready to hear him talk about how Denise’s face is melting off in his subconscious.
Only this time, he shook his head. Not a nightmare. A monster.
I am a bad father because I was relieved. That’s how you know you’re a bad father: your kid is trembling and terrified and you breathe a sigh of relief because it’s only his worst fear and not yours.
The thing is, I thought I knew how to handle the monster situation. From experience. For six months or so before Denise died, Jack had this thing about a monster in his closet. The therapist said that he was processing her sickness through a proxy – that he couldn’t quite understand what was coming, that he couldn’t know what “terminal” meant, so his little-boy brain just decided “there’s scary shit on the way” and invented a monster that was always getting ready to eat him. That’s how I felt for the entire time she was dying. And sure enough, once she died, he stopped having the thing about the monster.
So I did what I had done every other time that Jack had woken up screaming about the monster: I checked the closet. That’s what you do, right? Your kid says “oh god there’s something scary” and you say “I’ll go look at it for you” and then you look, and there’s nothing there, and you tell the kid that nothing is there, and everyone goes back to bed.
Except that’s not what happened.
Look, there’s never been a monster in there before. I can deal with a lot of stuff. I’m a bedtime champion and a dang master at after-school-talks about feelings. I can re-shingle a roof and I’m even okay at plumbing, if the water’s shut off right. I can handle myself, is what I’m saying. But a monster? I had no game plan for there actually being a monster. My game plan was oriented towards getting the kid back to sleep. It’s a fifteen-minute plan at the most. The point is, who prepares for the eventuality that a six-year-old is right about something at two in the morning?
Not me, I guess.
So I told Jack-o I would look in the closet, and I did. I opened the closet door, and then I shut it again very quickly, because guess what? There was a monster in there.
You’ll want to know what the monster looked like. I was too busy clenching to retain details, but here was my general impression: teeth, claws, tentacles. I didn’t know that tentacles could have claws, but apparently the limits of my imagination do not encompass the fullness of God’s creation, so what do you want? Also, eyes — so many eyes, like a spider with a lot of little spiders on top of it. All of them were looking at me.
It was without a doubt the scariest thing I have ever seen in my ever-loving life, and I’ve seen a doctor’s face when he’s about to say the phrase “six months left”, so I know from scary.
I opened the closet door again. The monster made a noise like a percolating coffee maker. I shut the door.
And now I’m sitting in my son’s bed, not minding the piss smell so much, and I’m trying to figure out how to tell him that the monster in the closet is real.
It’s not fair to Jack, is the thing. It’s not fair that he already had to find out that moms can die and dads can’t stop it – now monsters? In his closet? And I can’t spin this as maybe it’s a nice monster because it’s a monster and monsters are by definition not nice, and something with that many eyes eats little boys. It’s just a fact.
He’s looking at me and his little pink lip is quivering and he’s shaking like he runs on batteries, but he’s setting his jaw like his mom used to. Christ. He’s being brave.
He rubs the back of his head, foofing out his duckling hair, and I realize that it’s a motion he’s learned from me. I do that all the time. I’m doing it right now.
“Well, buddy. What are we gonna do about that thing?”
He shrugs in that little-kid way. When a teenager shrugs, it means “I don’t give a crap, what do you know? Leave me alone, I’ll never get old, I’ll always like this kind of music.” When a little kid shrugs, it’s so honest — a little-kid shrug just means “I got no goddamn idea, pops.” I love the hell out of him when he shrugs at me.
“When did the monster come out?”
The kiddo looks at me like I’m an idiot. “When I let my feet stick out from under the covers.” Of course. His feet are well and fully tucked in now. I lift the corner of one of the blankets just an inch, and sure enough, the doorknob on the closet starts turning. I put the corner of the blanket back down fast and the door stays shut.
“Well, we can’t have it coming out of there.” He agrees with me, nodding gravely. “‘Cause kiddo, I don’t know how to tell you this, but… I’m, like, one hundred and ten percent certain that it’ll eat us.” He nods again, Duh, Dad. Kid already knows this stuff, I don’t need to tell him. He doesn’t look so scared anymore, and I realize that it’s because I’m here. His work is done — he called in the big guns, and now, the situation in the closet will be resolved by someone who knows what to do about situations in closets.
