THAT GIRL, SHE SLEEPS IN THE CLOSET
by Jessica Milam
Joanna tore open the eviction notice taped to the front door of their apartment, caught her breath, then promised Noah they’d be fine. He pretended to believe her. Making his mom feel better for failing him had become a habit.
We’ll share a room, she said. It’s a large space, in a beautiful home with a big backyard. There’s a trampoline and a swing set. A little girl lives there, though she’s a couple of years younger. Best of all, the house is right across the street from SeaWorld. “So we can go everyday, Mama?” Noah asked.
“Already bought season passes,” she told him.
A young Mexican couple handed over $300 for their furniture and hauled it away in a ‘90’s pickup truck. Most of Noah’s toys got donated to Goodwill. The boy didn’t cry. He still had his books and Playstation. Now that they’d be living in a house, Joanna would take him outside to shoot baskets in the driveway and to swim in the neighborhood pool.
“You never should have moved into a place you couldn’t afford on your salary,” her mom said on the phone. “I always knew Joshua would find a way to bail on child support. And moving in with people you don’t even know is stupid, dangerous,” she warned. But she didn’t offer her a place to stay.
“I typically run a background check on our housemates. However, I’m not worried at all about you,” Mike said, dressed in his army uniform. He clanked a spoon against his coffee cup on the kitchen island. “I’m familiar with the extensive screening the Texas Department of Corrections runs for you to work as a prison counselor, and you’ve got an honest face.”
“I’m more than happy to give you my info if you want,” Joanna said, pulling her wallet from her purse.
He smiled. “Don’t worry about a deposit. Rent’s $600 per month. All bills included. The elementary school’s one of the best in San Antonio.”
Mike and Jillian looked to be in their mid-twenties, both blonde and blue-eyed, with complexions light as the coffee creamer in the glass on the counter. Their little girl sported a buzz cut and Spurs t-shirt. She stared at Joanna with wide and curious eyes, digesting her colors: lemon sundress, wild chocolate hair, toffee skin, bubble-gum sandals.
“What grade will Noah be going into?” Jillian asked, grinning down at the boy.
“Angel will be thrilled to have him here,” she said. “The girl’s tiny, I know, but she’s actually starting first grade this fall.”
“She looks just like you,” Joanna said.
“Everyone says that, though Angel wishes she were a boy,” she laughed. “Kind of funny, this generation of kids, ey? Angel wears her hair like a boy’s and your son wears those gorgeous curls to his shoulders. Free expression, it’s a lovely thing.” Jillian sipped from her water bottle. “Angel’s real mum got on drugs, abandoned her and Mike while he was stationed in London, where he met me. I’m actually her stepmum. Let me show you the house.”
Jillian led Joanna and Noah up the stairs. “The lovely older lady in the room next to yours works at SeaWorld. Name’s Kathy. What will you do with Noah while you work this summer?”
“Oh, I’m planning to take him to the Y,” Joanna said.
“I’ll look after him for free. I’m here all day anyway, and sometimes I watch other kids.”
“Excuse, me,” Noah whispered, tapping Jillian’s wrist. “Where’s Angel’s room?”
“Fair question, young man. Actually, she sleeps in our closet.”
Joshua sent Joanna an email a month before he left for God-Knows-Where, figuring four weeks was a reasonable deadline for her response. “A man should not be forced to pay for a child he didn’t ask for. Your accommodating nature was always your most attractive quality. I demand you stop taking my money, immediately,” he’d written.
Twelve-hundred dollars a month, he’d paid for this kid, for eight goddamn years. Money taken out of his check without his fucking consent. So he left his job as a corporate legal assistant and started an online business helping people plan for their deaths. For a low monthly membership fee, he offered customers complete will, estate, and funeral planning, along with a musical playlist, goodbye letters, a virtual scrapbook, and editing of personal videos for their big event.
His business had just started to catch on when the Texas Attorney General’s office ripped off that income, too. The rat bastards levied his bank accounts and gave Joanna just about his last goddamn dime. So Joshua transferred mygreatestfuneraldesires.com to his brother Freddy’s name and flew off the grid.
A life in Mexico isn’t what he’d planned. But it’s not half- bad. He’s got a little place near the ocean and a motorcycle. His live-in girlfriend’s young and she gardens and cooks. Doesn’t hurt that she has a tiny ass and huge tits. He plays guitar on the front porch, works construction projects, and his brother Freddy sends him cash cards for the money he earns from the death website.
“We’re going to get my son, Maria. How do you feel about being a mother?” He stroked her hair as she sat in his lap. Her eyes were the color of the dark chocolate cocoa his mother used to make from scratch.
“I want to, Papi. You know that. But what about his mama’? She’s raised him all this time.” She massaged his shoulder. “You’ve never even met this boy.”
