PseudoPod 785: Closet Dreams
by Lisa Tuttle
Something terrible happened to me when I was a little girl.
I don’t want to go into details. I had to do that far too often in the year after it happened, first telling the police everything I could remember in the (vain) hope it would help them catch the monster, then talking for hours and hours to all sorts of therapists, doctors, shrinks and specialists brought in to help me. Talking about it was supposed to help me understand what had happened, achieve closure, and move on.
I just wanted to forget – I thought that’s what ‘putting it behind me’ meant – but they said to do that, first I had to remember. I thought I did remember – in fact, I was sure I did – but they wouldn’t believe what I told them. They said it was a fantasy, created to cover something I couldn’t bear to admit. For my own good (and also to help the police catch that monster) I had to remember the truth.
So I racked my brain and forced myself to relive my darkest memories, giving them more and more specifics, suffering through every horrible moment a second, third and fourth time before belatedly realizing it wasn’t the stuff the monster had done to me that they could not believe. There was nothing at all impossible about a single detail of my abduction, imprisonment and abuse, not even the sick particulars of what he called ‘playing’. I had been an innocent; it was all new to me, but they were adults, professionals who had dealt with too many victims. It came as no surprise to them that there were monsters living among us, looking just like ordinary men, but really the worst kind of sexual predator.
The only thing they did not believe in was my escape. It could not have happened the way I said. Surely I must see that?
But it had. When I understood what they were questioning, it made me first tearful and then mad. I was not a liar. Impossible or not, it had happened, and my presence there, telling them about it, ought to be proof enough.
One of them – her name escapes me, but she was an older lady who always wore turtleneck sweaters or big scarves, and who reminded me a little of my granny with her high cheekbones, narrow blue eyes and gentle voice – told me that she knew I wasn’t lying. What I had described was my own experience of the escape, and true on those terms – but all the same, I was a big girl now and I could surely understand that it could not have happened that way in actuality. She said I could think of it like a dream. The dream was my experience, what happened inside my brain while I was asleep, but something else was happening at the same time. Maybe, if we worked with the details of my dream, we might get some clues as to what that was.
She asked me to tell her something about my dreams. I told her there was only one. Ever since I’d escaped I’d had a recurring nightmare, night after night, unlike any dream I’d ever had before, twice as real and ten times more horrible.
It went like this: I’d come awake, in darkness too intense for seeing, my body aching, wooden floor hard beneath my naked body, the smell of dust and ancient varnish in my nose, and my legs would jerk, a spasm of shock, before I returned to lying motionless again, eyes tightly shut, trying desperately, against all hope, to fall back into the safe oblivion of sleep. Sometimes it was only a matter of seconds before I woke again in my own bedroom, where the light was always left on for just such moments, but sometimes I would seemingly remain in that prison for hours before I could wake. Nothing ever happened; I never saw him; there was just the closet, and that was bad enough. The true horror of the dream was that it didn’t seem like a dream, and so turned reality inside-out, stripping my illusory freedom from me.
When I was much younger I’d made the discovery that I guess most kids make, that if you can only manage to scream out loud when you’re dreaming – especially when you’ve started to realize that it is just a dream – you’ll wake yourself up.
But I never tried that in the closet dream; I didn’t dare. The monster had taught me not to scream. If I made any noise in the closet, any noise loud enough for him to hear from another room, he would tape my mouth shut, and tie my hands together behind my back.
I knew I was his prisoner. Before he did that, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I still had some freedom.
So I didn’t scream.
I guess the closet dream didn’t offer much scope for analysis. She tried to get me to recall other dreams, but when I insisted I didn’t have any, she didn’t press. Instead, she told me that it wouldn’t always be that way, and taught me some relaxation techniques that would make it easier to slip into an undisturbed sleep.
It wasn’t only for my peace of mind that I kept having these sessions with psychiatrists. Anything I remembered might help the police.
Nobody but me knew what my abductor looked like. I’d done my best to describe him, but my descriptions, while detailed, were probably too personal, intimate and distorted by fear. I had no idea how an outsider would see him; I rarely even saw him dressed. I didn’t know what he did for a living or where he lived.
I was his prisoner for nearly four months, but I’d been unconscious when he took me into his house, and all I knew of it, all I was ever allowed to see, was one bedroom, bathroom and closet. Under careful questioning from the police, with help from an architect, a very vague and general picture emerged: it was a single-storey house on a quiet residential street, in a neighbourhood that probably dated back to the 1940s or even earlier. (Nobody had used bathroom tiles like that since the 1950s; the small size of the closet dated it, and so did the thickness of the internal doors.) There were no houses like that in my parents’ neighbourhood, and all the newer subdivisions in the city could be ruled out, but that still left a lot of ground. It was even possible, since I had no idea how long I’d been unconscious in the back of his van after he grabbed me, that the monster lived and worked in another town entirely.
