I wanted magical powers, so I started to sleep in the cupboard. I'd seen the first twenty minutes of Harry Potter on TV. I was very young then and didn't do so well with cause and effect. My parents tried to explain to me: correlation ≠ causation. Also, movie ≠ reality, and the first Harry Potter = the worst one anyway.
I told them to be mean to me, like the Dursleys, meaner than they'd ever been. It all had to line up if I wanted my powers. There was no cupboard under the stairs, so I made do with the one beside the kitchen sink. Mom cleared out all the old appliances. The cupboard curved at a right angle to follow the wall and when I bent my legs at the knee I fit this curve perfectly, as if I were an appliance designed to fill the space. This was my mother's favorite kind of game, the kind where I was quiet and didn't ask for anything.
They would not send me to bed without dinner, so I refused to eat. I'd found a ratty picnic blanket in the closet that smelled of grass and wild earth, and I had a stuffed bear with one scuffed black button eye I used as a pillow. I turned away from the cupboard door when Mom opened it with a plate of Kraft mac and cheese with hot dog chunks. It's your favorite, she said. Eat it. I pulled the blanket up over my head and fell into restless sleep until morning.
Normally I would have had Kindergarten the next day, but this was spring recess. Even Dad was home from work, having taken a personal day after Mom said he didn't spend enough time with me. I watched him through my cupboard's cracked door.
What is it he wants, exactly? he said to my mother, in a tone that said Can't you just give it to him already?
Shh, my mother said. He can hear you.
My father's favorite hobby was to saunter around the house, turning off the lights in the rooms where we no longer were, asking us if we were done in that room, knowing the answer before he asked.
My mother's was to tell him she'd be to bed in a minute, then sit up late with a bowl of corn flakes watching whatever channel the TV was tuned to when she clicked it on.
When she made me sandwiches she always cut the crust off, and a few weeks earlier I'd opened the fridge to see all these crusts on a plate covered in cellophane, my name written on top in black sharpie. Each week the pile grew bigger, and I was afraid. Were they saving all my crusts for me to eat when I was finally old enough? Or was this somehow how they thought of me, the cellophaned plate, the crusts within?
Because I would not eat, they called Dr. Belzer. We had a long chat over the phone, my mother holding her cell phone up to the cupboard door on speaker mode. At the end of it I begrudgingly agreed to eat regular meals if I could continue to sleep in my cupboard. But no dessert! I squealed at my mother triumphantly.
Shazam! I'd shout at my pet turtle each morning, a spell I'd worked out to grant him the power of speech. Then I'd lie on my belly and stare deep into his coal-colored eyes, unsure whether my spell had misfired or if he simply refused to speak to me. On some days I was sure I saw a cold black intelligence there, spitefully silent for reasons I did not understand.
Because of my parents' incessant pleading, Dr. Belzer started to make house visits. He came in the early evening and sat in the living room easy chair, explaining in a soft murmur meant to relax me that TV was TV and real life was real life, never the twain shall meet. There was rustling behind the curtains. I knew my parents were perched there, listening.
I pointed the wood ruler I used for a wand at him. E pluribus unum! I cried, hoping the spell would make them all leave me in peace.
My parents took me to a special remedial school for special children like me. The teacher had a big tub filled with plastic blocks he dumped out on the floor, then he took notes on a yellow legal pad. For a while we clawed viciously at each other, each in competition for the best blocks. Then we each retreated to our own quiet corner, building whatever we wanted. One girl built a castle with high spires and archers to ward off dragons. (The teacher didn't see it, but the rest of us did.) Another girl built a monster truck rally, since no one was there to say it was not for little girls. Then a little boy built a jail cell where he could put all the bad people he ever encountered.
I built a small house with a simple fireplace and a thatched roof. Then I lay down in the middle and went to sleep and dreamed beautiful dreams. At the end of play time the teacher woke me up and said it was time to go home. I shook my head and started to cry. I tried to explain to him: home ≠ home. But he did not understand.
Back at the house, my mother asked me about class through the cracked door of my cupboard. Her breath smelled of sour milk and the skin around her eyes crinkled into a forced smile. Why are you smiling? I asked. My question confused her. I'm always like this, she said. This is the way we are. This is the way you will be, too.
The next day I sat on the floor, staring into the aquarium of the pet turtle and watching him walk ceaselessly against the glass, the invisible barrier between him and the rest of the world. I sat and watched and ate the crust off the plate from the fridge, some of the pieces blue-green with mold, no longer wondering why he didn't bother to speak.
Bruce Johnson is a PhD fellow in the University of Southern California Creative Writing & Literature program, and holds an MFA in Fiction from University of Nevada-Las Vegas. His work has appeared in Cutthroat, The Adroit Journal, Floodwall and decomP, among other places. He lives with his wife and two cats in Quito, Ecuador, where he is working on his dissertation.