“They pushed past the eighth layer of clothing. This was as deep as he’d dared go his first night in the house, once he’d realized what he had here.”
A TIPSY MARIE Antoinette leaned into Albert’s back until she was uprighted by an Abraham Lincoln on rollerblades. At the king of all housewarming parties, Albert stood in front of the wardrobe, dressed as another king in a late-era Elvis jumpsuit. He held the end of a string in his hand. It was unknotted and unfrayed, no evidence it had ever been attached to a person.
Someone had gone into the wardrobe and hadn’t come out.
Albert had seen movement just beyond the coats as he’d pulled the string—taut only seconds ago—from the darkness. The stirring of suit shoulders and sleeves as a body pushed through, about to emerge. Then the end slipped from the garments to spring at him like a water snake. Nothing remained but creaking hangers swinging old clothing.
This was a bad idea. Jesus, this was such a bad idea. Albert stepped back to keep from falling over. A corn chip crunched beneath his shoe.
He’d watched everyone who went in to explore, everyone who came out with a costume, keeping mental track while he explained to others what a deal he’d gotten on the place and yes, what an amazing thing he’d received with it. No, he hadn’t read the book, but he’d seen the movie. No, no trees or satyrs.
As he’d spoken, his right hand had rubbed across the room’s chipped cherry wainscoting, feeling the pits again and again. In the past week, his waking life had half-melted into soft, plastic dream. He’d dreaded this nightmare finale even as he’d walked toward it, worried about his liability, wondered why he hadn’t locked this room away from the party rather than making it the main attraction.
It was that guy, the boyfriend of one of Sarah’s friends. The Guy with the John Lennon Glasses, Albert had christened him, in lieu of the name he’d instantly forgotten. That Guy had been on the end of the string. This quarter ton piece of ebony, thick leaves carved into its hard flesh, had gobbled up a human being. And it belonged to him.
“Oh my God!” a woman said from behind him. He turned. She wore a green leotard, her terrified face at the center of a fuzzy pillow of yellow stamens, themselves within a halo of white flower petals. The room quieted, except for the shouts and stomping downstairs.
The other guests in the room followed the flower-woman’s wide eyes to the string in Albert’s hand. He’d given his instructions so many times before the booze went down their throats that it had become a joke. “No string, no costume!” they’d repeated throughout the evening, in increasingly Stalinist voices. Now the only words were mumbled.
Albert dove into the wardrobe, hanging onto the outermost hanger rod. He waved his arm into the sea of fabrics, first talking, then shouting. “Hello? Hello!”
The hem of a long blue evening gown caught the lip of a three-quarter empty beer bottle and knocked it down: a dull, glass-ringing bounce. Nothing but clothes. He stepped out and tied the string to his four inch wide white belt. Yards more of the string piled upon the floor, far more than he remembered attaching to the doorknob at the room’s exit.
“What’s going on?” asked a Buddy Holly who had just stumbled in from downstairs. Albert ignored him.
“Sarah,” Albert said. “Take a head count, check downstairs, find out who’s missing.” He wanted to keep his fiancée busy out here. In her 1930s nurse’s uniform, Sarah resembled his grandmother in a photo from an album, far away in a rented storage space. His heart thumped like it had when he was a kid at the house of horrors, afraid to step into the enormous entrance mouth. Afraid to be swallowed.
“Hell no!” Sarah said. “I’m not letting you go in there by yourself!” She grabbed a spool of twine from the side of the wardrobe.
Albert wanted to tell her, “No.” It was his job to protect her, but his throat didn’t even tense to form the word. He felt nothing but relief.
“Janice,” he said to his cousin in the Confederate grays.
“I’ve got it,” she said. “I’ll find out who’s here and who’s not. Be careful in there.”
“We might have to call the police,” came a man’s voice from the back of the room. It was the Guy with the John Lennon Glasses. In his street clothes. Shit. Albert had been certain the Guy was the missing guest. Now he didn’t even know who he might be looking for.
