Sean’s death seemed almost too real. Scarlet resisted the urge to panic. Last time he’d lain absolutely still but jumped up a full minute after Scarlet began screaming, then tickled her until she fell, weak with relief and crying again. Her mother had only laughed when Scarlet told her.
“Don’t tattle, Scarlet. Sean’s just a clown,” she’d said, rumpling Sean’s blonde hair. “My funny guy.”
Scarlet hadn’t thought it was funny. Her nails had left a long red scratch down the side of her brother’s face. Scarlet’s mother had pulled her along the hallway and pushed her into the coat closet.
“My goodness, Scar! When will you ever learn? Don’t even think about coming out until you know what you did wrong. How in the world did you turn out this way?”
Scarlet stayed in the closet past dinner, past bedtime, until the house was quiet and she could feel urine seeping into her underwear.
Scarlet was familiar with the thinking closet, where she’d spent many afternoons reflecting upon one infraction or another. Why did conventions bewilder her so? In the same way her mother affectionately called Sean “my funny guy,” her parents joked about Scarlet’s temper.
“Don’t make her mad,” her father might warn as they laid out the Monopoly board, “Scarlet doesn’t like to lose.”
Crouching down, Scarlet peered at Sean. She braced herself against a sudden tackle. Though both had turned twelve last summer, Scarlet, earlier by two minutes, Sean was taller by almost a head. She poked at him.
“Sean? Are you okay?”
Her twin didn’t move.
Scarlet sat inside the dark closet listening to muffled Christmas carols. Her father had turned on the radio to keep her company. He knew she’d be in there awhile.
The house was silent. Scarlet had dropped off her backpack in the kitchen after walking home from school and letting herself in. The three-block walk went faster now that Sean wasn’t there to chat with. Her mother was probably lying in bed upstairs. Scarlet knew better than to disturb her. She did her homework, drank a glass of milk, and went to the bathroom. Then she went inside the closet and sat down. Eventually, she heard the garage door open, her dad’s footsteps up the stairs. The low rumble of conversation, then his steps again. A knock. “Honey, it’s me. You okay in there?”
Scarlet nodded. She kicked at some boots and rubbed her face against the cool fabric of a trench coat hanging near her head.
He paused. “Okay, honey. I’m running to the grocery store. We’re out of milk. Be home in a jiffy, all right?”
Scarlet closed her eyes and leaned against the wall. She knew that she would find a saran-wrapped plate of pasta outside the closet door when she opened it later that night, after the sounds of eating and dishwashing died down and the strip of light under the door disappeared. She had stopped eating with her parents a couple of months after Sean’s funeral. It was simultaneously too quiet and too loud, the three of them shouting silently at each other with their mouths full, the empty fourth chair the loudest of all. So she’d gone into the closet one afternoon and refused to leave, only going up to her room after feeling the stillness of sleep take over the house.
“Leave her,” Scarlet’s mother had said after a few sharp knocks. “She needs to deal with this in her own way.” But her father had sat on the other side of the door for a long time, first sobbing, then just breathing.
“I’m here with you, Scar,” he’d said. But eventually he had left too.
Time worked differently in the closet. Some afternoons contained whole worlds that rose, bloomed, and expired as she laughed in delight, while other hours dragged until Scarlet began to pull out her hair to mark the minutes. She would tease her thin brown strands into a soft clump, making nests for the small luminescent creatures that sometimes emerged from the dark to chat with her. She’d been startled the first time she saw one of these creatures, a silver muskrat the size of a mango that crawled out of the pocket of her father’s raincoat and slid onto her knee. It stood up on its hind legs and proffered a small red berry between its front paws.
“Eat, Scarly, I know you’re hungry.” The animal sounded just like Sean. Scarlet took the berry and nibbled. Its skin was tough, chewy. She bit through the thin membrane into the fruit, releasing a burst of metallic sweetness. A red vein of juice ran down her palm. She licked it clean.
“Tell me more about these critters, sweetie.” The kind woman sat across from her, yellow pencil poised above a small notebook. “When do they tend to come out?”
Scarlet stared down at her bandaged fingers. “I don’t know.”
“Do they come every day? Why do you think they come to you?”
A ferret poked its nose out of the woman’s mug and twisted around to face her. It seemed to wink at her through the rising steam. Scarlet ignored it.
“Scarlet, sweetie? Did you hear me? Can you answer my question?”
Scarlet shook her head as the ferret pulled its sleek body out of the cup, leaped off of the side table, and landed on the woven rug. It took a small bow before skipping up the arm of the sofa and burrowing into her lap. Scarlet dug her fingers into its warm coat. She shook her head again.
