By Sam Bowen
Mindy looked at her watch and sighed. She was running out of day and there was still so much to do. But she was also bone tired. The thought of slipping into a hot bath and washing the work of moving off of her body sounded heavenly. Still, she had papered all of the shelves in the pantry except the bottom one. Actually, it wasn’t even a shelf, but the floor, and she considered leaving it, but she didn’t like the way it looked. The bright red cherry design on the other shelves was so much more alive and vibrant than the dull wood of the floor. One more task and she would reward herself with that bath. And what the hell, might as well make it a bubble bath.
The pantry was awkwardly shaped. It was in a corner and the door was maybe two feet wide, but it jutted to the right. The result was a pantry with plenty of space, but items in the back would be hard to reach. It was a tiny apartment, and Mindy supposed she should give kudos to the designer for creating a spacious pantry with such an economical front.
Just like the shelves above, Mindy would have to use two sheets of shelf paper—the roomy pantry included especially deep shelves. She hated to piece it, but the seams were only barely visible, and it couldn’t be helped. Plus, whatever food products she put on the shelves would hide it.
Mindy cut the shelf paper at the proper length and laid it in the pantry. She liked the precision of measuring and cutting the paper perfectly to fit the shelf. It was something solid she could depend on.
The light was starting to fade, so she turned on the kitchen’s overhead fluorescents. She took the towel hanging from the oven handle, folded it up, and set it on the ground so her knees would not be too uncomfortable. Mindy very carefully laid the lining, taking care to avoid bubbles. The first strip went down flawlessly.
She repeated the process with the section of shelf near her. This time, as she pressed it down, the paper bubbled.
“Damn it,” she said. She could feel the beads of sweat trickle into her eyebrows; it was much warmer in here than in the rest of the apartment.
The bubble was in the furthest corner of the pantry. She reached back as far as she could, but was still several inches short. Mindy backed out of the pantry and looked around for something she could use to extend her reach.
“Ah ha!” she said. A large wooden serving spoon lay on the top of a box of kitchen supplies. She grabbed it and went back to the pantry. “You’re my ticket to a hot bath,” she told it, feeling only slightly silly for talking to an inanimate object. She got back on her knees and reached into the dark corner. The spoon was long enough and she rubbed it over the bubble. It didn’t go down. “Shit.” She tried a few more times, but the bubble was obstinate. “Come on, you son of a bitch.” She furiously rubbed the spoon into the bubble as hard as she could, but it was going nowhere. “Damn it!” She threw the spoon into the corner.
It was too much. It was as if the last four years of her life were trapped in that air bubble, and the damn thing would just not go away. Her eyes burned with tears, and she tried to hold them back, but without any luck. The tears and sweat dripped from her eyes and down her nose. She could taste the salt as it slid to the corner of her mouth. And now her nose was running. She rubbed it with the back of her hand, like a child. This action made her realize how silly she was being. Yeah, the last four years sucked. She had bought a house when the market was at its peak—but who could know it would plummet only a few months later? She didn’t really make enough at her job to support the mortgage, but she figured that if she supplemented it with a roommate, and if she got the raise and promotion she anticipated, things would be okay. And for about three years they were. But then her third roommate moved out, and suddenly nobody was willing to pay the rent she was asking. And almost immediately after, her company tanked and she was laid off. Getting a new job—one that paid what she needed to survive—proved as elusive as a roommate. For four years she used her savings to pay the mortgage, now supplemented by a renter who was paying barely half of what she was commanding before. Mindy had not been aware before then that one could develop claustrophobia from walls closing in on her when the walls weren’t literal.
Not surprisingly, the money ran out, and Mindy ended up having to short sell the house.
She was devastated. She felt like a failure. She had lost weight—between the stress and the ramen noodles, she was thinner than she had ever been. Her ribs pushed at the skin covering them—a skin that was pale and sallow. Shortly before the sale, she had had a panic attack that resulted in a short stay in the hospital (thank God she had SOME insurance from her temp job). Then she contracted pneumonia, which resulted in a longer stay in the hospital (the temp job no longer helped at this point. Thank God the hospital was required to serve a certain number of patients at no charge).