“Albie?” Sarah said. She pushed one of the flashlights they’d been using into his hand to rouse him. She turned her own light on.
“Yeah,” he said. “Janice, call me.” He held up his cell phone. The party had grown somber. Sharp giggles bubbled from a few, still innocent, downstairs.
“Give us half an hour,” Albert said. “If we can’t find him or we don’t come out, call the cops. But don’t tell them about this thing until they get here. I don’t suppose they’ll believe you, but they’ll figure it out for themselves. All right, you ready?” he asked Sarah. She nodded. The wardrobe awaited them, its double doors spread like open arms.
“Good luck!” The flower-woman said.
HE’D FELT LIKE a hero as he looked upon the small crowd in the room. They’d looked back like he knew what the hell he was doing. Now inside, Albert’s breathing came heavier and louder as he glanced back over his turned-up collar. The lamplight from the room only peeked between hatboxes and above jackets.
He and Sarah pierced the darkness in a realm of clotted dresses and cloaks from men and women long dead. The strength he had drawn from their friends evaporated. Sarah was as big as he was, but he wasn’t big. He gripped her hand, so fragile, like his own. The paw of a small, defenseless mammal in a world of predators.
They pushed past the eighth layer of clothing. This was as deep as he’d dared go his first night in the house, once he’d realized what he had here. The “wow” of it had gone south in moments. He’d hauled ass out of there and locked the door to the room with the type of long, black, cast iron key he hadn’t known existed outside of old movies. He didn’t set foot on the third floor for two days after that.
The world in here smelled of mothballs. Sarah’s torchlight arced from left to right. Even in its light, Albert could no longer see the sides of the wardrobe. He turned his own flashlight upward, startled when the glow found the surface some thirty feet overhead.
“Hello?” Sarah called, startling him, again. Already the sounds of the muted party were lost behind them. “Sorry,” she said.
“No, no, you’re right,” he said, and called out himself, half-expecting his guests to call back. They moved between dashikis and skirts, from 1980s red leather to first-century gladiator, survivor of an empire now dust.
The wardrobe had been the one piece of furniture in the old house, sitting in the back of the third floor’s solitary room, as if it had been saved for the final leg of a move and then forgotten. The realtor, a heavy woman whose lipstick hurt Albert’s eyes, had joked that it meant the place came furnished.
And now he belonged to it.
Something tiny darted away from the light. As Albert breathed deeply to calm himself, he could only wonder what ancient particles he might be inhaling. Bits of spider eggs or insect wings. He mentally extended the wardrobe’s space out into his world. They’d be what, maybe fifty yards in now? Twenty feet above the road outside the house. His hard soles clunked on the floor beneath them. Wooden. Hollow. There was no solid ground beneath these boards. To fall through from here might kill them, would definitely break bones. But in unfamiliar dimensions, another floor might lie below. Or an unending abyss. He shook his head. This place worked on you.
They emerged into a clearing among the racks of clothing. Here, the floorboards warped down into standing water, wide as a small pond. The multi-tiered racks beyond the water extended upwards out of sight. It felt like a strange forest. Hansel and Gretel. The story had terrified him as a child. Alone in the woods, waiting to be cooked and eaten.
Albert heard a feral noise up ahead, the grunt of a large animal.
“Hello?” Sarah said. He shook her arm to quiet her. He turned off his flashlight and whispered for her to do the same. To their surprise, they could still see. A sort of moonlight filled the clearing, from what source, he couldn’t tell.
There was movement to their right, not ten feet away. Albert grabbed Sarah. She was ice and he was sweat.
It was a man—a naked, patchwork man, nipples and navels appearing where they shouldn’t be. A man clad in the skins of other people, streaked dark with blood and held together with a clumsy twine stitching. A woman’s breast hung from his shoulder.
Albert felt the cold from his feet pour upward to fill his chest, his head, his hands. It was The Guy with the John Lennon Glasses, whom Albert had at first been certain was on the end of that piece of string, whom they’d left behind only minutes ago.