“Joanna can’t provide him with the intellectual enrichment of which I’m capable. And she was a promiscuous, reckless, pothead drunk when I met her.”
“If she’s so bad, why do you just now try to get him?”
“I wasn’t ready, then. And babies, little kids, they’re so hard. Eight years is the best age for a boy. I can teach him to play guitar, school him myself, teach him Spanish. I bet Joanna doesn’t even work, which is why she took my money. She was always switching jobs and moving, like some fucking hippy.”
He leaned over and rested his head on Maria’s massive chest.
“But what are you going to do, Mijo? You said you probably have warrants for your arrest for the child support by now. You can’t go back into the states.”
“Do you love me?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, with a sigh.
“Then please, trust me, and when I get my boy back, don’t ask how I did it.”
Noah’s school vacation began with the promise of everything an eight-year old boy’s summer should be: Swimming pools and waterslides, sweet tea and watermelon. Kayaking the Frio and hiking in the hill country with his mom. Catching fireflies in mason jars with Angel. Noah didn’t care much for girls, but Angel was more like the little brother he’d always wanted.
Jo taught the kids yoga in the backyard on Saturday mornings. “Knowing how to relax, connect your mind and body, control your thoughts, will make you more powerful than any superhero,”she told them. “Namaste!” Angel loved to shout at the top of her lungs, even though Jo told her it was intended to be a peaceful greeting, not a war chant.
Angel and Noah pretended the fireworks from Sea World were bombs bursting overhead that Fourth of July. Angel said they were being attacked by aliens from outer space and accused Noah of being one of the enemy, an extraterrestrial in disguise. She chased him around the backyard with a plastic sword, wearing her ninja costume and vowing to defeat him. He called her his little brother because she asked him to.
His mom complimented Mike on the brisket and told Jillian her potato salad was “to die for.” Jillian said something about trying her best to get into the whole Independence Day thing, but that she “just couldn’t bring myself to do that bloody American flag cake, Jo.”
Joanna’s sundress had all of the colors of a pack of Starburst candy, and Noah remembers the beads of sweat she wiped from her brow, and how she had to peel her skirt from the plastic lawn chair to get up to make a drink.
He can still taste the bitterness that rose up from his throat when Angel put her arms around his mom’s waist and said, “I love you, Jo-Jo,” and his mom replied, “I love you, too.” He wanted to shout, she’s my mom, not yours. He wanted to yell at her to just go away.
“Can we go watch the fireworks from the front yard? Please?” he asked. “We can see better from there, and all the neighbors are out.” Jo walked the kids around the house, then remembered she’d forgotten her drink.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
Noah remembers the smell of the vodka, the hundreds of tiny shards of glass lying on the sidewalk when that drink slipped from her hands, after he screamed from top of his lungs: she’s gone, Mama. Somebody took Angel.
It was easy, so easy, taking the boy. Freddy saw him dressed up in that ninja outfit, hugging his mom. Jo always was hot, for the flat-chested hippy type, and she hasn’t changed a bit. Everyone was watching the fireworks when she went inside and left the kids alone. Joshua won’t be surprised to know she’s still an irresponsible bitch. All Freddy had to do was put his hand over the boy’s mouth and run. Had him shot up with tranquilizer and bound and gagged in the van before anyone even noticed. “He’s a tiny little fucker for his age,” he tells Joshua from his disposable phone.
“Stupid bitch probably didn’t feed him,” Joshua says. “Good thing he’ll have Maria now.”
“We’ll be there in seven hours,” Freddy says.
“What did you see?” the officer asks Noah.
“A man and white van, parked across the street. He drove off real fast!”
“What did this man look like?”
“He was tall, grey hair, strong, fast.”
“What about this van? Did you notice the license plate number?”
“I tried to look, but I couldn’t see, he drove away too fast!” Noah said.
“What about the girl’s mother?” the officer asks Mike and Jillian.
“I don’t think she cares enough to try to take Angel,” Mike says. “Besides, last I heard, she’s still in the UK.”
“Still, we can’t exclude any possibilities,” the officer says.. “The boy tells me the girl sleeps in the closet?”
“Well, it’s a huge closet. She likes to pretend she’s sleeping in army barracks like her dad,” Jillian says.
“And it frees up your other two bedrooms so you can make money renting them out to strangers. Tell me, how much do you know about your roommates?” he asks.
“I looked into them both,” Mike says. “Kathy’s fine. Jo had one DUI a few years ago, but nothing major. She works in a prison, though, counseling dudes set for release. Maybe you should look into her contacts, clients.”
“Did you see anything at all?” the officer asks Jo.
“God, no,” she sobs. “Didn’t see a damn thing. Turned my back, and that’s why this happened.”
