All week we have been showcasing the top five stories in our short story contest, which leads us to today’s story, Lindsey Odorizzi’s “The Guest Room.” Lindsey’s story, which our panel of judges said had a “great sense of style and sentiment,” focuses on one young woman’s battles with the demons that possess her. Enjoy!
Cathy tiptoed past the guest bedroom, hopping over the chair jammed under the door knob, and made her way towards the kitchen. It was still dark outside, but hints of gray peaked in through the blinds drawn over the window. The coffee machine beeped as it began to brew, and she took in a deep breath of the bitter smell. Reaching up to grab a mug from the cabinet, she heard a squeak come from the living room.
“Good morning, sir,” she greeted her hamster. She poked her fingers through the tiny bars of the cage to pet him. “Care for some breakfast?”
The groceries had just been delivered the day before; some of the bags were still sitting on the island. Cathy rummaged through them before finding the box of hamster food she’d ordered. She shook some into the little bowl in the corner of the cage.
Satisfied, Cathy took her mug with her back to the hallway. She set it down on the floor in front of the guest room and darted back into her own bedroom to get her phone and the book she was reading. Her eyes scanned the entire room, trying to see if she was forgetting something. Finally she snagged a blanket and a pillow from off her bed and hauled everything back to where she’d left her mug.
Her legs were just long enough that they perfectly fit the width of the hall, so with her back to the wall she slid down until her feet met the guest room door on the opposite side. Only then did she remove the chair from under the doorknob, sliding it away with one of her legs. She shoved the pillow behind her for support, pulled the blanket across her lap and got comfortable.
Cathy had done this every day since she first closed off the guest room, and all her previous belongings with it. She had decided that she needed everything to be replaced with new things that were approved by her new standards. New things that wouldn’t try to hurt her, or mock her or remind her of the past.
She had tossed the entire contents of the little apartment into the guest room: big things like the sofa and kitchen chairs were stacked on top of each other and pushed into the corners; smaller things like end tables and lamps and the little organizers she kept on her desk were heaped onto the bed in a big pile; even her credit cards and college diploma were thrown away into the garbage dump of a bedroom. Nothing was safe from the purge.
For a few minutes, Cathy had felt liberated. She danced around in the empty spaces of the rooms, imagining what she’d put in the old things’ places. But each time she passed the guest room, her stomach sank to her toes. She couldn’t bare to look at the mess. The things seemed to moan, calling out to her to put them back where they belonged. But she resisted. The freedom felt too good. So she locked them away, and bought new chairs and new table lamps, and got a new frame for the hook where her diploma had hung and put a piece of art inside.
But there was a consequence to all this. Cathy didn’t feel safe. The things still screamed at her to let them go. So she guarded the door, her feet the barricade, to keep her prisoners in their cell.
It was a price she was happy to pay.
Cathy splayed her toes out against the painted wood and gripped her mug tight. The task had become trivial, but still held a tinge of the fear it’d had in the beginning. The years blurred together; she wasn’t quite sure how long it had been since she first closed the door. It had become her desk job, repetitive and never-ending. She didn’t mind much though; as long as she was safe, she was content. She opened her book to the marked page and began to read, the sun throwing slants of light over the floor.
Of course, Cathy couldn’t guard the door every second of the day. She took breaks to use the bathroom, eat, sleep, feed the hamster. But other than those little pauses in her day, she was diligently stationed at her post in the hall.
It had been years since the last time she’d left her apartment. It wasn’t much of a problem: she got her paychecks electronically deposited into her bank account, ordered and paid for everything online, got her groceries delivered to her door, and kept in touch with family on social media. She read the news on her phone and voted by mail. She didn’t feel isolated in the least.
It got a bit lonely around the holidays, but it was nothing some ice cream and a movie marathon couldn’t fix. She mailed Christmas presents and birthday presents when it was appropriate and got Christmas and birthday presents in the same way. She and the ones closest to her had an unspoken agreement to communicate only by mail or phone. No one knew the full story, but they knew Cathy. She was sensible and decisive. Her mother used to always tell her so.
Her full time job was manning the door, but she made money from home as a copy editor. She proofread books and manuals and corrected authors’ mistakes.
She fantasized about being an author herself. Sitting in one place all day ironically allowed her mind to run in thousands of directions, imagining all sorts of alternate realities.