The Guy looked in their direction. He no longer wore the glasses, and thank God, because he didn’t seem to be able to see them. Something about the skins filled Albert with a personal kind of terror, as if the Guy had killed Albert’s unborn children. The Guy was sniffing. If Albert had ever breathed before, he couldn’t remember when.
After long moments, the Guy seemed satisfied and waded into the standing water as if looking for something, going out toward the forest, sinking to his chest. Sarah took advantage of the noise of the water to slowly step backward, pulling Albert into the cover of the clothing behind them.
“Jesus, we gotta get outta here,” he whispered. He felt her nod against his cheek, her quick breath on his face. He pulled his string into his hands. It was slack. Fresh sweat prickled up on his neck and forehead. They headed back into the darkness, away from the clearing. He didn’t have the balls to turn his flashlight back on, not yet.
Sarah held his arm as if she was hanging over a pit. He quaked with her shivering. His free hand shook on its own as it slid along the length of string for direction before taking a step. His shoes were too goddamned loud. He couldn’t hear the water anymore. Did that mean it was out of earshot, or was the Guy without the John Lennon Glasses back on the floor, and possibly behind them?
Clothing dragged over their bodies, sleeves everywhere, empty arms touching them as they passed. Albert was hyper-aware of every touch, paying attention to any that felt alive. Every motion brought more sweat, rolling down his chest and thighs. It was so hot in here. He itched. He ached in muscles tensed for too long. A sharp need to piss pressed on him.
He checked his phone. Its screen showed, “No Service.”
Sarah screamed and he jumped. He clenched a fist around the phone and thrust it past her at whatever was there. He punched air and dry cleaner’s plastic and tweed-covered hangers as he shouted, “What? What is it?” He didn’t connect with anything solid.
“I felt him!” she said. “I felt him touch me! Oh, God!”
“Are you all right?” he asked, trying to put himself between her and whatever it was. His legs shook now. His fist jabbed, his arm swung molasses-heavy through the clothing all around him. Even as he fought, he knew it would be over soon. His body was reaching its limits. Dying in a ridiculous, white, rhinestone-covered jumpsuit somehow added to the horror.
In a sickening flash Albert knew what exactly about the Guy had hit him so deeply in his gut. That suit of human skin, that breast, it was Sarah’s. He’d seen it a thousand times. Never like that.
He reached around to grab her arm with his free hand, to hold on to her more tightly than he had ever held before, now that he understood what she was truly worth, what any human being was worth to someone who loved them. He felt the hairs on her arms brush against his too slow fingertips. And she was gone.
“Sarah!” he screamed. “Sarah!” His bladder emptied as if he was the one who had been taken. His arms flailed, unable to accept that she wasn’t there any longer, as if she had never been there at all. He plowed through racks of clothing, reaching for her, calling for her until he found himself running past shelves of shoes, rows which became denser no matter what direction he chose, even backwards. There was no way to find her in the ever-changing landscape. Sarah was gone. She hadn’t even made a sound.
Albert collapsed to the floor, ran his fingers through his slick hair. Tears burned his eyes. He understood how close he and billions of others were to insanity. It took so very little to nudge a person over the threshold. Raise a person in a reality for twenty-five, thirty years. Wear him down through fatigue, through stress. Then reveal to him that every prejudice he held about his universe was radically mistaken.
He had to get up. That fucker was hurting her. Killing her! He grabbed a shelf, hauled his tired and shaking body upward. His piss-soaked outfit had already grown cold. Albert removed his boots, peeled off the soiled jumpsuit. He wiped himself with the dry end of it and grabbed the only dry clothes at hand in this land of shoes: a tunic and a grass skirt sitting on a shoe rack.
It didn’t surprise him that the string was gone. It had gone wherever his phone had gone. His flashlight. Sarah.
