Today wasn't supposed to be a day for the dark room. It wasn't supposed to be a day for a lot of stuff that happened, but the dark room was the worst of it. That's not what they were supposed to call it. The older kids, Sharon and her younger brother Joshua, were studious about using their mother's name for it: the quiet room. They called it this even when they were alone.
It was as if they sensed her listening no matter where they might be. It was the youngest one, Freddie, who called it the dark room. He probably had a right to call it what he wanted. It was his room. The rules scrawled on the wall were written for him.
Josh rode in the back of the station wagon. He didn't usually go with Mom to Freddie's special school, but he couldn't go to Sid's house this time. Sid's grandmother had died and his entire family were going to the wake.
"Don't you know anyone else in the sixth grade?" said Mom from behind the steering wheel.
"I don't know." Josh replied.
"You don't know? You just don't like anyone - or maybe they don't like you."
He knew other people in the sixth grade, but Sid was his best and only friend. Maybe Mom knew about the bullies. She probably didn't know how merciless they were. Sure, not everyone was a bully. The rest just kept their distance. Out of sight, out of mind.
There was that one time Freddie had to go to the doctor, after a night in the dark - no, the quiet - room. Josh stayed with Holly's family. All the kids were girls. It was awful, because girls can see into your goddam soul and they all knew something was up in Joshua's home. He spent the whole time trying not to talk about the room, as if the secret were a stomach virus and he might vomit a confession at any moment. What would Mom have done then?
The station wagon pulled into one of the five spaces in front of a little church. It had two signs. The larger one spelled “The Gate” in big green letters on a black background over the image of a castle gate that looked rather ominous. It did not resemble the gate to Heaven as Josh always imagined it. The second sign was simpler and said “Greene Street Alternative School.”
They went to the basement, with its bright flickering fluorescent lights and sticky floors that smelled of apple juice and urine. A teacher greeted them and she did not look happy.
“Let me just come out and tell you,” she said. “Frederick can no longer come to this school.”
She led them to a room where Freddie was seated by himself at a small round table. He was coloring a unicorn flashing a smile of epic proportions.
“He bit another student. Made him bleed.”
Mom got one of her famous faces. The one where she was preparing to tear someone apart. She smiled, but her eyes were narrowed. She held her breath. Then, nothing happened. Mom grabbed Freddie by the arm and dragged him away, leaving the happiest unicorn ever behind.
When Mom explained the situation to Joshua's dad, she got a strange response.
“I'm going to have to work that extra shift.” he said.
The words weren't so strange, once you understood that he was talking about getting money for a better school. What was odd was that he seemed happy about it. Later on, Sharon told Josh that all Dad wanted was an excuse to get away from this house. Away from his wife. Away from the quiet room.
Josh had been in the cellar when it happened. He had model trains down there. There was a closet under the stairs, a simple plywood box with a ceiling that tapered to the floor. On one wall of this box, mom had written Freddie's Rules.
Do not cry
Do not shout
Do not stomp
Do not talk about the door in the wall
Footsteps came tumbling down the stairs. Mom tossed Freddie into the closet, closed the padlock on the door, and went back up. Josh went over.
“I know you're still there.” said Freddie. “I see the light moving at the bottom of the door.”
“Don't be scared.” Josh said.
There was no answer. Of course Freddie was scared. Josh heard a noise from inside the closet. Something like scratching. Then something like creaking hinges. Josh knocked. And called for his little brother. No answer.
He heard the wind howling from within the box. It became louder and louder.
Josh ran upstairs. He had a thought that he should tell his mother, no matter how she would react. Wasn't there some line where she had to care about what was happening to her youngest child down there?
He got to the top of the stairs and her saw her in the kitchen. The keys were hanging on the hook by the wall. Josh took a breath. He could do this thing, he told himself. He ran over and grabbed the keys and fell down.
Mom turned. She made one of her famous faces. She twitched. This time she meant it. She charged for him.
Josh ran. He scrambled down the stairs. Spilling out the bottom, he took a hard turn and spun to the back of the stairs and put the key in the lock. Just as his mother caught his arm.
It was no use. The padlock popped open and so did the door. Freddie wasn't inside. Josh turned to his mother. She was making a face he'd never seen before. He couldn't place an emotion with it. And that made him more afraid than the famous face.
“It's why he is the way he is.” she said. “He keeps going through the other door.”
“Then why…” started Josh.
Yes, why would she put him down there to punish him, knowing that he'd go through the other door?
“I don't have a choice.” she said.
Because of course girls can read your goddam soul, especially if they're your mother. She knew what he was asking, but that didn't mean he was going to get a good answer. She walked off. Left the keys there and all.
Freddie did come back later. Who knew how many times he'd gone and returned? Josh woke up in the middle of the night to pee and when he climbed down from the top bunk, there was his brother in the bottom.
“Where did you go?” Josh said.
Freddie turned around and went back to sleep. Maybe he bit other kids and drew oddly delirious unicorns, but he didn't break his rules. He never cried or shouted or stomped. And he never talked about the door in the wall.
image courtesy of pixabay