“This happened because a horrible person decided to do an awful thing.” he says. “So you work in a prison? Do you think one of your clients could have…”
“I don’t think so. I don’t give out personal information, and I still haven’t changed my address from my apartment. No one knows I live here with a little girl.”
“Please understand, it’s not that I blame you. I wasn’t watching them either. I love you and sweet Noah. But you’re going to have to find another place to stay,” Jillian says. “Mike’s heart’s been torn in two. He just can’t bare to look at you.”
“Are you still drinking, Jo?” her mom asked on the phone.
“Yes, but not excessively, not…”
“Then no, Hon, you can’t stay here. Besides, your drama is nonstop, no matter where you are. I can’t take it now, not with my blood pressure….”
It’ll be okay, she tells Noah, but this time he doesn’t even pretend to believe her.
“You stupid, dumb-ass, retarded fuckup!!”Joshua’s screaming rattles the small house like wind from a tropical storm. Maria clutches the shaking girl.
“She looked just like a boy! Dressed like a ninja. Hugging Joanna like she was her mom,” Freddy says.
Joshua’s chest heaves up and down and sweat pours down his face. Angel thinks he looks like he’s going to explode. Maybe if she concentrates real hard, she can make that happen, or set him on fire with her mind like the girl in that scary movie she saw on TV..
“A white girl. A fucking blonde- haired, blue-eyed, white little girl. Everyone in the entire world is going to be all over this, all over us.”
“I was careful, brother, I switched cars, didn’t leave a trace…”
“Careful? You call this fucking careful?”
Joshua’s palm stings like a thousand needles when it collides with Maria’s cheek. He rips the cell phone from her grasp.
“Don’t even think about calling the police. You will not betray me! Ruin MY life!! I’m a good man. I do NOT deserve to go to jail!” He sobs. “I worked my ass off for years, paid my taxes, stood by while some dumb bitch took my money. I tried to do the right thing, get my son here and raise him, be a good dad!”
Maria put her arms around his neck. “I’m so sorry, Papi. I love you so. You are a good man.” She kisses his face. “I just got scared. Please, it will be okay. Just promise me no one hurts the ninita. It’s not her fault. We’ll figure out how to get your son here, together.”
There’s a cheap apartment complex by the prison an hour outside of San Antonio, where a few of the counselors and several officers live. Jo hates small towns and the idea of living so close to work, but it’s all she can afford. She buys a couple of mattresses in a box and a flatscreen from Walmart, and she and Noah settle in as well as they can. Angel’s face is on every news station, all over the internet. When they try to sleep, she’s in their dreams. Jo drinks at night to assuage the recurring ache of guilt that creeps up every time she thinks: thank God it wasn’t Noah.
And it doesn’t make any sense, not at all, but she’s had this crazy thought that maybe Joshua could have something to do with this. She knows it’s not logical because he’s really a timid man, mousy for his large stature, and she’s never known him to be in the least bit aggressive. And why on Earth would he take the wrong kid, anyway?
When Joanna told Joshua she was pregnant, he’d replied, “You knew I didn’t want a child. I’ll have nothing to do with this, or you. Never contact me again, do you understand?” His words didn’t disturb her as much as the expression in his grey eyes: they reminded her of an isolated parcel of flat-dirt land where nothing lives, nothing grows.
He’d attracted her by his intellect and unconventional thinking at first. She’d kept him around for far too long, replying to his “Baby, I miss you” texts, the “I need to see you” texts, and the “Sorry it’s been so long” texts, sent when he was between girlfriends. She had somehow believed his validation could redeem her self-worth. He made an art of keeping his full approval just out of reach, showering her with affection, then making some comment like, “You know, Jo, you’re amazing. Sometimes, though, I do wish you were just a little bit prettier/thinner/smarter.”
The baby was unexpected, conceived between their breakups, under a haze of weed and whisky. When she learned she was pregnant, Jo knew this might be her only chance to be a mother. She was two years from forty. The food stamp office made her file for child support when she was in between jobs: she never actually wanted a dime from him. The only time Joshua tried to reach out over the years was through emails ranting about her “stealing” his money, and how, “One day, you’ll see. You force me to pay for this kid, I’ll find a way to make sure he lives with me.”
Maria makes up a pallet of blankets and pillows for Angel to sleep on in the closet. She brings her two meals a day and takes her to the bathroom at daylight and before bedtime. Every other day, Angel gets to take a shower.
Freddy’s gone, and Angel knows when Joshua enters the room by the smell of his cigarettes. At night, she covers her ears, trying not to hear the same moaning, smacking, rumbling, and crying out she had to listen to from her closet in her dad and Jillian’s room. She wishes she could live with Joanna. Jo doesn’t have a husband. Her room must be quiet and peaceful at night.
