They Could Have Been Yours
I feel the tack prick harder than it did this morning, because with T there was something abyss-like that might have swallowed me, had he
The infomercial jangles for DoubleSpace were never quite as catchy as the ones for its more expensive alternatives, and yet, you and I would hum them indiscriminately, little heads bobbing, lips vibrating, as we ran about the house. The day the installers came, we were singing at the top of our lungs and had to be shunted outside into our tiny box of a yard where we stood with noses smudging the sliding glass door to glimpse the new closet as it went in.
I thought I’d see a whole closet-shaped box be swallowed by the closet we already had. You thought the new space would be invisible.
Neither of us, at the time, had the words necessary to describe what was happening in our narrow hall that afternoon; words like spatial distortion and physical impermanence weren’t in my vocabulary yet and they certainly weren’t in yours.
All we knew was after the installers left, we could push a small beige button discreetly set within the closet’s doorframe and the dubbed “guest” or “nice” closet would disappear, replaced with one filled with our more well-used things—jackets and sweaters and gloves and umbrellas and neat gray storage bins with Papa’s elegant handwriting, and if one crawled to the back, perhaps a few gummi wrappers left behind after a hidden snack.
That was you. You used to sneak sugary things so much that our parents couldn’t keep school snacks stocked. I would blame you; you would blame me; our parents, especially Dad, would eventually throw their hands in the air in frustration.
They never commented, though, when the snacks stopped disappearing.
Papa loved the new DoubleSpace closet. That small space was nothing in comparison to the grand double, triple, quadruple spaces that others could afford, but to us—to him and Dad especially—having two closets in the space of one was glorious. “Hide the mess. Guests are here,” they would say, and you and I would race to see who could press the button first.
When they told us to clean our rooms, we started begging for personal DoubleSpaces in our own closets. We didn’t know the cost of what we were asking for then; we just knew that there was a kid on the television who claimed to have two bedrooms—one on top of the other, though that wasn’t how it worked—one where he slept, one a converted playroom.
It was nice to dream during those first few years.
We used to play games together while Papa worked in the corner of their bedroom, taking calls that required us to shush, so we found quiet games like hide and seek and treasure hunts to occupy our time. I would draw gold coins and cut them out, leaving bits of paper strewn across the kitchen floor that Dad would sigh over and Papa would make me sweep. But it was worth it to see you giggle when you found the little box with them and pronounce yourself rich. Rich enough to never have to clean your room again because you were buying a DoubleSpace, no, a TripleSpace, with all that gold.
During hide and seek, my favorite place to hide was inside the lower cabinet in the kitchen—it ran deep and was somewhat useless due to a horrible design and I was small enough to squeeze inside the darkness. You though, your favorite place to hide was the hall closet, with your stolen gummies, behind all our jackets and boots and storage bins filled with knit hats. You never caught on to the cabinet; I always knew you were in the closet.
I’d like to say that it wasn’t my fault. That it was the installer’s fault for putting the button within a child’s reach. That it was Dad and Papa’s fault for not being able to afford something better than the cheapest space-saving alternative. That it was DoubleSpace’s fault for not catching the error in their programming. Or even the scientists who’d created the technology in the first place, desperate to increase living space for Earth’s population growth.
I’d like to say that.
But it would discount my part in it all. The part where I was angry because you’d eaten the last of the gummies and I wouldn’t have any for school. The part where I yelled at you because you wouldn’t come out of the closet and take your turn being seeker, which ended with Papa reprimanding me for being loud while he was on a call. The part where I told you I didn’t want to play anymore, that you were a baby, that you were mean.
The part where I pushed the button.
The part where our jackets and gloves and hats and umbrellas and sweaters and boots and gray storage bins all written on neatly with Papa’s handwriting disappeared. Along with you.
Dad found me when he returned home: me, standing in front of the hall closet, desperately pressing the button over and over, slamming the door, opening it again to the clean, orderly guest closet, screaming your name, telling you I hated you, telling you I was sorry, crying, pleading, snot dripping on my lip, my hair a ragged mane as I pulled it, pulled it, torn chunks between my fingers like when I’d been nothing but a toddler not knowing what I was doing to myself and yet still doing it, pulling and screaming, and slamming and screaming, and pressing the button, over and over and over …
The part where you disappeared and I couldn’t get you back.
On the mantle, the one that Papa had bought and placed in the living room despite us not having a fireplace, were photos of you and me. Green and blue sweaters and jeans. Holding up jack-o-lanterns with lopsided grins. Fake smiles. Real smiles. Tongues out. Eyes rolled. A few family photos of all four of us.
