The closet door creaked. Matt jerked his head off the pillow. Sitting upright, he stared at the door, his tormentor. He dared it to move. It stayed ajar, motionless.
Matt sat upright for a long time. The door remained silent and still, for now. It mocked him, teasing him to try to sleep.
“You want me to cry for my mommy. Don’t you?”
“I’m ten. I won’t. My dad…”
The words stuck in his throat, as he thought of the lie. His face fell to the pillow stained with tears.
The sun brightly lit his bedroom. Matt stumbled out of bed with a groan. He was the man-of-the-house and couldn’t bother his mother with a stupid door.
His mom joined him in the kitchen. Her eyes were red, a blank look on her face.
Matt knew she hadn’t slept either.
He poured two bowls of cereal. Mom sat staring at her bowl in silence. When Matt finished eating, he gathered his books for school.
Matt couldn’t concentrate and the day drifted by meaninglessly. From the school bus, he walked toward his home.
Someone had placed the flag in a triangular wood box with a glass front. They displayed it in the front window. The blue field with white stars demanded his attention. He remembered “them” handing it to Mom. His feet wouldn’t move. Frozen in place, he stared at the flag, and lost track of time.
“Matt.” His mother’s voice called him. She stood in the doorway still wearing her nightgown. The once happy mom now had a stranger’s face, deeply etched with lines.
“Coming, Mom.” He walked past the flag and inside.
Entering his room, Matt dropped the books on his bed. The door creaked. He picked up his backpack and wedged the door closed with it. “So much for doing homework.”
His dad had said he would fix the doorknob as soon as he returned. Dad’s one and only lie.
The door laughed at him. It cruelly tormented him. Every creak of the hinge seemed to say, “He left you. He lied. He didn’t love you.”
Matt ran from the bedroom. Maybe Mom would let him sleep on the couch.
Late that afternoon, a dozen women stopped by the house. Each brought a casserole. They mostly left him alone. When one did corner him, she squeezed him too hard and mumbled something about the mysteries of God and worse, it’s God’s will.
He wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded like, ‘God wanted his family to suffer.’ No one explained why God hated his mother and him so much. He tried to stay away from the ladies by retreating into his room.
Tomorrow, Mr. Peterson would demand the homework. If a single person failed to complete it, the whole class would suffer. With only a glance through the stack, Peterson could tell if a student failed to turn-in the assignment.
Matt shuttered. He had to do the homework. He moved his backpack to his desk.
As soon as he began his work, the creaking started. Every muscle tensed as his attention was torn from the math page. He stared at the door. Nothing. His eyes returned to the homework and it again creaked.
“Stupid door.” He gave up and moved the backpack to silence his tormentor.
Outside his room, the constant jabber of women’s voices bombarded him. He plopped into bed and squeezed his pillow over his ears. It muffled the verbal assault. Sleep, missing for too long, caught up with him.
The next morning, he stepped off the bus at school. A pit formed in his stomach as he remembered his assignment. “My homework.” Matt swore. He looked around with relief. No one had heard him.
What could he tell Peterson? “Um, I didn’t do the work because the closet-door made a creepy noise.” Yeah right.
Students entered the classroom and crowded around the teacher’s desk as they dropped off their work. Matt followed the crowd then sat in his own chair.
Peterson quickly thumbed through them. A vein bulged in his forehead as his face reddened. He glanced around the room eyeing each student. After a second glance through the papers, his face relaxed. “It looks like I miscounted. All the assignments have been turned in.” Peterson stood and placed a silver star on the assignment board.
Matt didn’t understand. Why am I not in trouble?
His eyes seemed glued to the assignment board. There were eight five-pointed stars in a row since the last black dot.
He pictured his home and the folded flag. From memory, he envisioned the stars. Each had five points. He counted the visible ones, eight the same number as Peterson’s homework strip.
There was a hand on his shoulder. Standing slightly behind, Peterson towered over him. The stern look softened. There was no one else in the room. Somehow, class had ended. How could he have missed the whole day?
Peterson looked like he wanted to say something. His lips moved and parted only to relax again. Finally, he patted Matt’s shoulder and silently walked back to his desk.
No one seemed to act right. Dad not coming home seemed to affect the whole world. He ran for the bus, catching it just as it started to move.
“Cutting it kinda close, kid.”
At least Betty, the bus driver, acted normally.
In front of his home, he tried not to look at the flag. But it called him. The bright blue shined against the drab house. The stars so white they demanded you look. Inside the home, he went straight to his room. The closet door creaked. He cursed his dad, and fell into bed. Sleep overpowered him.
“Hey buddy. I understand you’re mad at me.”
“Dad?” Matt looked around his room. He was alone. “Are you a ghost?”
“You’re asleep, buddy.”
“You left me. You didn’t have to…to be so brave.”
“It’s who I am…was. Do what’s right; let the consequences follow.”
“But, you lied. You said you would fix my door.”
“Now that’s a puzzler, isn’t it? It looks like my honor is in your hands.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Buddy, it’s time to wake up. Let’s you and I go out to the garage.”
The garage was Dad’s official realm. Matt had been in it, of course. But he never just went there alone.
Slowly, Matt entered Dad’s space. His tools rested neatly in their place. The mowers, cans, paint, were properly secured. On the workbench laid the only thing not where it was supposed to be, a paper bag. Inside the sack was a can of oil.
Matt sobbed. “You didn’t forget.”
Matt could feel his Dad’s presence. He removed the packing and went through the instructions. Imagining his dad reading the words and the confusing parts suddenly became clear.
Installing the knob wasn’t that hard. It took two tries, but the closet shut smoothly. Although, the hinge still squeaked when it opened. A little oil and the noise disappeared.
With Dad’s promise fulfilled, a warm feeling spread across his chest. The great weight he felt on him evaporated. He turned and saw Mom staring at him from the hallway.
Her normal face had returned. The deep lines smoothed when she smiled. “I can see so much of your father in you. Maybe… Just maybe together we’ll survive this after all.”
She opened her arms and Matt ran to her.