I wanted to help them catch him, of course. So although I hated thinking about it, and wanted only to absorb myself back into my own life with my parents, friends and school, I made myself return, in memory, to my prison and concentrated on details, but what was most vivid to me – the smell of dusty varnish or the pictures I thought I could make out in the grain of the wood floor; a crack in the ceiling, or the low roaring surf sound made by the central air conditioning at night – did not supply any useful clues to the police.
Five mornings a week the monster left the house and stayed away all day. He would let me out to use the bathroom before he left, and then lock me into the closet. He’d fixed a sliding bolt on the outside of the big, heavy closet door, and once the door was shut and he slid the bolt home, I was trapped. But that was not enough for him: he added a padlock, to which he carried the only key. As he told me, if he didn’t come home to let me out, I would die inside that closet, of hunger and thirst, so I had better pray nothing happened to him, because if it did, no one would ever find me.
That padlock wasn’t his last word in security, either. He also locked the bedroom door, and before he left the house I always heard an electronic bleeping sound I recognized as being part of a security system. He had a burglar alarm, as well as locks on everything that could be secured shut.
All he left me with in the closet was a plastic bottle full of water, a blanket and a child’s plastic potty that I couldn’t bear to use. There was a light fixture in the ceiling, but he’d removed the light bulb, and the switch was on the other side of the locked door. At first I thought his decision to deprive me of light was just more of his meaningless cruelty, but later it occurred to me that it was just another example – like the padlock and the burglar alarm – of his overly cautious nature. He’d even removed the wooden hanging rod from the closet, presumably afraid that I might have been able to wrench it loose and use it as a weapon against him. I might have scratched him with a broken light bulb; big deal. It wouldn’t have incapacitated him, but it might have hurt, and he wouldn’t risk even the tiniest of hurts. He wanted total control.
So, all those daylight hours when I was locked into the closet, I was in the dark except for the light which seeped in around the edges of the door; mainly from the approximately three-quarters of an inch that was left between the bottom of the door and the floor. That was my window on the world. I thought it was larger than the gap beneath our doors at home; the police architect said it might have been because the carpet it had been cut to accommodate had been removed; alternatively, my captor might have replaced the original door because he didn’t find it sturdy enough for the prison he had planned.
Whatever the reason, I was grateful that the gap was wide enough for me to look through. I would spend hours sometimes lying with my cheek flat against the floor peering sideways into the bedroom, not because it was interesting, but simply for the light and space that it offered in comparison to the tiny closet.
When I was in the closet, I could use my fingernails to scrape the dirt and varnish from the floorboards, or make pictures out of the shadows all around me; there was nothing else to look at except the dirty cream walls, and the most interesting thing there – the only thing that caught my eye and made me think – was a square outlined in silvery duct tape.
I knew what it was, because there was something very similar on one wall of my closet at home, and my parents had explained to me that it was only an access hatch, so a plumber could get at the bathroom plumbing, in case it ever needed to be fixed.
Once that had been explained, and I knew it wasn’t the entrance to a secret passage or a hidden room, it became uninteresting to me. In the monster’s closet, though, a plumbing access hatch took on a whole new glamour.
I thought it might be my way out. Even though I knew there was no window in the bathroom, and the only door connected it to the bedroom – it was at least an escape from the closet. I wasn’t sure an adult could crawl through what looked like a square-foot opening, but I knew I could manage; I didn’t care if I left a little skin behind.
I peeled off the strips of tape, got my fingers into the gap and, with a little bit of effort, managed to pry out the square of painted sheetrock. But I didn’t uncover a way out. There were pipes revealed in a space between the walls, but that was all. There was no opening into the bathroom, no space for a creature larger than a mouse to squeeze into. And I probably don’t need to say that I didn’t find anything useful left behind by a forgetful plumber; no tools or playthings or stale snacks.
I wept with disappointment, and then I sealed it up again – carefully enough, I hoped, that the monster would never notice what I’d done. After that, for the next thirteen weeks or so, I never touched it.
But I looked at it often, that small square that so resembled a secret hatchway, a closed-off window, a hidden opening to somewhere else. There was so little else to look at in the closet, and my longing, my need, for escape was so strong, that of course I was drawn back to it. For the first few days I kept my back to it, and flinched away even from the thought of it, because it had been such a let-down, but after a week or so I chose to forget what I knew about it, and pretended that it really was a way out of the closet, a secret that the monster didn’t know.
