“The Man in Christopher's Closet,” by W.R. Parrish, is the Grand Prize winning story for the Ninth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards, besting 1,300 entries across six genres: crime, horror, romance, science fiction, thriller, and YA. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with Parrish and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2014 issue of Writer's Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Tenth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Parrish's winning entry.
The Man in Christopher's Closet
by W.R. Parrish
He saw The Man when he was four. Christopher and his parents were living in an apartment then, two stories of brick and narrow spaces. His parents were downstairs, the noise of his mother in the kitchen echoing up the steps and around the sharp turns into his room. Christopher squinted into the evening-orange light coming through his window. The closet door was open, four inches with a wobble making five, making four, making five. He looked up from his position on the floor. The Man was a sliver at first, orange finding its way across the bedroom floor and around the difficult gap into the closet, much like his mother's echo working across their rental. Christopher frowned, his small features working to furrow mouth and forehead together. The orange highlight traveled up, emphasizing first the side of a shoe, a leg, on up beyond the hem of a jacket and fingertips hanging loose and moving with the closet door.
Christopher frowned deeper. Setting his toys aside he slid across the floor, corduroy grooves drawing lines on his legs. He peered into the almost-dark letting his eyes adjust. The Man was tall, his neck raised near the ceiling and face pressed where it scraped the top pushing His body into the top of a question mark. He screamed then—Christopher—the action figure he'd forgotten to drop slipping slowly between fingers.
His mother's echo became feet and she was there.
"Honey?" She drew the word out. Christopher pointed. "What?" Again. She mimicked her son, pulling her features in tight before turning to the half-open door. Christopher winced when it swung wide and again when she tugged the light on. His mother leaned into the closet's mouth. "Well?"
Christopher stretched. His neck craned around the door and then her. With the gap widened, shadows found their way into the deeper valleys of the closet and the person inside it, The Man's milk face clearer now stretching down and deep, His chin the length of alligator lips, His eyes pooled into orbiting rings of black, His nose a long hook hanging Damocles-like over the rest of His pale pockets. Christopher swallowed his scream again choosing instead to grip the base of his mother's leg.
"Well?" she asked again, her head swiveling between walls. "What was it?" She looked down. Christopher looked up. The Man looked at them both. "Was it a mouse?"
The question confused Christopher. He peered around the curve of his mother's skirt where The Man stood motionless save for His quivering fingers, mouth curved up- up-up. Again: "Well?"
She sighed, brown curls bobbing just above her shoulder as she shrugged Christopher from her leg and stepped fully into the closet. With one hand she pushed aside his clothes, with the other she tossed shoes past the door in pairs. Socks came next. Underwear. Christopher's clip-on ties. From the top shelf board games scattered, Candy Land and Sorry! spilling all the way down in cardboard lumps. One of them—Christopher was too terrified to fully see which—clipped the nose of The Man and changed course.
Christopher's mother looked over her shoulder. "Am I close?" He blinked, yanking his eyes from The Man who seemed to give his mother as much attention as she gave Him. "Honey?"
Finger trembling, Christopher did the other thing he could do at the moment: he pointed. His mother jumped back, expecting... what? something to leap from the shadows after her, not realizing that something from the shadows was already there. She tripped on the doorframe and spun over Christopher wildly.
"Did you see it? Where'd it go?" Her hair created lattice over her eyes. "Christopher?"
His voice was quiet, a falsetto impression of his father's rasped crinkled paper. He licked his lips saying: "You don't see Him?"
"See who?" "Him?" "Who?"
Christopher looked back at her. "The Man in the closet."
He watched as his mother's face cycled through a series of emotions, all visible as if her eyes had shifted from blue to hazel to green to gray to almost violet. She grinned then, a simple thing breaking the smooth skin around her mouth.