He thinks I can fix it. He thinks I can fix anything. Even after I couldn’t fix the one thing that mattered most, he still thinks I know all the answers.
We sit on the bed, talking over our options. We could nail the door shut, but then he wouldn’t be able to get any of his shoes or his pants, and he needs those for school on Monday and all. Plus the monster can probably dissolve nails with acid or something. From our combined understanding of monsters, it’s probably allergic to something dumb like mustard or broccoli or spider-man band-aids, but we don’t have time to experiment. I don’t have a gun, because I live in a house with a six-year-old. I’m proud to say that the idea of a gun doesn’t even occur to him until I mention it. What a guy.
We sit in his rocketship bed, trying to figure out what to do about the monster. He doesn’t want to kill it, because he’s six and he’s the best person in the world. I want more than anything to kill it, but I’m pretty aware of my own limitations and frankly, I don’t think I could take that thing on. I take Jack out for ice cream if there’s a spider in the kitchen, okay? Denise was always the one who dealt with those, and I never saw her take out a spider the size of my kid’s closet. This thing — it’s big. And it’s a monster. And did I tell you about the tentacles already?
After a long time spent discussing the merits of just burning the house down – and let me tell you, spend an hour trying to explain fire insurance to a six-year-old and you’ll feel eager to face a monster – we notice that it’s getting light out. When it’s definitely morning – birds are chirping, sun is shining, the whole magilla – we decide to see if the monster is still there. Maybe it’s only there at night, you know?
My son lifts up a corner of the bedsheets.
He pushes the bedsheets down until they’re just covering his feet to the ankles.
He takes a deep breath, my brave boy, and whips his feet out from under the covers like the he’s fastest gun in the West winning a shootout. We watch the closet door, eyes wide, hearts pounding.
He looks at me and I look at him and we both know that one of us has to look in the closet. He whispers, “Maybe it’s sleeping. Maybe it’s nocturnal.”
I squint at him. “When did you learn ‘nocturnal’?”
He rolls his eyes and I realize that someday this kid is going to be a teenager, and I look at the closet door, hoping the monster will come out and eat us both before that happens.
“Okay. Okay, buddy, here’s what we’re gonna do. You’re gonna go shut yourself in Daddy’s bedroom, okay? You’re gonna lock the door-”
“I’m not supposed to lock the door.”
“I know, but just this once, you’re gonna lock the door and -”
“But I’m not supposed to lock the door because -”
I rest a hand on his head and deploy the Dad Stare, which is basically the only weapon in my arsenal. He’s polite enough to pretend it’s intimidating.
“You’re gonna lock the door. And then I’ll take a look and see if the monster is sleeping, and then we’ll figure out what to do, alright?”
He nods. His eyes are huge, but his jaw is still set in that Denise kind of way. I put my arms around him and I hug him, I hug my son so tight that I’m sure I’m hurting him, but he hugs me back anyway because he’s the best damned kid there ever was.
“If anything happens to me, you take my cell phone from my nightstand and you call Grandma Irene, okay?” His answer is muffled because I’m jamming his face into my chest. I pull back to let him breathe. His face looks like he has a lot of objections to this plan, but he just says “I love you, Dad,” and I don’t know if I can keep it together much longer so I push him out the door.
I sit on his rocket bed and listen to his little feet pad down the hallway. I hear him go into my bedroom with the one empty nightstand, and I hear him close the door, and God bless his six-year-old heart, I hear him turn the lock.
I don’t want to waste any time, because my son is probably terrified in there. He’s scared and alone, wondering if his dad is about to get eaten by a monster.
I have to open the closet door.
I can’t just sit here and wait – it’ll be the same thing in there no matter when I do it. I have to get up and walk across the room and open the door to my boy’s closet.