Papa pulled one of you from its frame—the one with your favorite ninja turtle sweatshirt—to give to the investigators. They insisted that Papa and Dad must have done something to you, but they only suggested those things out of earshot, out of sight. I didn’t find out their suspicions until later. But I remember being asked where you were over and over again. It didn’t matter how much I insisted that you were in the closet, stuck in the closet. They thought Dad had coerced me to say that. Or that Papa had bribed me to.
When the DoubleSpace repair crew finally arrived, they insisted that you could never have been in there when the closet changed over. Because there were fail-safes. Sensors that recognized heat signatures, sound, movement. Had there been a living being larger than a mouse in the closet, it wouldn’t have been able to swap out for our guest closet.
They looked at me the same way the investigators did.
They stayed though, because the DoubleSpace closet was broken, after all, and wasn’t reacting when they tried to get the closets to swap. They couldn’t find anything wrong. Nothing in their flimsy manuals letting them know how to troubleshoot this kind of problem. Papa and Dad were offered to have the closet reset. Turn it off. Turn it on again.
Do you know what happens when they reset spatial distortions? That impermanence becomes real, becomes vivid. Everything in there lost.
We’d lose our gloves and hats and umbrellas and all those gray storage bins Papa had labeled one quiet evening. And you.
Dad and Papa said no. Of course, they said no.
But it meant that the DoubleSpace representatives could only sift through the accessible programming for a glitch, but not check the hardware or reset the software if they did change anything at all. They could truly only alter the settings. They tried. Hour after hour, fiddling with factory settings. They increased the sensitivity of the sensors. They decreased them. They changed the duration of the timer, though we’d never actually used that setting. They fiddled with heat controls. They messed with the dimensions. They even overrode some of the factory presets, extras we hadn’t paid for. But nothing worked to bring our real closet back.
Twenty-four hours after you disappeared, I was taken to Grandmama’s house with a packed bag. Papa cried in her arms while I peeked down the hall, too scared to join them. So I curled around your yellow blankie on Grandmama’s thin guest bed and fell asleep dreaming about you popping out at me yelling “Boo!” and then laughing and laughing because you’d finally won hide and seek.
When the news hit our local stations forty-eight hours after you’d disappeared, Papa and Dad had another visit from DoubleSpace employees to study the closet. But they just went through all the same motions the first one had. I only found out listening to one side of a conversation while Grandmama was on the phone, her saying “Can’t they try anything else? What good are they?” The news blew up anyway, all over the net, your face on Grandmama’s old screen and her scrambling to turn it off. Turn it off so I wouldn’t have to hear.
I told her that the news was wrong. That you weren’t lost. You were in the closet. She just patted my hand and pressed me toward her lightly so I’d snuggle into her lap.
The investigators were too busy interviewing Papa and Dad’s co-workers and friends to get an idea of character to be of much help. And yet the hours kept ticking away.
Two days without you became three days without you. The investigators took Dad in for questioning. The DoubleSpace Company came out with a statement saying that there was nothing wrong with their products. A smear campaign began against Papa and Dad, claiming they’d made up that you were lost in their closet. A lawyer called, but Papa thought she was only interested in helping them defend against child murder charges rather than help them sue DoubleSpace.
Most of what I remember about that time could be summed up in three things: one, being pulled out of school after the kids in my class told me Papa and Dad were evil murderers and that I would be next, two, having gummi snacks every day is both wonderful and horrible, and three, that playing by myself is so very lonely. So horribly lonely.
Papa blamed himself for not being on top of us, for not checking on us more often. He couldn’t work for the longest time—brought his computer down into the hall, the closet door open, his gaze on the lone coat someone had left behind the last time we’d had company. I would catch him through all the years later peering at me randomly and when I’d realize, he’d just say, “Just checking. Just checking,” as if he thought I’d somehow disappear too.
I would sit in the hallway, the closet door open in front of me, and talk to you. Tell you about what I did that day. What I had for lunch. What I was learning during my at-home school. I imagined sometimes that you were talking back. Would tilt my head and say “What was that? Why, yes, I agree” the same way that Dad would do to Papa. A few times, Dad came rushing into the hallway, but it was only ever just me and I would see his face crumble, what scrapings of hope I’d accidentally given him falling away.
As I grew older, I stopped talking quite so loudly, my conversations with you becoming softer. Between the charges brought against them and then eventually dropped, Dad began to avoid the hallway, going the long way round through our dining room when he needed the staircase. On one quiet night—for the television was kept off far more than it had before, blocking out the possibility of seeing Dad and Papa’s name smeared by DoubleSpace in some cheap news segment—Papa bought new brown storage bins for new knit hats and labeled them neatly to put them in the guest closet.