“No. I don’t know.”
“Scarlet, honey.” The lady smiled at her. “I am here to help you. You’re in a safe space. I won’t tell your parents anything you say in here. But I can’t help you if you aren’t open with me.”
The ferret nibbled on a scab on Scarlet’s thumb. She looked down and mumbled, “Okay.”
“Okay. But can you tell me something, sweetie? Were these creatures there the day your brother died? Did they tell you to do it?”
Scarlet bit her lip. The ferret suddenly jumped onto the coffee table and picked up a box of tissues. It was a comical sight, a ferret holding a tissue box almost as big as itself. Scarlet giggled as the animal, in an act of immense strength, lifted the box above its head and threw it into the woman’s face.
The creatures were the only ones who never left. Scarlet found work at Starbucks after graduating from high school. She felt safe behind the counter. She liked making the complicated drinks, memorizing combinations of syrups and spices, pressing buttons in a predetermined order.
She didn’t have to talk to customers unless they complained about their beverage, and even then she’d only direct them to the manager. The creatures hardly ever appeared except sometimes during the morning rush when she felt impaled by too many impatient eyes. Then a bunny or squirrel might pop out of the machine and sit patiently beside her while she tamped down coffee grounds or frothed yet another cappuccino.
This Starbucks was known as the “Cowboy Starbucks,” after Tom, the manager, who wore animal-skin boots and hand-shaped hats to work each day. He clinched his tight black jeans with a turquoise belt and tied his dark, oily hair in a ponytail at the nape of his neck. Tom was an outsized character in their small Midwestern town, a kind of local celebrity. Scarlet was flattered when he asked her to help close up in the evenings.
She was nervous the first time she stayed late. Conversation was not a given in her world, and she had fewer chances to practice since her father died. The diaphanous creatures appeared one by one as the workday drew to a close, tucking themselves into the nooks of the worn leather armchairs and amid bags of coffee beans displayed on the shelves. They stared at her expectantly, kindly. Scarlet wet a rag and began wiping the machines.
“Scarlet, honey, you’re leaving streaks. That won’t do. Let me show you.” Tom took the rag from her hand. “It’s simple. Wipe in circles. Always the same direction. Didn’t your mother teach you how to do this?”
Scarlet’s face shone in the yellow light.
“No,” she murmured at her hands, “my mother left us a long time ago.”
Tom frowned. “What about your dad?”
“He died last year.”
Tom seemed to consider this, then he patted her head. He leaned in and breathed the scent of her hair. “Oh. Poor child. Don’t worry, honey, I’ll take care of you.”
“Open this?” Scarlet passed the pasta sauce to her husband.
Tom took the jar and popped off its lid. He handed it back to her. “Honestly, sweetie. What would you do without me?”
Scarlet smiled. “I hope I never have to find out.” She spooned red sauce onto a platter of pasta. “Will you let the twins know that dinner’s almost ready?”
“Hon, is that what we’re having?”
“It’s the second time this week we’re having pasta. When you put jarred sauce over the noodles, the whole thing ends up lukewarm. C’mon Scar—you need to try a bit harder than this.”
Scarlet’s fingers picked at each other. “I’m sorry Tom. I think we have some steaks in the freezer. I can start something else, but then dinner might be late…”
“Never mind, sweetie.” Tom kissed the top of her head. “Why don’t you go find the girls? I’ll take over here. I can doctor this up with some cream and make a vodka sauce.”
Scarlet walked slowly out of the kitchen. Pasta with jarred sauce had been a staple in the year after Sean’s death, after the freezer meals from their relatives and family friends had been depleted, and her mother still couldn’t muster up the energy to cook. Her father made dinner most nights, which meant various shapes of pasta topped with spoonfuls of cold sauce. Scarlet remembered the game she played in her head as she ate sitting cross-legged in the hallway outside the closet: Would it be bow ties with marinara tonight? Or penne with Alfredo sauce?
As she ate she would listen to the accusations hidden in the dark corners of the house. You did this on purpose. You took him away from me! Her mother’s words reverberated inside Scarlet’s head, leaving a residual hum that sometimes sounded like the echoes of Sean’s laughter.
“Mommy, can I have more pasta?” Scarlet started at the sound of her daughter’s voice. Tara stared wide-eyed from across the table. “Dinner’s really yummy tonight.”
“Yeah, I like the sauce,” Tammy said. “It tastes different than usual.”