I wish Denise were here. I always wish she was here – that hasn’t stopped, not once since she died – but right now I really, really wish she was here, because she would be the one to look in the closet. She would get right up and march on over and yank the closet door open. She would grab the monster by one of those frilly things around its primary eyeballs and she’d drag it out to the front yard and make it feel ashamed of itself.
But I’m not Denise, and I’m just sitting on the rocket bed with my head in my hands because I can’t take on a monster. It’s too hard, and it’s not fair, and I don’t know how. I’m not her. Looking in the closet to confirm that there’s no monster is right in my wheelhouse, but dealing with the monster when it’s real — that’s Denise stuff.
Something tickles between my ears.
Denise stuff. This is a Denise job.
The tickle fades, but then returns again, brighter. Denise stuff. Denise stuff. Why does this feel so important?
And then I remember.
I was six. My ma came into my bedroom because I was screaming at the top of my lungs. She looked in my closet and then she said ‘oh no, no sir. This is Reggie Stuff,’ and then my pop came in and he looked in my closet, and then he sent me out of my own room. I remember I sat in my parent’s bedroom with my ma. We shut the door and put a chair in front of it and then she taught me how to play poker for a few hours.
Of course. Of course it was him.
I run down the hall to my bedroom. The door is shut – locked, of course, damn it, Jack locked it because I told him to. I’m about to pound on the door, about to yell for him to let me in, but then I think better of it. I tap on the door with the pad of my index finger.
“Hey buddy, can you let me in? It’s your dad.”
There’s a long pause, so long I almost tap again, before I he answers. I can barely hear him.
“How do I know you’re not the monster?”
Oh, Jesus, how do I answer that one?
“Kiddo, it’s really me. I… huh. How would you know if I was the monster?”
Another long pause. The sound of the lock clicking open. He eases the door open a crack, peeks out at me with one eyeball. I kneel down to look through the crack at him.
“Buddy, it’s me, I promise. But if you’re scared, you can just grab my phone from my nightstand and slide it through to me, okay? I have to make a really important phone call.”
The door shuts, locks again. Smart kid. A minute later, my phone slides under the door.
“Thanks, Jack-o. I promise I’m not mad at you for not letting me in, okay?”
No response. I tap on the door with with my pinky finger, soft as I can, wishing I could rest my hand on his fine blond hair; wishing I could give my frightened little boy a hug.
“I mean it. I’m not mad at you. You’re a smart guy, and you did the right thing. I love you.”
There’s a sniffle from the other side of the door. “I love you too, Dad.”
There’s a sniffle from my side of the door. I wipe my eyes on the sleeve of my t-shirt, and head back to the bedroom before he can hear me crying, because what’s scarier to a six-year-old boy than hearing his dad cry?
I make the phone call, and after that, it’s only ten minutes or so before Grandma Irene arrives.
I’m not supposed to call her Grandma Irene – I’m supposed to call her Irene, or Mrs. Hart if she’s mad at me about something. But to Jack, she’s Grandma Irene, so it’s in my head now. You know how that goes. She’s the only grandparent the kid has, what with my ma and pop dead and Denise’s dad having run off way back when. Jack loves her.
“So, what’s the big emergency?”
I don’t know how to tell her, so I just point upstairs. We go into Jack’s room. Her eyes fall on the empty rocket bed.
“Where’s Jack? Is he alright?” Her face is white and she’s gripping my arm with such incredible strength that I know I was right to call her.
“Jack’s fine, Irene. He’s in my bedroom. I – I need your help.”
She’s searching my face, and just like that, she knows. Her head swivels until she’s looking at the closet door. She definitely knows. But she asks me anyway.
“Why did you call me?”
I clear my throat. I’m embarrassed. Wouldn’t you be? Calling Grandma to come help out? Admitting that since your wife died there are some things you just don’t know how to do? Some things you just aren’t ready to take on yet, because you can’t accept that she’s not there to help with them anymore?
“There’s a monster.”
“What? Speak up, I can’t hear you.”
I clear my throat again. I try to make eye contact with her but I can’t, so I settle on looking at her chin.