My favourite thing to think about, and the only thing that could comfort me enough to let me fall asleep, was home. Going home again. Being safely back at home with my parents and my little brother and Puzzle the cat, surrounded by all my own familiar things in my bedroom. It wasn’t like the relaxation techniques the psychiatrist suggested, thinking myself into a place I loved. That didn’t work. Just thinking about my home could make me cry, and bring me more rigidly awake on the hard floor in the dark narrow closet, too aware of all that I had lost, and how impossibly far away it was now. I had to do something else, I had to create a little routine, almost like a magic spell, a mental exercise that let me relax enough to sleep.
What I did was, I pretended I had never before stripped away the tape and lifted out that square of sheetrock in the wall. I was doing it for the first time. And this time, instead of pipes in a shallow cavity between two walls, I saw only darkness, a much deeper darkness than that which surrounded me in the closet, and which I knew was the opening to a tunnel.
It was kind of scary. I felt excited by the possibility of escape, but that dark entry into the unknown also frightened me. I didn’t know where it went. Maybe it didn’t go anywhere at all; maybe it would take me into even greater danger. But there was no real question about it; it looked like a way out, so of course I was going to take it.
I squeezed through the opening and crawled through darkness along a tunnel which ended abruptly in a blank wall. Only the wall was not entirely blank; when I ran my hands over it I could feel the faint outline of a square had been cut away – just like in the closet I’d escaped from, only at this end the tape was on the other side.
I gave it a good, hard punch and knocked out the piece of sheetrock, and then I crawled through, and found myself in another closet. Only this one was ordinary, familiar and friendly, with carpet comfy underfoot, clothes hanging down overhead, and when I grasped the smooth metal of the doorknob it turned easily in my hand and let me out into my own beloved bedroom.
After that, the fantasy could take different courses. Sometimes I rushed to find my parents. I might find them downstairs, awake and drinking coffee in the kitchen, or they might be asleep in their bed, and I’d crawl in beside them to be cuddled and comforted as they assured me there was nothing to fear, it was only a bad dream. At other times I just wandered around the house, rediscovering the ordinary domestic landscape, reclaiming it for my own, until finally I fell asleep.
My captivity continued, with little to distinguish one day from another until the time that I got sick. Then, the monster was so disgusted by me, or so fearful of contagion, that he hardly touched me for a couple of days; his abstinence was no sign of compassion. It didn’t matter to him if I was vomiting, or shaking with feverish chills, I was locked into the closet and left to suffer alone as usual.
I tried to lose myself in my comfort-dream, but the fever made it difficult to concentrate on anything. Even in the well-rehearsed routine, I kept mentally losing my place, having to go back and start over again, continuously peeling the tape off the wall and prying out that square of sheetrock, again and again, until, finding it unexpectedly awkward to hold, I lost my grip and the thing came crashing down painfully on my foot.
It was only then, as I blinked away the reflexive tears and rubbed the soreness out of my foot, that I realized it had really happened: I wasn’t just imagining it; in my feverish stupor I’d actually stood up, pulled off the tape and opened a hole in the wall.
And it really was a hole this time.
I stared, dumbfounded, not at pipes in a shallow cavity, but into blackness.
My heart began to pound. Fearful that I was just seeing things, I bent over and stuck my head into it, flinching a little, expecting to meet resistance. But my head went in, and my chest and arms . . . I stretched forward and wriggled into the tunnel.
It was much lower than in my fantasy, not big enough to allow me to crawl. If I’d been a couple of years older or five pounds heavier I don’t think I would have made it. Only because I was such a flat-chested, narrow-hipped, skinny little kid did I fit, and I had to wriggle and worm my way along like some legless creature.
I didn’t care. I didn’t think about getting stuck, and I didn’t worry about the absolute, suffocating blackness stretching ahead. This was freedom. I kept my eyes shut and hauled myself forward on hands and elbows, pushing myself ahead with my toes. Somehow I kept going, although the energy it took was immense, almost more than I possessed. I was drenched in sweat and gasping – the sound of my own breathing was like that of a monster in pursuit – but I didn’t give up. I could not.
And then I came to the end, a blank wall. But that didn’t worry me, because I’d already dreamed of this moment, and I knew what to do. I just had to knock out the bit of plasterboard. Nothing but tape held it in. One good punch would do it.
Only I was so weak from illness, from captivity, from the long, slow, journey through the dark, that I doubted I had a good punch in me. But I couldn’t give up now. I braced my legs on either side of the tunnel and pushed with all my might, pushed so hard I thought my lungs would burst. I battered it with my fists, and heard the feeble sound of my useless blows like hollow laughter. Finally, trembling with exhaustion, sweating rivers, I hauled back, gathered all the power I had left, and launched myself forward, using my head as a battering ram.
