There is a boy living in your closet. He’s quiet in there, like the pajamas hanging over the edge of your hamper. He is respectful of your space, keeps himself curled in the corner beside your least-favorite boots.
The boy in your closet hardly ever comes out. You bring him bottles of water when your mother isn’t looking, slices of lunch meat. You’ve seen him trying on your shoes.
It’s not like the boy in your closet has always been there. You found him on the street, huddled under some cardboard. He looked out at you from below his eyelashes. You had never seen such long eyelashes before. Not on a boy, not on anyone.
You tempted him out like you would anything else you found on the street, curling and uncurling your fingers, whispering here boy, here darling, hunching your shoulders, making yourself look as harmless as possible.
You are always bringing things home, hiding them from your mother. Kittens and crickets and glass for recycling.
Please, your mother says. Please, we just don’t have the room.
When you were small, you brought home a duckling that you’d found in the gutter. Hid it in the bathroom, pulled the curtain on the tub. Bobbed the duckling in the water, making waves with your hands. Named it Fuzzy.
You told your friends at school all about the duckling, the way you’ve told them about the boy in your closet. But when you got home, there were only feathers in the tub, damp from the water that hadn’t drained.
You worry that the boy in your closet is lacking for entertainment. You give him your cell phone at night so he can play games, text, check Instagram. You like the way the glow lights up his face; you like the moment when both your hands are on the phone, nearly touching.
The boy in your closet is very cautious. If he is texting anyone, he deletes the evidence before he gives you back your phone in the morning. All he leaves are the smudges of his fingers.
You never have your school friends over. You only tell them stories about the boy in your closet, let them think you’re lying, let them call you names behind your back. You have the boy in your closet. They have the words crazy bitch, liar, whispered when you can only barely hear.
You put your hand against your closet door. On the other side, you wonder if the boy in your closet is doing the same.
Your mother is an old mother. She’s always saying things that old people say. Sees shoes dangling from the wires outside, says: I’ve heard that means there’s gangs around.
Your school friends laugh when you tell them.
That’s what my grandparents say. And they laugh and laugh.
Your mother had you late. That’s what makes her an old mother. Pregnant with you when most of her friends’ children were heading to college. You were her unexpected baby, her surprise.
Don’t think that means I didn’t want you, she says. I wanted you plenty.
She eyes the shoes dangling by their laces from the wire.
You just be careful, she says.
You think the shoes on the wire are yours. The scuffed soles look familiar, the worn tread. Maybe the boy in your closet has tied them together, slung them over the wires. You imagine him doing it, creeping out of your closet while your mother is at work, while you’re at school. You imagine him standing on the sidewalk, throwing your shoes up and up and up again, till finally they catch. You imagine the look of concentration on his face, the fluttering of those long eyelashes.
The shoes, you think, are a symbol, are a message. Your peer up at them from the sidewalk, trying to read the meaning in them.
What are you doing? your mother calls to you from the window. There could be gangs out there.
You think you see movement in your bedroom when you look up to the window from the sidewalk. When you get inside, you lie down on your bed, feeling for warmth. The boy in your closet is still there. You can hear the creaking as he stretches his legs, the soft hum of his exhale. You put your mouth to the crack of your closet door.
You’re there, you say. You’re there, aren’t you?
You say: I saw the shoes.
You say: I saw the shoes, what does it mean?
And wait, and wait for the boy in your closet to answer.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
CATHY ULRICH doesn't have room for anyone in her closet because of all the comic books in there. Her work has been published in various journals, including Monkeybicycle, Memoir Mixtapes and Occulum.