Now Cathy stood from her spot on the floor, carefully sliding the chair back under the doorknob. She stretched her arms above her head and twisted her ankles one after the other. Sitting on the kitchen table was her laptop, which she grabbed along with an apple and a glass of water. It was almost noon and the birds outside her window chirped loudly. She put the radio on and turned the volume up until she couldn’t hear them.
Sitting down in her default position once again, Cathy flipped the laptop lid open and allowed it to boot up.
Whenever she sat down to write, Cathy would always imagine herself as one of the Bröntes, alone on the moors writing love stories. She knew that she romanticized their lives, but sometimes it was fun to make situations more appealing than they really were.
Before Cathy could start typing her phone buzzed at her side. Looking down at the screen, she saw it was a text from a number she didn’t recognize. The message read: Cathy, I feel like we haven’t spoken in ages! Coffee tomorrow?
A red hot wave of fear flowed through her body. Anxiety was all but eradicated from her life; she had no reason to leave her home and no reason to be scared as long as she guarded the door. But this was new and different and completely out of the ordinary. She sat there, gaping.
Who is this?
It’s Em, from college.
Emma. Cathy dropped the phone into her lap and sagged against the wall as she let the faded memories wash over her. Em had been her roommate and best friend their entire four years at school together. Em had barely crossed her mind since she’d locked her things away.
The phone in her lap began to buzz and Cathy flinched. The heat rushed back into her chest as she looked at the number: it was the same one Em had texted her from. She wanted to let it go to voicemail, or maybe just throw the phone out the window. But she couldn’t ignore her now that she’d just replied, Em would know she was avoiding her.
Fumbling to hit the right button, Cathy answered the phone. “Hello?” It came out as a raspy whisper; she struggled to clear her throat.
“Cathy? Hey, I thought it’d be easier to talk instead of text. You must have a new number or something, because I tried calling you the other day but it wouldn’t go through. I got this number from your mom.”
Right. During the purge Cathy had deleted most of the contacts stored in her phone and replaced her number with a new one.
“Uh, yeah, sorry about that. I suppose I should have told you,” Cathy lied. She wasn’t sorry. Her freedom was more important to her than making sure her friends could contact her. She had accepted that a long time ago.
There was a pause on the other end. Even after all this time, Cathy knew that Em was preparing to say something serious. She could almost see her biting the inside of her cheek, a little tick she had when she was tense.
“So your mom told me about what happened. You know, between you and Seth . . . ,” she trailed off.
Cathy felt like she’d been electrocuted by a live wire.
“It’s just that we were all such good friends in college, even when you two were together. And you were so good together. I was surprised to hear that you split up.”
Cathy made a strangled sound in her throat. Em took a breath before continuing.
“Well I was passing through town—I mean, I assume you still live in the same place? It’s been a few years since I visited but you seemed really happy here . . . . I just wanted to catch up with you.”
“Oh,” Cathy stammered. She stared across the hall, her eyes glued to the door her feet were pressed against.
“We don’t have to meet anywhere, I can just swing by your apartment if that’s easier—”
“No!” Cathy blurted. A sense of shame washed over her and made her stomach roll. She couldn’t fathom leaving her home, but for some reason inviting someone else into it was even more unimaginable.
“Oh, okay, well there’s that one coffee place at the top of your street, would you rather meet up there?” Em asked, her voice wavering slightly.
Cathy slapped her hand over her mouth, but it was too late. She couldn’t believe this. It was like her tongue had betrayed her.
“Great! Eleven work for you?”
Cathy nodded her head, eyes bulging before realizing Em couldn’t see her and said, “Of course.”
Her fingers trembled as she pulled the phone from her ear to hang up. What had she done? For years Cathy had protected herself, kept herself safe and free of fear. But what would happen now? Would she really abandon her station just to see her friend?
The warmth in her chest began to burn, sending jolts of pain through her limbs as she struggled to breathe.
She unlocked her phone and reopened the text conversation with Em. Her fingers hovered over the keys, tempted to cancel the plans they’d just made. A few words and all the awful feelings would ebb away into nothing. Em wouldn’t take it personally. No one else in Cathy’s life did. Maybe she’d be hurt, but that didn’t outweigh the pain Cathy was experiencing now.
But something stopped her. Someone Em mentioned.
There was a box she’d tucked under the bed in the guest room. A box that was filled with some clothes Seth had left behind when he moved out, and pictures of the two of them together.
Cathy had done everything she could to forget him. He left, and she couldn’t bear it. Everything he’d touched pulled at her, suffocated her, weighed her down and drowned her.
