The World Inside My Closet

Mia Stendal/

It was supposed to be an April Fool’s joke. How could I have known? If I could change anything about that day, if I could take it all back… But life doesn’t work that way, and like frightened, abused children, we’re punished for what we can’t imagine.

“You swear?”

School had let out an hour ago and my best friend Matt and I were hanging out on the playground, lounging beneath an ancient weeping willow.

“Honest to God.”

He looked at me askance, but I donned my best poker face and refused to back down.

“I told you I saw it. Don’t you believe me?”

Matt opened his mouth, then closed it.

“You swear?”

I regurgitated the most solemn pledge I knew.

“Cross my heart and hope to die.”

Reason made a valiant effort to assert itself that soporific afternoon, but in the end, it proved no match for my best friend’s yearning to believe. It’s a desire present in the heart of every child—and, for that matter, every adult.

A ripple of conflicting emotions washed across Matt’s face and then his eyes lit up.

“No way!”

“Come on, I’ll prove it.”

I’ll never forget how excited he was. We walked the whole twenty minutes to my house, and the entire time he had this goofy grin plastered on his face.

At least twice, he asked me, “Where do you think it goes?” and all I could manage was to shrug my shoulders and say I didn’t know. It was all I could do just to keep from busting up.

Matt was exceptionally bright—at the age of nine, he’d already tested into the GATE program—but despite his keen intelligence and sharp wit, he clung to his faith in magic and the supernatural like a Catholic clung to his Bible and the sacraments. When it came to C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he was a hopeless fanatic, and earlier that day I convinced him I’d found a doorway to another world inside my closet.

Mom wasn’t home when we arrived and I had to fish the key out from my tattered Ninja Turtles backpack. The whole time, Matt hovered over me, telling me to hurry, that if we didn’t get upstairs fast enough, the door might disappear and then we’d lose our chance to explore that other world forever.

“Come on,” he said when I finally propped the door open. “Come on, come on, come on!”

God, I thought, this was going to be too easy.

We pounded up the stairs two steps at a time, and when I revealed my room to my gullible friend, I swear to God, his jaw dropped to the floor.

“It’s in here,” I said, “Follow me.”

Together we approached the closet, and for a while, Matt just stared and didn’t say a word.

“You go first,” I said, breaking the silence.

I have no idea what kind of world he’d already glimpsed beyond the threshold of his imagination, but I do think he knew what was going to happen. He knew, and he opened the closet anyway.

My plan was to let him walk inside. I’d hang back, wait for him to search for a doorway that wasn’t there, and then, just before realization dawned, I’d shove him back into the hanging clothes and shout, “April fools!”

Then he actually opened the door, and this time, my own jaw dropped.

Out of the open closet beamed an icy blue light, the sort you might encounter inside a cavern buried deep beneath a frozen tundral waste. I could already feel the first tendrils of a profound glacial chill reaching across the threshold, and all I could do was stand there and gape.

No, I thought. This can’t be right. This can’t be real. The look on Matt’s face was like nothing I’d seen before. It was a look of vindication, a look of raw, naked, unadulterated desire.

“I knew it,” he said. “No one’s ever believed me, but I knew it.”

He stood there for a while, transfixed. Then, all at once, he bolted through the open doorway and into someplace other.

It took my mind a while to reboot, and when I finally thought to chase after him, it was too late.

“Matt, come back!”

The instant before I lost sight of my best friend forever, I beheld a brilliant turquoise sky and towering arctic spires. The colors of that unearthly terrain seemed almost too sharp, too real, as if someone had loaded a panorama into Photoshop and ratcheted up the contrast and saturation. I still see that place in my dreams. Always, I’m shouting—”Matt, come back!”—and always, I’m too late.

I didn’t make it two steps before the door slammed shut. Momentum carried me forward anyway, and I banged into the hard wooden surface a moment later.

This isn’t right, I thought, dazed. This can’t be right.

I waited for the pain in my head to abate, then reached for the closet handle and pulled. The door slid easily, revealing clothes, a skateboard, and a chest filled with toys I hadn’t played with since I was five.

“Matt,” I shouted, pounding on the walls. “Matt, come back!”

But I knew he couldn’t hear me. That other world was gone and it had taken my best friend with it.

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