But things were better now. Mindy was surprised to receive a $20,000 check from the bank for selling her house (something about an incentive to get out from under an upside-down mortgage: she neither understood nor questioned the details). She was putting on weight, and she thought she was started to look healthy and attractive again. She was confident they would make her permanent at her most recent temp assignment. And there was this apartment. It was small, sure, but it was in a great area—walking distance from the beach and shopping, friendly neighbors. It was almost too good to be true. These were good things, and if a stubborn air bubble in the shadowed rear of her pantry was her biggest problem, then things weren’t bad at all.
Mindy took a couple of deep breaths and weighed her options. She could let the bubble stay. Of course, she could let it stay. There are dozens—perhaps hundreds—of flaws and inconsistencies in any given home. Small cracks, poorly patched holes, doors that didn’t fit quite squarely in their jambs. What was one more? Besides, nobody else would know it was there.
But she would. Every time she opened the pantry to get a can of soup or some olive oil, she would look to the bottom shelf and would know it was there. And now that she associated the bubble with her failed run at homeownership, that was what it would be. Who needs that reminder when one wants to succumb to the sweet goodness of an Oreo?
She would make one more go at it. If she couldn’t get the bubble out this time, she would slide a box of Bisquick into the corner and choose to believe that that flattened it. She lay on her side—her torso lying on the floor of the pantry, and her hip an inch lower on the linoleum—and reached toward the back corner. She could just make it. She pushed the bubble to the edge and just like that, it was gone. It was as though a weight was lifted from her body. She exhaled deeply, closed her eyes, and lay back, heedless of the way the door frame bit into the flesh of her right shoulder.
With this crisis averted, she suddenly felt relaxed. Maybe she would skip the bath and go straight to bed. She opened her eyes, and the way everything looked runny and swimmy decided her: she would peel off her clothes and get into bed. Maybe Scurvy would come out from wherever he was hiding and curl up on her belly while she was asleep. Like many cats, he didn’t care for change, but he certainly wouldn’t be able to resist a warm body.
Mindy tried to sit up, but could not budge. She wriggled, but this action only served to wedge her body further into the opening. She could feel the panic creep up her throat, but she tamped it down. This was silly. Yeah, she was a bit jammed in, but she was certain that she could maneuver in a way that would unstick her. It was like when she was a little girl and played hide and seek.
Her toy box was a great place to hide, and mostly comfortable with the stuffed animals (the exception being Barbie’s long limbs, which could be jab irritatingly into her young flesh). The older she got, the tighter the fit, to the point that she would have to empty the toy box of all its contents before she could get in, and then she had to bend her body into contortions that would be painful if she stayed that way for long. And finally, when she was ten, she got stuck. It was not the same position as the pantry—it was worse. Her neck bent forward and her body was so balled up, that she could smell the infection from a skinned knee. She screamed. And though it must have been muffled as she screamed into her chest and the toy box door was slid shut, her mom came running in less than a minute.
“Where are you?” her mom shouted. She sounded as panicked as Mindy felt.
Instead of answering, Mindy thrashed, knocking her limbs and head into the hard wood of the toy box. Her mom slammed the door open. “Oh my god, Mindy. What are you doing in there?”
“Mommy! Help me! I’m stuck.”
Her mom grabbed Mindy’s wrists and pulled her straight up with that strength of the proverbial mother with her child under a car. Mindy’s back rubbed painfully against the wall, and her knee banged the door, splintering it. The two fell back onto Mindy’s bed. Her mom’s fear turned into anger and she slapped Mindy hard on her bottom. “I told you not to play in that box! You’re too big for it!”
The slap hurt. Her raw back and banged knee throbbed. And even at ten, Mindy could feel her childhood slipping away as she was forced to realize that she was, in fact, too big to play in the toy box. But mostly she was relieved to be out of it and held by her mother.