“There’s a monster. In the closet.”
She ducks her head to look in my eyes, and the way she does it is so Denise that I well up.
She nods. “What kind of monster?”
I am at a loss. What kind? How should I know?
“Uh, tentacles? Teeth, claws, eyes. Frilly things.” I wiggle my fingers around my temples like that’ll clear up the meaning of ‘frilly things.’
Irene looks at the closet, and it looks like she’s doing math in her head. She nods again.
“That’s Irene stuff, alright. Take Jack to the park and play catch. Don’t just look at me with your mouth open, Donovan, do as I say. Go to the park with him and play catch and then come back.” She calls me Donovan instead of Donny and that’s how I know she means business. And I want to take Jack to the park. But even this I can’t do on my own.
“…He won’t come out of my room. He wants me to prove that I’m not the monster, and I – I don’t really know how to do that.”
She stares at me for a long moment, then smiles. “He’s such a smart boy.”
She strides down the hall to my bedroom, raps on the door, and calls to Jack. “Jack, you come out of here right this instant. It’s Grandma Irene. I’m taking care of the monster; you and your father are going to go play catch in your pajamas.” She sounds so much like Denise that I want to curl up on the floor and bite my knees. Her tone is one hundred percent Irene, and I feel a pang of sympathy for what the monster is about to go through. Jack comes out of my bedroom. His eyes are all puffy. Grandma Irene gives him a quick hug and then pushes him towards me.
We go to the park and we play catch. Actually, we’ve never played catch before, so it’s kind of weird – us in our bare feet in the dewy grass, me teaching my kid how to throw a baseball. He’s good at it. I’m good at teaching him.
When we get home a few hours later, there are three big garbage bags piled up on the curbside for pickup. I set Jack up in the kitchen with a bagel and some peanut butter, then head upstairs. Irene’s jacket is draped across the fin of Jack’s rocketship bed, and the water is running in the hall bathroom. I knock on the door.
“Irene? Is everything okay?”
She cracks the door and peers out at me, exactly the way that Jack did when he wanted me to prove I wasn’t the monster.
“Everything is fine, Donovan. I’m taking a shower. Would you be a dear and throw this out for me?” She passes out what remains of her smart pantsuit – it is a wad of pastel shreds, held together by green ooze. “And would you loan me something to wear?”
I haven’t thrown out any of Denise’s clothes yet, and in her side of the dresser I find a set of her pajamas that look like they’ll fit Irene. I pull them out, run a thumb over the penguins on the pajama bottoms. They’re surfing. The penguins, not the pajama bottoms.
How do I do any of this without her? How do I do it alone?
But then, I’m not alone, I guess. I’ve got Irene. And I’ve got Jack. And I know that eventually, I’ll learn to do the Denise stuff. When I’m done looking at the empty places where she should be. When the fact that they’re empty stops being something I need to stare at in order to understand the contours of my loss.
I hear the water in the hall bathroom turn off, and I know Irene’ll be needing these surfing penguins in a minute. I crack the door open just enough to slide the pajamas through, then close it again as quietly as I can.
I walk downstairs, bracing myself for the peanut butter explosion that inevitably awaits me in the breakfast nook – but when I get down there, there’s no peanut butter explosion. My boy has pulled his chair up to the sink, and he’s standing on it so he can reach to wash his own plate. Getting soap everywhere, but still. He’s trying to pull his weight.
What a guy.
About the Author
Hugo Award Winner and Bestselling author Sarah Gailey is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe. Their short fiction credits include Vice and The Atlantic. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, was a 2018 Hugo and Nebula award finalist. Their bestselling adult novel debut, Magic For Liars, was published in 2019. Their most recent novel, The Echo Wife, is available now. You can find links to their work at www.sarahgailey.com and on social media at @gaileyfrey.
About the Narrator
Rish Outfield can be found regularly at The Dunesteef podcast, which he produces with Big Anklevich, and you can hear him pretty much everywhere in the genre story pod-o-sphere. You can find him online.