And that did it. On the other side of the wall the tape tore away, and as the square of sheetrock fell out and into my bedroom closet, so did I.
I was home. I was really and truly home at last.
I wanted to go running and calling for my mother, but first I stopped to repair the wall, carefully fitting the square of sheetrock back into place, and restoring the pieces of tape that had held it in, smoothing over the torn bits as best I could. It seemed important to do this, as if I might be drawn back along through the tunnel, back to that prison-house, if I didn’t seal up the exit.
By the time I finished that, I was exhausted. I walked out of the closet, tottered across the room to my bed, pulled back the sheet and lay down, naked as I was.
It was there, like that, my little brother found me a few hours later.
Even I knew my escape was impossible. At least, it could not have happened in the way I remembered. Just to be sure, my parents opened the plumbing access hatch in my closet, to prove that’s all it was. There was no tunnel; no way in or out.
Yet I had come home.
My parents – and I guess the police, too – thought the monster had been frightened by my illness into believing I might die, and had brought me home. Maybe he’d picked the locks (we didn’t have a burglar alarm), or maybe – because a small window in one of the upstairs bathrooms turned out to have been left unfastened – he’d carried me up a ladder and pushed me through. My ‘memory’ was only a fevered, feverish dream.
Did it matter that I couldn’t remember what really happened? My parents decided it did not, and that the excruciating regime of having to talk about my ordeal was only delaying my recovery, and they brought it to an end.
The years passed. I went to a new junior high, and then on to high school. I learned to drive. I started thinking about college. I didn’t have a boyfriend, but it began to seem like a possibility. I’m not saying I forgot what had happened to me, but it was no longer fresh, it wasn’t present, it belonged to the past, which became more and more blurred and distant as I struck out for adulthood and independence. The only thing that really bothered me, the real, continuing legacy of those few months when I’d been the monster’s prisoner and plaything, were the dreams. Or, I should say, dream, because there was just the one, the closet dream.
Even after so many years, I did not have ordinary dreams. Night after night – and it was a rare night it did not happen – I fell asleep only to wake, suddenly, and find myself in that closet again. It was awful, but I kind of got used to it. You can get used to almost anything. So when it happened, I didn’t panic, but tried practising the relaxation techniques I’d been taught when I was younger, and eventually – sometimes it took just a few minutes, while other nights it seemed to take hours – I escaped back into sleep.
One Saturday, a few weeks before my seventeenth birthday, I happened to be in a part of town that was strange to me. I was looking for a summer job, and was on my way to a shopping mall I knew only by name, and somehow or other, because I wanted to avoid the freeways, I got a little lost. I saw a sign for a U-Tote-Em and pulled into the parking lot to figure it out. Although I had an indexed map book, I must have been looking on the wrong page; after a few hot, sweaty minutes of frustration I threw it down and got out of the car, deciding to go into the store to ask directions, and buy myself a drink to cool me down.
I had just taken a Dr Pepper out of the refrigerator cabinet when something made me look around. It was him. The monster was standing in the very next aisle, a loaf of white bread in one hand as he browsed a display of chips and dips.
My hands were colder than the bottle. My feet felt very far away from my head. I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t stop looking at him.
My attention made him look up. For a moment he just looked blank and kind of stupid, his lower lip thrust out and shining with saliva. Then his mouth snapped shut as he tensed up, and his eyes kind of bulged, and I knew that he’d recognized me, too.
I dropped the plastic bottle and ran. Somebody said something – I think it was the guy behind the counter – but I didn’t stop. I didn’t even pause, just hurled myself at the door and got out. I couldn’t think about anything but escape; it never occurred to me that he might have had more to fear than I did, that I could have asked the guy behind the counter to call the police, or just dialled 911 myself on my cell. All that was too rational, and I was way too frightened to reason. The old animal brain, instinct, had taken over, and all I could think of was running away and hiding.
I was so out of my mind with fear that instead of going back to my car I turned in the other direction, ran around to the back of the store, then past the dry cleaner’s next door, and hid myself, gasping for breath in the torrid afternoon heat, behind a dumpster.
Still panting with terror, shaking so much I could barely control my movements, I fumbled inside my purse, searching for my phone. My hands were so cold I couldn’t feel a thing; impatient, I sank into a squat and dumped the contents on the gritty cement surface, found the little silver gadget and snatched it up.