Tom patted Scarlet’s hand. “Your mommy is a fantastic cook, isn’t she, when she puts her mind to it.”
Scarlet smiled at her daughters. “Thank you, girls, but your father made the sauce. He deserves your praises tonight.”
“Nonsense, honey. We’re all enjoying our dinner. You have to learn how to accept compliments gracefully.”
Scarlet smiled again. “I suppose you’re right.”
The doorbell rang. Scarlet put her hands in her lap and Tom said quickly, “It’s okay, honey. I’ll get it.”
“I didn’t know we expecting anyone. Tom, let me get to the kitchen first. Wait until I close the door, okay?”
“Sure, hon. We’ll wait.”
Scarlet ran into the kitchen. Tom crossed the living room and opened the door. “Oh, hey, Suzanne. Great to see you.” He paused. “What a surprise.”
“Tom…hi! I’m sorry to drop by like this, but I wanted to get these to you while they were still warm. Peppermint chocolate chip…my mother’s recipe. I was inspired this year!” Suzanne waved a plate of cookies at the girls, who looked up from their plates. “Oh! Tom, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I was intruding on dinner. We eat a bit later at our house. Just me and the boys now, you know… Hello girls, your dad’s told me so much about you!”
Tom waved the girls over.
“Tara, Tammy, come say hello to Ms. Nielsen. She’s our neighbor, remember?” The girls came to the door.
“Oh darlings. My, how you’ve grown. How old are you now?”
“Six,” Tara looked at the blonde woman standing at the threshold. “I’m six.”
Suzanne brushed at her bangs. “You’re sweet. And your sister…let me guess. You’re six too? You two are identical!”
Tammy held on to her father’s leg.
“Hi,” she whispered.
Tom patted his daughter. “This one’s a bit shy.”
Tara pointed at the kitchen. “Like my mommy! She’s in there.”
Suzanne peered uncertainly into the house. “Oh! I’m sorry for intruding. You haven’t mentioned her recently, Tom…so I assumed… ”
Scarlet overheard her name from behind the kitchen door. She was hungry and wished she’d thought to bring her plate into the kitchen. She heard the trill of unfamiliar laughter, then Tom’s deep voice. His words were low, unintelligible. Her heart began to pound.
The house was quiet. The girls were asleep. Scarlet sat on the bed rubbing lotion into her hands, careful to avoid her band-aids. She knew from experience that lotion could loosen them and Tom hated finding the bloodied things under the blanket in the morning.
“Tom? What did Suzanne want?” Scarlet looked down at her hands. “Why did she stay so long?”
Tom spat toothpaste into the sink. “Just inviting us to her caroling party, honey. Trying to start a neighborhood tradition, or something of the sort. You know, now that her divorce is finalized. I like Suzanne. I think the girls do, too.”
Tom walked into the room, rubbing a towel over his face. “It’s tomorrow night. The girls will like it. I’ll take them.”
Scarlet said nothing. She stared at the snow falling outside the bedroom window. Tom came over and tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear.
“Don’t worry, honey. It’s just around the block. You can watch—listen, even—from your special chair.” He pointed at the stuffed armchair he’d set up for her years ago. “I’ll pull it closer to the window so you can see better.”
Scarlet nodded. She had watched Tom take the girls to the first day of school from her chair. School performances. Doctor’s visits. Dance recitals. Tom’s Mustang backing out of the garage, then disappearing around the corner.
Though she had insisted on having them, the arrival of the twins had complicated their lives. She found herself speaking nervously with doctors and nurses, then pediatricians, school administrators, other children’s parents. She wondered if shame could travel through the phone line. Tom stepped in whenever he could. Eventually, they decided it was easier for Scarlet to give up her phone and for them to share one email address. Tom took care of her. She was safe as long as she was under his protection.
Scarlet looked at the chair again. A silver hamster was nibbling at the chair back, using its paws to draw stuffing out of a small hole. It laughed as it threw the white batting into the air. Scarlet bent down and collected the soft polyester into her hands. She thought of the endless hours she’d spent with the creatures, playing with them, coaxing them, cleaning up after them. Lately, they’d begun telling stories about Tara and Tammy. What could happen to them all the while she hid inside the house. What a terrible mother she was! She tore at the soft material in her hands.
“Tom? Maybe…I should go with you guys. Try it out,” Scarlet said. “It’s been so long, I don’t know if I even have suitable outdoor shoes!” She laughed self-consciously. “But I can find something, I’m sure. Tomorrow night, you said? I’ll need to find a coat too, in this weather.”
