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The Winter Closet

by Steve Rasnic Tem

1242 words
Listen to this story, narrated by the author

It was a summer of painful colors and the hottest days on record. He could not remember the last time he’d felt happy, or safe. Most days he feigned hope because he’d heard people found despair unattractive. For months he slept with all the windows open even though the air was full of smoke. He woke up each morning with lungs like crumpling plastic. Many nights his sleep was interrupted by the distant sounds of gunfire and explosion. Whether actual or dreamed he did not know.

He counted himself fortunate he’d lived a few golden moments, but it wasn’t worth the grim probabilities. Still, he couldn’t see himself as a suicide. He was possessed of too much morbid curiosity. Although he feared it, he wanted to know what happened tomorrow.

An occasional glimpse of his future self in the mirror filled him with dread. He was the author of his own history. What people called progress seemed an accretion of inept decisions. Even those who once knew everything had lost control. The powerless could only hope to avoid the maximum amount of pain.

Despite his claustrophobia he refused to venture outside. He could not tolerate that effusive stench of grief.

The sudden drop in temperature should have brought relief but it made him fearful of his lack of preparations. The change in seasons wasn’t unexpected—in fact, it was long overdue—but it had lost its comforting predictability. Although he welcomed the cold, its abrupt arrival still felt unnecessarily cruel.

The house was plagued by myriad drafts. He’d put off necessary repairs for years. Now he spent hours each day tracking down leaks, filling cracks with plaster or putty and holes with wadded up rags, but some he never found, and these multiplied, small pockets of intense cold running across his feet, up his legs, and around his neck, their bites turning his flesh numb.

Desperate for some protection, a warm coat, a heavy sweater, a simple, fuzzy scarf, he made his annual trek to the back of the house, where the winter closet lay sleeping, behind its heavy door.

There was no direct passage. Whoever designed this archaic residence must have believed advancement needed to be earned. He maneuvered his way around crowded rooms and edged along shabby galleries, negotiated stairs both up and down, past staggered photo arrays of the dead and the missing, navigated around the piles of thoughtless accumulation assembled at frequent points along the way, gathered over a lifetime, because he’d always been afraid to travel into the future with too little. He’d cultivated a bad habit of clinging to what was meant to be temporary but purchasing a quantity of ephemera at least provided a way to fill the time.

Several rooms he could not enter because they were overly full. Others featured goat trails bleeding between towering, precarious geometries. He could not manage these narrow paths without triggering frequent collapse, generating movements which rippled throughout the house for hours.

By the time he reached the massive closet door he barely had the strength to open it. His arthritic fingers could scarcely grip the knob. His arms shook as he dragged the heavy wood against the gritty floor. The shriek it made recalled someone’s final, humbling pain.

The initial smell carried a hint of grave. Coats, sweaters, and jackets hung on both sides with a narrow aisle in between. Stacked high on shelves were the scarves and hats, with gloves and muffs piled beneath dust and cobwebs so thick he was loath to touch them. On the floor the extensive collection of old boots lay scattered like the remains of some careless slaughter.

Few of the garments had been his. They were the hand-me-downs of generations, of children, adults, dead, misplaced, or estranged, all that was left of a family he could not let go, but which had drifted away from him anyway.

The winter closet was so deep he could not see its end. There was no interior light. He had to rely on the dim bulb hanging in the hall.

The first few feet consisted of children’s snow suits: vivid swollen torsos and arms with extraneous padding. His children who’d worn them had resembled dyed snowballs. He couldn’t remember who had owned what, not that it mattered. He imagined they would tell him if they visited.

His late wife’s coats were soft and woolly or shiny like her, and two or three, improbably, still held her fragrance from back when she was well and they all took better care. He resisted the urge to try them on. He understood the dangers of lingering here, and plunged forward, back into the years when he was a boy, and all the years before.

He’d expected it to be warm in here, a cozy adventure surrounded by furs and flannels, leathers and fleece, the intense fabrics of the departed. What he discovered instead was a deeper concentration of cold.

Stuck between the outfits and shoved to the walls were the not-clothes, the antique skis, the mops and brooms, the broken toys, the lop-sided stacks of tattered books printed in languages he did not recognize. The closet walls themselves were papered with stained and yellowing maps, a tangle of routes highlighted, annotated, or crossed out.

Subsequent outer garments were greasy, and bits of fiber and lining and glue came off and stuck to his hands. The next strata smelled so intensely of smoke and fire he fought to breathe.

The last few coats still had arms inside their sleeves. He struggled to push his way past hanging carcasses, shrouded in stylish winter fashions and the stench of meat, their collegiate scarves wrapped around missing heads.

He kept pushing, even though he worried what he might discover on the other side. His bones had turned brittle, and his skin had become painful to touch. He was terrified of the possibility of frostbite and needed something warm to force himself into. Anything remaining would have to do.

As his hand punctured the final thinness of wall, a carbon black film tearing and disintegrating, he fell the rest of the way through, and realized he’d pushed his endeavor too far. Everything dropped and curled into nothing, and he stood alone on the ash-covered, tortured ground.

Here was a landscape evading recognition, and yet he knew every inch. Upheavals of concrete and earth adorned with the abstract markings of soot and rust, asphalt vomitus and a spray of metal renderings, plastic dust, and drifts of toxic vapor. In the distance, remnants of blackened trees sprawled as if executed.

So many people lived hoping for the good that might someday come. Religions and governments had been built using this hope as currency.

Random drips of movement made him blink. He blinked again as these accidental gestures resolved into animated shapes of annealed flesh poking from the wreckage, their humanity recognizable, although he suspected these empathetic faces had been baked, or painted on, and in fact they were too self-involved with their own hopeless solitude to notice him.

At least they could not communicate, so he didn’t have to listen to their pain. He tried to examine his own flesh, but his brain would not allow it. Everything he’d ever cared for lay somewhere beyond his reach.

All good intentions were no longer relevant. Here even his skin did not fit.

It was a winter of painful colors and the coldest days on record.

Steve Rasnic Tem is a past winner of the Bram Stoker, World Fantasy, and British Fantasy Awards. His novel Ubo (Solaris Books), a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award, is a dark science fictional tale about violence and its origins, featuring such historical viewpoint characters as Jack the Ripper, Stalin, and Heinrich Himmler. He has published almost 500 short stories in his 40+ year career. Some of his best are collected in Thanatrauma and Figures Unseen from Valancourt Books. Visit his home on the web at www.stevetem.com.

Issue 36

July 2022

3LBE 36

Front & Back cover art by Rew X

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