And slowly, the guest closet became our normal closet.
Sometimes, early on, I’d press that beige button. Just to see. But mostly, we didn’t want to know. Papa had nightmares about pressing the button and finding your bones, knowing that you’d been in there by yourself hour after hour, day after day, month after month. He never told me or Dad, but we knew. Because we had them too.
We had a grave sitting in the middle of our house that only we believed in.
Nine years and seventy-three days after you disappeared—after I pressed that button—DoubleSpace had a suit brought against them. Not by us—Dad and Papa had nothing left financially and most people still believed the nasty things DoubleSpace had made up about them long after the situation was no longer newsworthy. This suit was brought forth by a middle-class family with three kids who had splurged on secondary spatial distortions for each of their kids’ bedrooms for their tenth birthdays. That’s how the story went when the grandparents and extended family came on the air raising their fists against the injustice.
Dad had to leave the room when they started talking about how awful it was that the youngest had disappeared only a few days after her tenth birthday. Another faulty DoubleSpace installation. Another child lingering in impermanence. A well-used bedroom sent into secondary space and refusing to fold back into reality. Papa and I stayed and watched the whole segment. Every single word of it. He was hugging himself by the end like he couldn’t find the strength to shut off the thing spouting hurt at him. And I … I guess I thought I deserved to relive the moments of that afternoon.
Six months later, while I filled in my college applications, writing personal essays about who and what I wanted to be, another segment came on dealing with the same family, the same kid. The banner at the bottom claimed “Space for Miracles” and the anchors pasted on the widest smiles ever as they asked “Wasn’t it just horrible?” to each of the family members in turn. “Wasn’t it just so so horrible?”
I staggered to my feet and screamed raggedly for Papa. Together we stared, listening as the family recounted how the bedroom just changed over one random day. The oldest daughter, about my age, claimed she had a habit of pressing the button on the edge of her little sister’s door frame each morning. “I’d say good morning and press it. Couldn’t go about my day unless I did.” And one day, it worked.
And there the little girl was, blinking owlishly, confused as to why her family shrieked and spilled into her room to swarm about her, hugging her, reaffirming she couldn’t be squeezed out of real space again.
“Six months is a long time to be stuck in your bedroom,” said one of the anchors. And not die, the woman didn’t add, but the world heard what she meant regardless.
Papa wandered from the room and when I finally caught my breath, I followed. Found him with his forehead pressed against the hall closet, his eyes closed, his finger curled about the button. But you didn’t show. Not that day. Not any of the days after when I pressed the button as I passed. Nor when he did.
But we kept trying each day after that, thinking that you still lived someplace we couldn’t touch. Someplace out of space and time.
I changed my essays, citing the desire to figure a way to get you out, opening up, just a little, within the impersonal application process. I chose colleges that would fulfill my brand new dreams, ones that took me toward a degree in quantum physics with a personal goal of not just understanding the technology behind companies like DoubleSpace and New Specs and DimenZions, but would allow me to jump into an R&D arm, let me see what I did to you from the other side. The side that mattered.
I received three acceptances. One even slightly personalized. I chose the cheapest college and dealt with a niggling thought in the back of my mind all through freshman year that I had chosen wrong, a parallel to the pricing structure DoubleSpace used that those who went with New Specs could whisper behind the safety features of their double, triple, quadruple rooms at those of us who let financial baggage pull us down.
Though I have a secret, one I didn’t tell Dad and almost spilled to Papa the month before I left for school. I had a second reason for choosing where I went, and it had nothing to do with cost or financials or debt or networking, or even, if I’m being completely honest, my degree.
It took months of library and on-campus cafe visits, of drop-ins to clubs and flybys at parties, pretending I was social, circling, circling until I finally, one snowy afternoon in February, saw her. She wore a pair of black boots, crunching through the salt and grimy snow chunks on the sidewalk, and the scarf she wore was a bright, beautiful sunset orange, matching the nails peeking out from black and white striped fingerless gloves. Her hair was in twists, the tips, bleached and dyed a reddish-orange, shuddering against her jacket with her every step.
When I said her name, she made to keep going, her gaze cutting into me like she thought me a vulture, wanting to taste her pain, to hear her story again, but special, for my own ears, my own consumption.
I said, on that snowy sidewalk, my breath frosting in the air, and my scarf pulled down so my nose likely glowed pink in the cold, “My brother never came back.” Then I gave her my name. And though I’d never been featured, never went on talk shows and chatted with interviewers, I could tell she recognized me, could tell that she must have done her own deep-dive research during those six months when her little sister’s bedroom had stood stuck on her playroom, for she stopped.