The point is, she told herself, that she did get out. And while her mom helped, she knew that if she had just remained calm, she could have gotten out on her own. This is what was happening now. If she let her fear rule her, she really would be stuck.
She closed her eyes for a ten count. As she calmed, she took quick stock of her other senses. Her skin hurt where the wood poked into it. Her ears rang slightly. There was a very light mold scent that tickled her nostrils. Mostly, it was just hot. The heat was surprising. It didn’t make sense that the pantry would be so much warmer than the rest of the house. Even accounting for her body heat, it was too hot. She could feel sweat dripping down from her hairline, and she realized that the smell wasn’t mold, but her own BO, musty with the stink of fear.
Once she got to the count of ten, she opened her eyes. “Okay, Mindy,” she told herself. “You can do this. This is nothing.” Her torso was lying at a roughly 45 degree angle, so her first move was to try to turn so her shoulders were perpendicular to the floor. She pushed and twisted her body every way she could think of, but she could get no leverage to move more than fractions of an inch.
The panic tried to return, but she wouldn’t let it. “That’s okay. That didn’t work. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” And then, because she reasoned that panicking people don’t have a sense of humor, she shouted out of the pantry, “No offense, Scurvy.” Scurvy didn’t reply.
She ran through other possibilities in her head. She could try to pull herself all the way in, then maybe twist around and try a different way out. She could reach her hands above her head and push the wall as hard as she could, forcing her body out. She could . . . well, that was really all she could come up with.
Okay, pulling herself in was vetoed immediately. As spacious as the pantry was, the shelf would definitely be too small for an adult. And with the toy box fresh in her mind, the idea of pulling herself any further was too terrifying to think about.
So that left the pushing. She put her hands flat against the wall. The wall was maybe half a foot from her head. Good. It was a good angle for pushing, and if she could straighten her arms out, she would pop out like a cork. She paused to gather her strength and think thin thoughts. She tried to visualize her body as a rail. A slender rail, slick with petroleum jelly. A rail that couldn’t get stuck in anything. Once she had a clear picture, she pushed as hard as she could. She felt her body budge! Only an inch or so, but it was something. She kept pushing until her arms burned. When she felt her strength flag, she pushed even harder, certain that she was almost there. Flashes of light exploded before her eyes. The muscles in her arms wanted to stop, but Mindy wouldn’t let them. Then the world turned gray and she passed out.
Mindy was in the toy box. Only this time, she didn’t take the toys out. And there were no stuffed animals, only Barbies, with their plastic hands and feet poking rudely into her ten year-old flesh. No, she wasn’t ten. She was an adult. She was confused—her parents got rid of that toy box during the move when she was twelve. How could she be in it now? But she was. At least, part of her was. Her legs jutted out of the side wall, exactly where solid wood should be. She thrashed from side to side, banging her body against the walls. She tried to scream, but couldn’t. And anyway, wasn’t she home alone?
Then she heard footsteps.
“Hello? Is somebody out there?”
The footsteps stopped, and she could sense someone was just outside of the toy box.
“Hello? Please help! I’m stuck!”
“Why are you doing this?” she screamed. She tried to slam her shoulder into the door, but all she could manage were weak pushes. She was crying. “Please! Help me!”
The door flew open. There was a figure there, but it was only silhouette. Which made no sense, as there was plenty of light. “What did I tell you about playing in there?”
“You never told me anything! Please let me out!”
The figure grabbed her hands and started to pull.
“My legs!” she screamed. They were stuck poking out of the side and as it pulled, she could feel the skin tear. “Stop! My legs!”
The figure didn’t stop, but pulled harder. She heard more than felt her legs snap like two candy canes and she popped loose, falling onto her bed. Only it wasn’t her childhood bed. It was her bed as an adult, in the room from the home she lost. She was bundled tight under the covers.
The bed started to shrink, the blankets with them. They pulled tight against her body, creating a cocoon that kept shrinking and shrinking. Her arms were pressed to her sides and she was losing oxygen.