"A man?" she asked. She exaggerated a look, straining above her son's short frame to get a clearer look at the space. For a moment the boy hoped, seeing those eyebrows shoot north before realizing her surprise too was mocked, her hands going first over her chest and then to her mouth as she gasped deep. "Oh no!" He looked with her. "He's hideous!"
Hands shot out scooping Christopher up and spinning him head over heels. His hair fanned out above (below) him, his mother's fingers tickling across his neck and underarms as she brought his exposed stomach up to her mouth and blew against his belly button. He giggled. Laughed. Roared and she roared with him. She turned him upright, the world tilting precariously as the room righted itself. His laughter reached a fevered crescendo.
And then he saw Him. The outline. Christopher's door swung loose again (highlighted fingers tap-tap-tapping), no wider than his tiny hand would be. The giggles stopped. His mother kissed him.
"Okay, mister." She puts him down. Smoothes his shirt. "Hungry?"
He watches the index finger, the middle finger, the index finger, the middle finger, hypnotized until she kisses him again.
"Earth to mister." Knock-knock on his head. "Hungry? Peanut Butter?"
Christopher blinks and pulls his eyes away.
She nods. Echoes him. “Crunchy.” "Okay."
He balled his hand into hers and headed out.
The Man was still there when he returned. Christopher had stayed away as long as possible, chasing his stretching shadow outside as the color moved from orange to purple to black, and when his dad finally called him in, he'd come with delayed obedience. He was unchanged—The Man—His body still curled, His face still pressed to the ceiling and over, His fingers still twitching mechanically. Christopher begged to sleep with his parents that night, crawling under the covers before they could object while wearing the same clothes he'd spent the day in. His father pretended to forget he was there, gently rolling over Christopher's small body enveloped beneath the sheets. Christopher, slipping to sleep, giggled and grabbed his father’s leg.
He was there the following morning. And afternoon. And night. Christopher pushed his big boy bed to the furthest corner of his room and his dresser against the closet door.
He was there the day after that. And the day after that.
And the day after that.
Days into weeks into months. Body curved, face pressed, fingers mechanical.
When summer ended and Christopher began kindergarten, he took to checking the coat closet behind Miss Ray's desk to an obsessive degree as he had with the other closets in the apartment. There was no door to the extended room, but the boy would peer in, peer out, peer in, peer out, counting to five Mississippi between every rotation. Miss Ray told Christopher's parents they might want to check on him.
The same obsession gripped Christopher on their trip north to visit his grandparents for the weekend. He would tour the various rooms moving from his to his parents to his grandparents and back again, flipping the light switch on and hiding his eyes before curiosity got the better of him and he peered between his fingers. Nothing.
He was in Christopher's closet when they came home.
Christopher brought friends over who would only rummage through his belongings, pushing a pant leg aside thinking it an errant thing on the fringe of their vision. But Christopher knew. If a toy was ever tossed into the closet, it was gone forever. They would offer to retrieve it, but Christopher didn't want to take the risk.
When Christopher was seven, they moved. He had come to expect The Man, come to expect Him living unchanged in the recesses of Christopher's changed world, but when the announcement came, the boy was overjoyed. Christopher packed all his worldly possessions (save for the closet, of course) weeks before their departure. When the truck finally carried his life away, Christopher rolled down the back window of his parent's Ford and stuck his head into the morning light with a whoop and a smile.
Their new home was beautiful, just far enough back from an old dirt road, the yard stretching toward trees and invisible things beyond them. Christopher breathed in deep smelling old earth. Smelling grass. Smelling sap left to bake in the spring sun.
He took the stairs to the porch cautiously. He took the stairs to the second floor landing cautiously too, and the long walk down the hall to the fresh white walls of his room. The cardboard box shook in his hands as he pawed the door open wide. Delaying the moment as long as he could, Christopher tugged open both windows first. Inspecting the storm door on the side of the house, his dad squinted up and waved. Christopher waved back.