Tom appraised his wife. “Honey, I just don’t know. There will be a lot of people. And we both know how anxious you get.” He patted her cheek. “I won’t have you catch a cold in this weather. You know how fragile you are. You can watch from here. It’ll be just as nice. Cozier in fact, and I won’t have to worry about you while I’m minding the girls.”
Scarlet dropped her hands. “Of course, Tom. I was only thinking of myself. How selfish of me.”
“Nonsense, honey. I’m your husband. I always keep your best interests at heart. Now hush.”
Tom turned off the light. Scarlet stared up at the shadows dancing on the popcorn ceiling as her husband rolled onto her. She waited. A silvery hedgehog stuck his nose out of a corner near the window and clambered closer. He wriggled his nose at her. She laughed.
“Scarly! Guess what!” Sean ran towards her, weaving through the students in the hallway of their middle school. “I know a new game we can play!”
At home, Sean told her to climb onto his bed and lean against the wall. “Okay, so what you do is breathe really hard, for like two minutes okay? I’m gonna time you. Then I’m gonna push on you really hard, right here.” He tapped her chest. “Don’t freak out okay? It’s gonna be so amazing. I did it at recess today behind the fence.”
Behind the fence was where the older kids went to smoke. Scarlet frowned. “Are you sure? What’s going to happen?”
“Do you want to have fun or not? Trust me!”
Scarlet followed his instructions. His sudden punch knocked the air out of her. She felt her body simultaneously fall, and rise. There was a rush; the warm bodies of a thousand creatures moving past her, buoying her in their wake. The sensation of flight. She was a bird migrating south for the winter with hundreds of her kin. Scarlet giggled. She saw the intense joy burble out of her throat in a silver stream. It swirled around the room, spilled onto Sean’s bed, and shone upon his face. He was shouting at her.
“Scarly! Wake up!” He laughed maniacally. “Isn’t it awesome? The most amazing feeling, right? My turn!”
Scarlet wondered if her daughters were cold. Snow had begun to fall, landing in small white drifts upon their red-coated shoulders. She watched as Tom, clad in his black winter parka, embraced Suzanne’s purple figure. They lingered in each other’s arms as if seeking warmth, then the woman stooped down and gave each of her daughters a hug in turn.
Scarlet leaned against the windowpane, her breath fogging the glass. Tom tugged at the twins as they crossed a snow-laden lawn towards the group of carolers lining up in front of a house across the street. It looked like an old-fashioned scene on a Christmas tin. It was Norman Rockwell; the ruddy cheeks, the singing siblings, the nostalgia for familial perfection that was only ever an unrealized dream. The warm glow of safety not yet defiled by the knowledge that the stars which shone so bright above braved an arid space just outside of our warm, close planet. Suzanne had herded the twins to join her own children and stood with Tom watching protectively as the kids jostled each other in the moonlight. Scarlet had a feeling of peering into a snow globe. A pristine, self-contained world. She sighed and closed her eyes. Tears slid down her cheeks.
She heard a skittering on the ceiling and knew the creatures had come for her. Today there were many. A gray squirrel, its fur streaked with gold. A silver otter making steady pace across the braided rug. Two brown chipmunks, their cheeks comically full. They advanced towards her, offering fruits and forest nuts. She gathered their gifts in her lap.
It seemed like an invitation. The creatures smiled at her, their luminous forms highlighted against the shadows of the room in the settling dark. She stroked each in turn, then struggled out of the armchair and stuck her bare feet into the furred house slippers Tom had given her last Christmas. She peered into the closet. When was the last time she’d needed street shoes? Tom’s shoes lined the shoe rack, but other than another pair of slippers she could find nothing that would fit her. She walked downstairs. Perhaps he’d put them in the coat closet? No, not there either. No matter.
She pushed against the lock on the back door. It gave with a loud click, and she instinctively looked around. But she was alone now. She opened the door and stepped onto the porch, wrapping her bathrobe around her.
The cold air was sharp and smoky, cutting into her lungs. The evening star glowered towards her like a living thing. Scarlet stepped down into the snow, feeling the icy wetness of the slush creep into her slippers with each step. A thicket of trees stood behind the house and beckoned to her. As she made her way there she stumbled and fell. The stars rushed into her with a shriek.
Jenny Fan Raj lives in San Francisco, where she is working on a novel set in Fukushima, Japan. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Obra/Artifact, Bottlecap Press, The Columbia East Asian Review, The New Engagement, and 1888 | Center, among others.