Finally she was free, but under water. She looked up, but the surface was nowhere to be seen. She screamed and watched the bubbles come out of her mouth. She imagined her screams exploding into sound as the bubble came to the surface, just like in cartoons. She screamed and screamed, until her body needed oxygen. She breathed in and could feel the water flood her lungs.
Mindy gasped and woke up. She wasn’t stuck underwater, of course, but she was still stuck. Her shoulder ached where it lay wedged against the wood. She had passed out. She had never passed out before, and the gravity of her situation was becoming clearer. The panic returned and she let it. She kicked her legs and flailed her arms. She screamed as loud as she could. She screamed until her throat hurt and she ended up coughing. Each cough felt like she was breathing shards of wood. When the coughing fit stopped, she started sobbing. She didn’t have the energy to bawl, but she felt like it.
“Meow.” It was Scurvy. Mindy craned her head to look out. He padded his way to her and began rubbing his face against her foot.
It was stupid. She knew it even as she said it, but she was desperate. “Scurvy! Get help! Get Mommy help! Get my cell phone!”
He kept rubbing against her and she kicked her feet. The cat backed up a few steps, but then jumped over her kicking legs and onto her abdomen.
“Scurvy, you stupid fucking cat. Help me!” She began sobbing again. Scurvy seemed mildly annoyed, but settled down. “Fucking cat!” It was that moment that Mindy decided she would never own a cat again. If she were to get out of this, she would get a dog. A smart dog. A Lassie. A fucking Rin Tin Tin. Not some stupid cat who either didn’t know an emergency when he saw one, or, more likely, didn’t care.
Still, his warmth was comforting, and when he began to purr, Mindy relaxed a little. As much as one can relax when half her body is stuck in a pantry.
Then Mindy felt her body shift. She wanted to get excited, but something was wrong about it. The edges bit into her flesh fiercely. Why would it be worse? Then she realized—she hadn’t settled into the door jamb, which is what should have been happening with the help of gravity. No, her body had bent the opposite direction. It was as if the entryway were shrinking and her body contorted to allow for this. But that was impossible.
The heat was unbearable. It was like a vice squeezing the entirety of her upper body. Especially her head, which throbbed to the beat of her heart.
Mindy jumped as she heard the evil sound of Scurvy hissing. She looked at him and his hackles were up. His alien-feline eyes were fixed on something just behind her. Something in the pantry. Nothing could possibly be there, but still Mindy was afraid to look. “What is it, Scurvy?”
He hissed again.
“Scurvy, what the fuck is there?!”
He turned and tore out of the kitchen, his back claws taking strips of her shirt and flesh with it. She sucked in air between her teeth and held it, afraid to even breathe. Mindy could only look at the space that Scurvy had just vacated. She did not want to put her head back and see what scared the cat so much. The beads of sweat had turned into rivulets and they ran down her eyes and mouth, but they were hot and offered no comfort. She could hear her breath—loud and ragged. She was terrified, but she still didn’t know from what. She knew she should probably look behind her, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. She still held her head up, and her vision began to waver again. Oxygen. She needed oxygen. She finally gulped in a mouthful of air. But wait. If she had been holding her breath, how had she heard herself breathing?
She wouldn’t look, but she struggled against the wood jamb. Her fists beat a tattoo against the shelf above her and her feet pounded the linoleum. She heard the creak of wood bent against its will, but instead of relief, she only felt more tightly wedged in. This was not Mindy’s imagination—the doorway was definitely shrinking. She beat her fists even harder on the shelf above her. She heard wood splinter, and this time it was from her doing. She hazarded a look above her, making sure not to look any more than she had to. She knew she didn’t want to see what was breathing. A large crack ran down the particleboard shelf above her. She beat at it even harder and the crack opened further. She didn’t know what this would accomplish, but it felt productive to do something.