The closet was empty. He almost sagged into the carpet, having to lean against the frame to keep himself from buckling over. Christopher brought up the rest of his things being careful to keep out from under feet as his room was put in order. By afternoon the house was settled silence. By evening, only crickets. With his windows still open, Christopher watched bugs circle the trees outside, a blanket pulled up against the chill.
The Man was there in the morning.
Christopher dropped the box he was holding, the weight shaking planks beneath the carpet. As had happened before, his mother came running, her steps echoing less here than they had in the apartment, but traceable still from the office to the steps to the landing to his room.
He tried to dig himself in the opposite wall. The closet door lulled, teetering where Christopher had yanked himself and it backward. Footsteps and his father appeared too.
Christopher pulled his face away from the wall long enough to say "He's here.” before slumping deeper. He heard his dad say "Who, Christopher-boy?" and the closet door scrape through carpet. His mother's arms came around him, smaller than they had been before.
They took him to see Dr. Pratt. Christopher didn't notice the look that passed between his parents as he described Him, the three-years weight staggering out in Morse staccato and filled with so much detail his mother actually pulled him tighter to her. Dr. Pratt shined lights in his eyes. Listened to his heartbeat. Listened to Christopher. Pratt patiently explained that men (Men) do not simply appear in anyone's closets, and he told his parents the same thing.
"Often, with children," the doctor's voice was a stream, slow-moving and uninterested in forks, "change can bring about startling results to their..." He tapped his temple. "They are sponges. Soaking up their here, only to be wrung out when placed there, and left to absorb again. Give the child this." The prescription was illegible. "He'll make it."
And Christopher did. To humor him, Christopher's parents put a padlock on the closet door, and to humor them, Christopher said nothing else about The Man. Christopher didn't mention how He was still a question mark, His chin still raised where it met the ceiling, and His face still scraping along the top. How His fingers moved index, middle, index, middle. How inexplicable this was because Christopher's ceiling was higher in this house than it was in the one before. He didn't tell his parents that he noticed these things as his dad pulled the closet door closed and slipped the lock into place.
Periodically, Christopher would sneak downstairs when the house was darkest, being careful to avoid the sixth and fourteenth step on his way down and into his father's room where the great cherry desk lived. The closet key was kept in the second drawer, hidden and not hidden behind a small stack of paperwork. Christopher would make his way up (stepping over fourteenth, stepping over sixth). Fingers trembling, the key would slide into place, then click as the latch came free booming in the otherwise silent house, and Christopher's breath would catch as he waited for the stir and steps of his parents’ feet.
But then the lock came free. The door creaked open. The Man became visible in shafts of convenient moonlight outlining those same defining characteristics. Christopher's breath would catch. Sometimes, his hand would reach out as if to touch Him, as if to finally run his fingers over the rumbled dark of His suit, and then it would drop. Knowing He was there, still, Christopher would swallow, pushing the door closed. Lock back. Key back (sixth, fourteenth). Christopher in bed with the blankets pulled tight and eyes fixed on the closet door.
Christopher went to camp that summer. The Man was there too. Not on the first night, and not on the second, but by the dawn of the third there He was, wreathed in dancing motes of pale dust, His body the same as it was before and before that too, only now a curved thirteen feet in the corner of the shared space. The Man was back home when Christopher arrived. Smaller again.
He had dad take the lock off because what was the point?
He was there when Christopher stayed with his grandparents over winter break.
He was there two years later when his parents bought the cabin on the lake.
He was there all through junior high and high school.
Christopher never spoke to Him. Never tried. Oh he had been tempted, tempted like he was to touch Him on those days when night seemed far away or on nights when the moon was a sphere of pocked white, but he never followed through. He did,however, drive the twelve-odd minutes into town to visit the small Catholic church there and old Father Weisman. Christopher's parents were not religious people and neither was Christopher, but what could it hurt to unburden himself on the eve of his college departure? A departure he knew would just cause the Thing only he could see to appear wherever else it was Christopher was settling.