He heard a noise. An animal noise, not like anything Sarah could have made. He was scared shitless of the Guy without the John Lennon Glasses, the animal that the Guy had become over how long a stay in this place? But he’d take the bastard down to save Sarah. More noise—clompity, clompity—a horse, coming toward him. He spun around.
It wasn’t a horse.
Not exactly. It was a horse-shaped conglomeration of clothing, one glistening black leather leg, another calico, its entire body a laundry bin of confusion strewn over the horizontal torso of dressmaker’s dummy. Fringe mane, button eyes, open zipper mouth. A clotheshorse. It had no rider and stopped when it reached him. Albert stretched out a hand and petted its great head. It licked at his hand with a wet, pink, vinyl purse of a tongue from between its thimble teeth.
“You’ll let me ride you, girl?” He glanced beneath it and saw a child’s umbrella, closed, hanging beneath its belly. “You’ll let me ride you, boy? We need to find Sarah.”
He stepped up on a shelf and mounted the horse. It began moving as soon as he found his seat. He felt no warmth from its large body. The horse’s hooves were steep, wooden-soled pumps, clacking across the floorboards. It seemed to know where it was going, and he didn’t know what else to do but trust it.
They came out of the shoes and passed through a set of enormous, round department store clothing racks, which rose like towers draped with dark blouses designed for giants. Past these, they entered a great valley. Hills of clothing rose hundreds of yards away on either side of them. A glowing river lit the scene, casting a photonegative appearance upon everything.
High above, Albert made out pinpoints of bare light bulbs hanging from an impossibly distant ceiling. They mimicked stars and together formed weird and frightening constellations, sky-filling mythologies that might squash him on a whim. Goosebumps bubbled up on his arms in the camphor wind. He peered up and backward, jerked upright when he felt himself falling.
Upon a far hilltop, flapping figures of animate clothing stalked the night. Pants, shirts, hats, bound together, filled, he knew, with no human form, yet still clinging to human memory. With motivations that might be very human or very inhuman, each equally disturbing.
“It was my job to keep her safe,” Albert whispered to the horse. His whispers amplified to fill the valley. “I should have never let her come.”
He patted the animal’s shoulder and watched the hills slowly shift around them as the horse made its way deeper into the land of the wardrobe. The air began to grow hazy.
Albert thought that every piece of clothing that had ever been worn must be here. Every soldier’s uniform and every tuxedo and ski mask. Every aspect of humankind it had ever wanted to project.
The haze condensed into a fog that felt like spider webs across his face. He batted at them. Not spider webs, he realized, pulling some from his mouth, but threads. Millions of multicolored threads, wrapping about him like swaddling blankets. He was caught in them, stuck in place as the horse passed beneath his legs.
Albert braced himself for impact with the floor beneath, but the void left by his mount had been filled. He couldn’t close his legs and found himself in utter darkness, trapped in a vast piece of clothing like a louse woven into a winter coat. And yet, still, he was cold. He panicked, tried to swing his arm, tried with whatever he had left to move before he died. . .
. . . and put his fist through the wall of his childhood bedroom.
“It’s not your fault she’s gone,” Sarah said, putting a hand on his bare shoulder.
“It is my fault!” he shouted, pulling his throbbing, bloody hand back. “I could have tried fucking harder!”
His face was wet. They were naked in his old room at his parents’ house. It was night, the only illumination from a streetlight showing through the blinds. He felt the grit of the unswept floor beneath his bare feet.
“You can’t stop cancer, Albie!”
“You can!” he said around his sobs. “I rented the comedies, but she didn’t want to watch them! All she wanted was the goddamned love stories that made her cry. I should have made her eat the right food, I should have wheeled her outside more. I should have forced the comedies on her!”
“Your mother was not Norman fucking Cousins, okay? Optimists die just like pessimists! People die, and you’re not God.”
“She was counting on me. The whole fucking thing has been on me since Dad died.”
“Look at me,” Sarah said, taking his face in her hands. “Nobody put it on you. You put it on yourself, and it’s time to take it off yourself.”
“I don’t know how.”