Angel remembers how she and Noah used to talk about the dad he hadn’t met. They’d imagined he was Batman, Spiderman, or the rockstar Noah wanted to grow up to be. She tears up, feeling sad that Noah’s real dad’s a monster. She wants to kill him. There’s a rifle in the closet, and she wonders if it works much like the BB gun her dad taught her how to shoot.
“A world-wide search continues for Angel Power, the little girl abducted from her front yard on the Fourth of July. Police are searching for her biological mother, Diane Clark. Anyone with any information is urged to call the FBI or the San Antonio Police Department.” Joanna turns off the six o’clock news, hugs Noah, and mixes a drink.
One lesson Maria has learned in her twenty-four years on this Earth is how to survive in the presence of violent men. Submit. Feed them. Fuck them. Don’t give them an inkling you might use your brain or challenge their power in any way.
Her father raised her to fear his fist. A group of three cholos held her down in an abandoned building when she was just seventeen, plowing into her over and over again with their disgusting dirty dicks. And Joshua’s not the first boyfriend to slap her, to wrap his fingers around her neck until she can’t breathe. Joshua seemed so handsome at first, so tall and fair and strong and gentle. Now all she notices is how selfish he is and how much his face resembles a rat. She’s good at managing men like him, though. She’s also good at gardening and cooking and making herbal tea.
Angel hears it all from the closet. Joshua’s slurring, his heavy footsteps rattling the house. The “thump” as his large body hits the bed. His moans, the retching, his cries for help: “What did you put in that tea? Oh my God! Help me!” The room is overtaken by odors so foul she vomits in the closet.
“Let’s get out of here, ninita. Move fast, and don’t look at the bed. Don’t look at him.” Angel’s grateful for whatever Maria did to Joshua. She didn’t really want to have to be the one to kill Noah’s dad.
Maria calls the police and tells them she’s been held captive with the girl in the house for three weeks. She says Joshua fell ill out of nowhere and that she hopes the ambulance can make it there in time. She’s already disposed of his tea cup and all traces of what she put in it.
“Mama, why did my did my dad try to take me? Why was he such a bad man?” Noah asks Joanna months later, in the car on the way to school.
Her mouth turns dry and it takes her a few seconds to answer.
“Well, your dad was like this: One time, we were were driving to Bandera, on a narrow, winding road, and the car in front of us had one of their tires blow out. We were late to a party. He pulled over to help the people change their tire, and he was so patient and sweet about it.” Joanna takes a deep breath as she pulls up to the school. “And he took his aunt to all of her doctor’s appointments and cared for her when she was diagnosed with cancer. And, anytime a homeless person walked up and ask him for money, he’d always give them a few dollars, even a couple of cigarettes if they smoked. Never treated them like they were a nuisance, or inferior. I wouldn’t say he was a bad man.”
“Well, then why….”
Joanna interrupts. “I think he probably figured out you were the best little dude on Earth, so he decided he wanted you for himself. I also think he was afraid, terribly afraid, of not being in control. I think not having control over the people in his life was his deepest fear, and scared people do crazy things sometimes.”
“I kinda wish I got to meet him.”
“Have a good day at school, Hon.” It’s the best reply Joanna can come up with.
Mike sets a serving bowl full of chicken curry down in the center of the dining room table. ”Let’s enjoy.” .
“Five years. This is the longest I’ve stayed in any job,” Joanna says, holding up her wine glass.
“Cheers. Your promotion is well deserved,” Jillian says as their glasses meet.
“Thank you for having us over for dinner. Noah loves hanging out with Angel.”
“She’d love to have him over for a sleepover sometime. He could stay in your old room,” Jillian says.
Angel runs up to Jo, “Did you get to see my room? It’s all Star Wars!”
Noah stands beside her. “That’s cool, Angel, but you should see my room in my new house! It’s The Spurs.and The Cowboys, and I have two guitars!”
Joanna looks at her son, and her lips form into a half-smile. She notices the lack of light in his eyes, and how the the boy seems only half-engaged in everything he does. His therapist says it’s a natural reaction to emotional trauma, but Jo fears it may be a permanent side effect of chronic childhood disappointment.
“Namaste, Jo! Don’t forget to breathe! I miss our yoga!” Angel shouts as she runs away.
Jo stares after her. Angel’s spirit and imagination are without limit. That little girl should never be confined by any form of closet. Maybe she’ll be resilient to the after-effects of the kidnapping that are sure to pop up down the line. Joanna takes a deep breath and tells herself it’s all going to turn out fine. She sips from her wine glass and almost believes it will be.
About the Author:
Jessica Milam is a teacher and substance abuse counselor residing in North Texas. Her work has been published in Every Day Fiction and Commuterlit.com. She holds a master’s degree in school psychology from Trinity University and is a lover of the outdoors, literature, live music, and wine.