The elderly priest was kind enough to say a blessing over Christopher in spite of the religious gulf between them. Christopher hung the crucifix around the car mirror and again over the handle to the dorm room closet.
It took four days for The Man to appear. Over a thousand miles between locations could not stop the transfer, it seemed, and the discovery provoked no emotion. Christopher had simply pushed the door open, expecting Him to be there, expecting to see Him shrunken to fit the smaller height. His roommate told him to turn off the light. He did.
Some time later—a week, a month, the days with Him were interchangeable—a moan drifted from behind the closed door. Christopher sat upright, blinking muck from his eyes in the dark. An arms-length away, his roommate snored, shuffled. The moan came again, lower and longer this time. Christopher frowned, pushing the blankets aside. He stumbled into the dresser. The roommate snored.
Christopher pressed his ear to the closet door. The sound was almost swallowed by his own breathing, but it was there, a belly of lament bridging rooms. He slid the door open. In the darkness his eyes adjusted to the familiar shape positioned as it always was. Even the mouth, tugged impossibly up folding loose skin on itself remained closed. But the sob was His, that much was certain. Dull vibrato tickled the thin carpet and Christopher's bare feet. Squinting, Christopher noticed the slightest of tremors causing Him to undulate with the same steady rhythm playing between His two fingers.
Shaking, he closed the door. Rubbing his eyes, his palms came back damp. He opened a window. Breathed deep. The murmur grew, receded, and grew again, a tide of gooseflesh controlled by a Man-shaped moon. Christopher attempted to hide from it, covering his head with one pillow and then another. He crawled under covers. Finally, he settled on headphones to drown the terrible reverberation.
Morning came slowly. Christopher pulled himself from his cocoon, sitting up to see the world through the window painted in slate and pastel. He removed the first ear bud and closed his eyes, sifting through the melody in his left ear and the silence mixed with bird calls in his right, journeying to the closet and through on sound waves. But there, the sound: a rumble of sliding gravel, a motor left dull and idle; a pig tugged screaming through a metal tube.
Hours after, the moan persisting, his roommate rolled over long enough to demand the window be closed. Christopher asked: “Do you hear that?” already knowing the answer: “Birds? Close the window.” and folded back into his sheets.
The noise grew. By noon it was deafening, the echo rattling Christopher's teeth and causing his stomach to shudder. His sleep became erratic. He would snatch an hour here, an hour there, falling asleep in the middle of a lecture since headphones could not dam the rising swell now. Like stepping outside into a thick heat, the moan pushed against him whenever he returned. Jeremiah remained oblivious.
After a week, Christopher took to sleeping outside. Campus security sent him back in. The breath of It—now capitalized, now living—developed a horrible harmony, the moan becoming timbers of such auditory talent Christopher couldn't help but be entranced between bouts of absolute sickness.
That didn't stop him from running.
The sky was black brushed white, city lights chasing the darkness higher. Christopher moved through the littered streets. In his haste he had forgotten to pack, the sound turning his thoughts from anything but “away”, and so he was, through the door and into the cool before he had time to debate the decision. He slept beneath a bench. Rain woke him in the pre-dawn hours. The wet pushed through the day, the night. Christopher took refuge under a bridge. Not long after (maybe Saturday, maybe Friday), Christopher spent the last of his money on a bus ticket home.
His parents took him to a specialist, a grown-up version of Pratt named Bhurge whose humor was likely hiding in one of the many deep lines canyoning his leather face. He looked at Christopher with flat eyes. He held up splotches of ink and he took notes. He placed a puzzle in from of Christopher, fifty piece, and left one piece missing to ask how that made him feel. Christopher looked at him with flat eyes.
“He won't go near his room,” his mother said. She cast a glance over her shoulder through the glass door leading into the waiting room. Christopher flipped through a magazine. “He put a little tent up. A... what do you call them?”
Dad: “Pup tent.”
“A pup tent, in the back yard.”