Then I hesitated. Maybe I shouldn’t call 911; that was supposed to be for emergencies only, wasn’t it? Years ago the police had given me a phone number to call if I ever remembered something more or learned something that might give them a handle on the monster’s identity. That number was pinned to the bulletin board in the kitchen where I saw it every single day. It was engraved on my memory still, although I’d never used it, I knew exactly what numbers to press. But when I tried, my fingers were still so stiff and clumsy with fear that I kept messing up.
I stopped and concentrated on calming myself. Looking around the side of the dumpster I could see a quiet, tree-lined residential street. It was an old neighbourhood – you could tell that by the age of the trees, and the fact that it had sidewalks. I was gazing at this peaceful view, feeling my breath and pulse rate going back to normal, when I caught another glimpse of the monster.
Immediately, I shrank back and held my breath, but he never looked up as he walked, hunched a little forward as he clutched a brown paper bag to his chest, eyes on the sidewalk in front of him. He never suspected my eyes were on him, and as I watched his jerky, shuffling progress – as if he wanted to run but didn’t dare – I realized how much our encounter had rattled him. All at once I was calmer. He must know I would call the police, and he was trying to get away, to hide. That he was on foot told me he must live nearby; probably the clerk in the convenience store would recognize him as a local, and the police would not have far to look for him.
But that was only if he stayed put. What if he was planning to leave? He might hurry home, grab a few things, jump in the car and lose himself in another city where he’d never be found.
I was filled with a righteous fury. I was not going to let him escape. He’d just passed out of sight when I decided to follow him.
I kept well back and off the sidewalk, darting in and out of the trees, keeping to the shade, not because I was afraid, but because I didn’t want to alert him. I was determined to find out where he lived, to get his address and the license number of his car, and then I’d hand him over to the police.
After two blocks, he turned onto another street. I hung back, looking for the name of it, but the street sign was on the opposite corner where the lacy fronds of a mimosa tree hung down, obscuring it.
That didn’t really matter. All I had to do was tell the police his house was two blocks off Montrose – was that the name? All at once I was uncertain of where I’d just been, the name of the thoroughfare the U-Tote-Em was on, where I’d left my car. But I could find my way back and meet the police there, just as soon as I saw which house the monster went into.
So I hurried after, suddenly fearful that he might give me the slip, and I was just in time to see him going up the front walk of a single-storey, pink-brick house, digging into his pocket for the key to the shiny black front door.
I made no effort to hide now, stopping directly across the street in the open, beneath the burning sun. I looked across at the raised curbstone where the house number had been painted. But the paint had been laid down a long time ago and not renewed; black and white had together faded into the grey of the concrete, and I couldn’t be sure after the first number – definitely a 2 – if the next three were sixes, or eights, or some combination.
As he slipped the key into the lock the monster suddenly turned his head and stared across the street. He was facing me, looking right at me, and yet I had the impression he didn’t see me watching him, because he didn’t look scared or worried any more. In fact, he was smiling; a horrible, familiar smile that I knew all too well.
I raised the phone to summon the police, but my hand was empty. I grabbed for my purse, but it had gone, too. There was no canvas strap slung across my shoulder. As I groped for it, my fingers felt only skin: my own, naked flesh. Where were my clothes? How could I have come out without getting dressed?
The smells of dust and ancient varnish and my own sour sweat filled my nose and I began to tremble as I heard the sound of his key in the lock and woke from the dream that was my only freedom, and remembered.
Something terrible happened to me when I was a little girl.
It’s still happening.
About the Author
Lisa Tuttle began her career as a published writer in the early 1970s, and won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Writer of the year in 1974. She’s the author of seven novels and more than a hundred short stories. Born and raised in Texas, she has lived in a remote, rural part of Scotland for the past twenty-five years. Her first novel, Windhaven, was a collaboration with George R. R. Martin published in 1981. This was followed by a horror novel, Familiar Spirit, in 1983. Unable to stick to one well-defined genre, although most of her work features elements of horror and/or dark fantasy, she went on to write novels of psychological suspense (Gabriel and The Pillow Friend), science fiction (Lost Futures), and contemporary/mythic fantasy (The Mysteries and The Silver Bough) as well as books for children and young adults, and non-fiction (Encyclopedia of Feminism and Heroines). (more…)
About the Narrator
Julie Hoverson has been recording a ton of books for audible.com – including Jake Bible’s Dead Mech series, and the short novellas for Brian McLellan’s Powder Mage series (an unusual and very good fantasy series). She also just put out a book of victorian photos called MY LADY’S WARDROBE – the first in a series – aimed at gamers, costumers, and fans of steampunk who are looking for inspiration in garb. Just search her on Amazon or Audible.