She could now feel the breath on her face. It was so hot. She could feel her skin stretch tight over her skull as the moisture evaporated from the heat. The air stunk of sulfur. Even as she beat the shelf, the doorway shrunk. Mindy screamed as she felt a rib snap. Now the ragged breath she heard definitely was her own. And the other breathing was now a laugh. It was not a human laugh, though. It had a grunting, simian quality. It sounded like it came from deep in the most cavernous of mouths. It was an evil sound.
Mindy couldn’t pound the shelf anymore. The pain from her rib made it virtually impossible to lift her arms, and she could muster no more strength than a kitten. Still, it was enough. A large chunk of shelf came dislodged and struck her forehead.
She picked up the shelf and, with a strength she didn’t know she had, lifted it above her head. Her knuckles burned as though she were holding the wood up to a camp bonfire. She struck out blindly a few times, but she was too weak for any real force. The doorway clamped further down on her and when she looked up, it was considerably smaller. And as it shrunk, the laughter got louder, the heat more intense. She could feel the presence of the laughter now. It was within a few feet of her. She could feel its breath blister her hands and singe her hair. It was still too far to do anything, but it was getting closer.
Mindy knew she wouldn’t be able to look at whatever was approaching her. She had this feeling that to look at it was to invite madness. Not that she felt far from there right now. She squeezed her eyes shut and concentrated on her other senses again. The thing was no more than three feet away. The laughter was incredibly loud. She thought that it if got much closer her eardrums would burst. But it crept nearer.
Amidst the laughter, it was speaking. The sound was so guttural that Mindy wasn’t sure how long it had been speaking this word. It could have been just a moment, or the laughter could have been the word the entire time.
It was saying her name. Hearing her name like this almost made her swing the board now, but she resisted the urge; the thing was still too far.
“IIIIII’VVVVE GOOOTTTTTTTTT YYYYOOOOOOUUUU!”
“No, you son of a bitch!” she screamed. Except it wasn’t a scream. All that came out was a weak, wheezy rasp. Still, it answered her.
It was now about two feet away. It felt like her head was in an oven and the only thing she wanted to do was pass out and let it all end. No, not the only thing. She also wanted to live. She gripped the shelf as tight as she could. The wood was hot beneath her fingers, as though she had pulled it from a campfire.
“IIIIIIII’VVVVVVE GOOOOOTTTTTTTT –”
It got no further. Despite the stabbing pain that it caused, Mindy swung the particleboard as hard as she could. There was a thunk. Then a howl of pain. This was even louder than the laughter. But it was receding, as if the thing was retreating.
“BITCH!” it shouted. It was close again, and Mindy swung again. She felt a rip in her side, and was fairly certain that her rib had torn at her lung. This time it made contact with a wet thud. Another howl of pain and, yes! She didn’t notice it before, but the entrance separating the kitchen from what was once the pantry was wider. The howling sound seemed to circle above her, dozens of feet in the air. Then it came down again and Mindy swung one last time. The pain was unbearable now, and when she swung the board, she loosed her grip on it, and it flew out of her hands. She heard it connect solidly, and immediately noticed that she had room to maneuver again. She couldn’t use her arms, but she was able to flail from side to side like a fish on a dock. She felt her body slide back to the kitchen, back to safety. The cool air on her skin felt wonderful, and as her entire body finally came free, she looked at the pantry. She look was brief—she expected to see fire form the heat, but did not. There was only inky blackness. Her pantry, a mere couple feet back mere hours ago, stretched out toward forever. At the very end, an impossible distance away, and an impossible distance to see so far, were two glowing white dots. The dots seared her cornea and would leave ghosts that would never completely disappear. They penetrated her soul, and were at the center of every nightmare that Mindy would have for the rest of her life.
Then the pantry door slammed with such force that it pulled itself inside. Only the shelves stopped it from going far. From the sides of the door, Mindy could see that the inside of the pantry was just that again—a pantry. A place where you kept food. Well, a place where people kept food. Mindy knew she would never have use for that pantry again.
Mercifully, her phone was on a box that was on the floor. She could get to it without having to reach too far. She picked it up and called 911. She was able to recite her new address to the operator just before she passed out.