Esther Bradshaw, that’s her name. You need to know it. She’s important.
We became friends. Not like you’d remember how, walking into preschool and kindergarten and announcing you were playing with someone that day. Adult friendship is slower, more methodical. A dance, testing, darting back, too much, not enough, asking, answering, wondering if I went too far, pulled too many filters down, should have left one up, but which one? Holding the pieces of those cracking filters about myself so that she only sees through the cracks and I only see through hers until they all come down, scraping, peeling, collapsing under the weight of being my not-self for too too long.
What’s funny, in a sort of way, is we did all that without once talking about you. I think she never needed me to, just like I never needed her to tell me about those six months when she would press that button on her little sister’s door frame and say “Good morning.” We just knew.
She was going to school for art and history. I was in the sciences. Our paths wouldn’t cross unless we made them cross, and we always made them cross. We had an understanding despite all our varied differences.
I went to her class art showings. She listened to my rambling on temporal impermanence outside of space. I hid her cat when her landlord peeked his head into their apartment for inspections. She would heckle me when I practiced my presentations. I’d bring her snacks and drop off coffee when she’d be too far focused to remember to come up for air. She would ping me, smother me in texts and calls whenever my mind got the best of me and I began to disappear.
I guess, in a way, we played hide and seek occasionally, too, like that. Always knowing where to look for one another when the path grew jagged and sharp and filled with ugly barbs.
So when, in journalistic cruelness, an article came out before our graduation contrasting me and her and our alternative experiences with lost siblings on account of DoubleSpaces, where the author claimed snidely that he was surprised I was still alive, that my parents had stopped at killing only one of us, Esther was the first there with a bottle of vodka and a couple of shot glasses that said “Yeah, Sure, One More” in a little vertical line. So we yeah, sure, one mored our way through the night.
Which was when she finally told me about the day she’d lost her sister. And the day she got her back.
And how, in all the chaos and pain and pure exhilaration, in the whirlwind of resetting her sister’s bedroom and the reinstallation and reimbursement and suit from the company, it took almost two weeks for her family to realize one of their cats had gone missing.
A single conversation can change anyone’s world.
It happened to us, way back when you were five and I was seven and we were playing that game of hide and seek. A single conversation where the dips and turns of our voices rising and falling caused an emotional reaction in me that pulsed blood in my ears that I couldn’t hear, and enclosed a black ring in my eyes that I couldn’t see, and a scream in my throat that I couldn’t speak.
This single conversation, me, holding that shot glass, reading the “Yeah, Sure, One More” made me think on repeat. Yeah. Sure. One more tiny bit of hope before I lose it altogether.
Thing is, it’s all just a theory. I don’t want to tell anyone because if I’m wrong, then I’d have put that look of hope on Dad’s face, see that crushing hug Papa would give himself, the light tap of his finger against the button as he passed the closet and didn’t say anything at all to me.
But I can explain it here. Because I think the closet is still working fine. That it was installed backward that day long ago when we were standing outside in our little box of a yard, our noses turned piggy, upturned on the glass door. That through the couple of years we had it, despite all those times you hid in the back with your gummi packs, no one had ever been tucked inside when that button had been pushed. Until I did it. Until the closet sensors finally had reason to activate their fail-safes, programming claiming that real space wasn’t real, that there was a living creature where it shouldn’t be and the closet clicked you over, clicked you to what should have been safe. And then refused to give you back because according to the closet, you were where you belonged. All this time.
I’ve changed the settings. Made it so it prioritizes larger heat signatures, bigger than you’d have been. The opposite of what I think happened with Esther’s little sister and that poor missing cat. Made the closet so it will think this time around that I’m the one needing saving.
Esther’s here. She thinks I’m being stupid going in myself. I can tell she’s having flashbacks. Her fingers keep clenching and she keeps looking to the opposite side of the closet doorframe, closer to where the button on her sister’s bedroom had been. But she hasn’t left yet, for which I’m grateful. I need somewhere here because I can’t press the button myself if I’m inside. And I need—you need someone here.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, if this works, if you get out, if you’re still that five-year-old little brother of mine, just playing hide and seek, waiting for me to find you … Well, I’ll have found you. I’ll have finally found you.
I feel the tack prick harder than it did this morning, because with T there was something abyss-like that might have swallowed me, had he
“I’m Fiona,” I say, holding out a hand. When she shrinks away, I back off. Some people who come to me don’t want to be
Evie sits cross-legged on the carpet, glued to the screen.
She loves Riley.
Everyone loves Riley.
The lady possessed all her fingers. Even the useless fifths wiggled in obscure movements as she stroked the vines drooping from the terrariums and grazing