She wrapped herself around him.
“Put it on me for a while then.”
Albert should have had no more water left inside of him, but he cried in his tomb of thread. The capillary action of the fibers drew it out of him until they swelled around him like sinewy mud. He waited there to die.
A song came into his head, unbidden. If he could have so much as twitched, he would have laughed a pitiful laugh: “I’ve Got the World on a String.”
HE WAITED MANY years.
He came out of it slowly, like coming out of a drug-heavy sleep. Threads pulled sharp and biting across his skin as they parted. He felt tired, old muscles complaining as gravity pulled them into positions they hadn’t known for a lifetime.
Threads that had filled his sinuses and lungs for as long as he could remember pulled out and he heaved air again. Threads beneath his eyelids and within his urethra drew painfully from their hiding places.
His aching flesh convulsed on the hard wood floor. And still the cold was there. He realized he was completely naked, the threads of his forgotten clothing evacuated with the rest. Albert got to his feet slowly, amazed to be able to do so. He made out the form of a coat and reached for it before pulling back as if he’d been bitten.
The coat frightened him. It was a frock coat, bright blue with gold trim. It had seven sleeves. Two on the right and five on the left. There was no collar, no place for a head, only a slit in the neck. He knew, just as someone had worn every other piece of clothing here, that something had worn this.
Sanity was just the denial of a wider realm of existence.
He shook his head in sorrow for the Guy with the John Lennon Glasses even as he understood the Guy without the John Lennon Glasses. Albert still wanted to kill him for what he’d done to Sarah, but he didn’t fear him anymore.
He caught a whiff of smoke on the air. Over the racks, he saw a distinct glow in this land of indistinct ones. He went to it, drawn like an insect to light, to warmth, to safety, knowing even as he went that it might burn him. He wondered how much he cared anymore. The crackle of the flames called to him. He parted a series of thick velvet robes like a stage curtain. There.
He found her by a library of hatboxes, naked to the waist and singing to herself. Sarah. She was older. Heavier. The shine in her hair had faded. Still, so beautiful. Around her neck was a raw choker of red where the wet, glistening skin at its borders had been twisted until it tore. She wore bracelets to match. He slowly sank to the floor beside her, shivering. She removed the jacket of her own flesh and threw it over his shoulders. He was warm for the first time since he’d lost her. Warmer than he had ever felt before. He sank his head gently into the bloody, sticky meat of her chest, not wanting to hurt her. She cradled his head in her arm.
“Are you all right?” Sarah asked. “I was worried about you.”
He shook a little laugh. “You were worried about me.”
“Yes. I was. I’m glad you’re here.”
They stayed like that for a long while. Until the fire died down.
“Come on now,” she said. She stood, lifting him with her. He didn’t know why. There was nowhere to go.
Sarah pushed aside a stack of hatboxes with her foot. A light from beyond stung Albert’s eyes. They stepped out of the wardrobe and into the third floor of his house. The room was empty. A layer of dust coated the floor and windowsills. A sealed bottle of beer sat forgotten in one corner. Sarah went to it as Albert squinted at the snow-covered ground outside the windows. What season had it been before?
He heard Sarah gulp the beer. Heard a little belch as she pushed the bottle into his hand. She was dripping on the floor. He set the bottle on the sill, removed her skin from his back and helped her back into it. They held each other and watched the frosted branches and power lines in the distance. It was so bright out.
It was morning.
© Matthew Sanborn Smith, 2017
This story is from See the Elephant, Issue Three, Slipping Through The Cracks. Purchase the whole magazine ($2.99 for ebook, 6.99 for print). Every sale supports the future of this publication.
Matthew Sanborn Smith’s fiction has appeared at Tor.com, Nature, Chizine, Aliterate, and Diabolical Plots, among others. He is the maker of the tragically unhip Beware the Hairy Mango podcast and the rather disappointing ALTERED IDS. You can explore only what he wants you to see of him at www.matthewsanbornsmith.com