Bhurge scribbled. “Is your son an outdoorsman?” Christopher's father chuckled. Scribble. “And how long has he been home?”
“It is only his room?” “Yes.”
“The rest of the house?”
Christopher's parents exchange looks. “Fine. He's fine. We think.”
They were right. Mostly. Christopher was fine with the rest of the house, though the upstairs was entirely off limits which included even setting one foot on the bottom- most step. Watching rain wrap over the car from the back seat, Christopher conjured the doctor's weathered features and the way they had remained unfazed as the story and the years associated with it came rushing out. That had to count for something, didn't it?
He sighed. His mother looked back. He told her to keep her eyes on the road even though dad was driving. Their eyes met in the mirror.
Schizophrenic... what? Christopher shook his head. Rain streaks blurred. Bhurge used a lot of big words with a rough voice. “No longer on your medicine?” Christopher shook his head. Scribble. The doctor gave Christopher a tick counter which he spun around in his hands. “To be used whenever you see Him. Whenever you see something. Whenever you hear something.” He wrote in his notebook then. “Or, whenever you want to hear something.” That last bit had seemed important. Heavy, the way a sound can feel italicized when the stress is placed just right. “Whenever you want to hear something.”
Inside the house, shook himself like a shaggy dog. “Dinner?” Mom disappeared into the kitchen without waiting for a reply. Dad smiled at him and followed after.
Rain echoed off the room. The house in its silence captured the outside sounds, the inside sounds, nature and creak and the drum of a knife on the cutting board. Christopher leaned into the couch, his arm thrown over the back of the cushion. Listened. There was his mother, her footfall of bare feet light over the wood floors. A refrigerator door. His dad cutting at an awkward rhythm. The ceiling fan lightly whipping a chain in a soft arc. Rain. A groaning house.
Dinner. Laughter. Quiet. They cleared dishes in the growing darkness, the sky outside still steel and rolled black. The three of them sat on the porch sipping coffee. The moon fought its way up.
It started low. Christopher swallowed, hearing the familiar sound move quietly across the landing and down, wiggling through the screen door the way grass sifts sheets of wind. Within seconds the sound became a gale.
The moan thrummed like a heart beat. Believing it could be ignored had been easy within the safety of Bhurge's office, those pale circular lights holding the terror at bay with assurances that his schizophrenic-what was only an adolescent hurdle overcome with patience and weekly meetings. Christopher pulled out the counter. Clicked it once. The moan from upstairs and from Him caused tears to form along the edges of Christopher's eyes. He clicked it again.
His mother was speaking to him, her mouth working silently. She frowned. Christopher clicked it again, and went inside.
He took the first step. He took the second. Without making a conscious decision to do so, Christopher worked his way to the top of the stairs (bypassing the sixth and fourteenth still), knowing that if The Man could finally reach him outside, He could reach him in the tent, under a bench, under a bridge. In a desert.
Why wasn't his door shaking? Christopher approached the way one might move through a hurricane, his arm crooked to shield his eyes, his body bent to give each step the weight it deserved.
Entering his room caused a nose bleed. He could see inside the small nook, see Him there in the waning light.
The sound washed over him. It was above him. Below him. In him. Christopher wiped the blood away. For the first time in fourteen years, he willingly walked into the closet. He pushed his old things aside, relics he no longer remembered, searching for the length of rope he would build curtain-forts with a lifetime ago. Searching for something nice to wear.
He changed. He tied one to a higher shelf, careful to knot it right. He pulled over his desk chair. His arm brushed The Man's arm. Christopher fitted himself neatly within the noose.
The thrum of the chair hitting the floor was lost to the sound. His feet, scraping the wall and pulling away old clothes, was lost to the sound. His own moan, high at first but dropping down down down, was lost to the sound.
Christopher lulled there, his body curved unnaturally, the rope tied to the chair lifting him up. His face brushed the ceiling. His fingers—index, middle, index, middle—moved, unaware they shouldn't be.
He swung alone.