That was when she decided to simply get rid of it all and free herself.
But now, staring at the door that had remained closed all these years, she wasn’t sure how free she was.
Cathy’s shoulders ached and her legs were going numb. She slid the chair under the doorknob once more and stood up, arching her back.
The light filtering in through the windows had dimmed, filling the apartment with a soft orange glow. The blinds threw bars of shadow over the walls. Cathy shivered.
When Em had asked to come by the apartment, Cathy had shot her down almost instinctively, as if the idea of allowing someone else into her home was even more ridiculous than her leaving it. Why was that?
Cathy ran her fingers through her hair as she tried to wrap her head around it, this feeling of shame. It was almost like guilt, like she’d committed a crime and had to hide the evidence, which in this case was all her old stuff packed inside the guest room.
Maybe she wasn’t as rational as she thought. Maybe her moment of clarity was closer to a break in sanity. She sat down in the chair under the door handle, hard, head spinning.
What if she was crazy? What if she had wasted years of her life trying to protect herself from nothing, using freedom as an excuse to lock herself away? A long forgotten conversation bubbled up in Cathy’s memory. Something Seth had yelled at her before he slammed the door behind him for good.
“You’re a hypocrite, Cathy, and you can’t even see it.”
Cathy’s face flushed and muscles tensed. Jumping to her feet, she took the chair from under the knob and sent it skidding down the length of the hallway. Breathing hard, she stared at the door, almost daring it to open. After a few minutes, when nothing happened, she allowed her heart rate to slow.
She rested her fingers on the doorknob. The metal was cool. She tried to will her hand to turn the knob, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t bring herself to open the door.
Cathy heaved a sigh and squeezed her eyes closed as she felt the tears start to form. She took her fingers from the door and let her arm hang limp at her side. She was exhausted. Maybe sleep would quell the thoughts still surging through her mind.
She looked longingly down the hall toward the open door of her room.
Forgetting to eat dinner, Cathy climbed into bed, her limbs aching like they always did after sitting in the same position every day. She was barely asleep before she was dreaming.
The walls shook from the banging, an erratic pulse that made Cathy’s teeth rattle. It was coming from the guest room. She was standing just outside the door, but the chair was gone and nothing was holding it closed. As the noise grew she desperately pushed against the door with her hands. But it was no use. It slowly swung open, making her bare feet skid across the floor as it pushed her back.
A figure stepped out of the room and peered around the edge of the door. It was dark, but Cathy knew who it was; it was Seth. And he was angry, shoulders shaking and eyebrows knitted together. When he spoke, the sound came out of the walls instead of his mouth, the incessant pounding still coming from the guest room.
“You’re a hypocrite, Cathy,” he boomed, repeating his last words to her. The next part was new. “You invent fear where there isn’t any and you fix it by holding yourself hostage, then dare to call it freedom. Guarding this room is just an insane excuse to justify that fear, so you don’t feel crazy for staying locked away in here. Can’t you see that?”
Cathy sank to the floor, pressed against the wall with her knees pulled to her chest. She tried to say something but her jaw wouldn’t move.
“You scared me, Cathy. I left because you scared me. And now you’re all alone. Enjoy your freedom.”
Cathy opened her eyes slowly, the banging on the walls still echoing in her head. Her face felt wet on the pillow and she realized she’d been crying in her sleep. It was dark in the room, and looking over at the clock she saw that it was almost two in the morning. She was tempted to just fall back asleep and pray that she didn’t return to the nightmare she had woken up from, but something wouldn’t let her. The things trapped in her guest room called out to her, and for the first time in a long time, she listened to them.
She let their voices guide her down the hall. She stopped in front of the door, which was no longer blocked off. Without letting anything talk her out of it, she twisted the knob and let the door creak open.
It was musty, the smell hitting her as she took a single step into the room. And it was dusty too; it made her cough. She was ready to close the door and pretend it had never been opened, but she flicked the light on and suddenly she was fine.
The furniture hadn’t moved at all, but she could tell that some of the papers had shifted slightly with time. Everything was yellowed and faded and covered in a thick layer of dust. Her eyes welled with tears.
She wasn’t upset about the old chairs or the sofa; she’d replaced them with new ones and hadn’t given them a second thought. She was upset about the things she hadn’t been able to replace, mainly the box of Seth’s belongings hiding under the bed.
Wading through the piles of junk, Cathy reached the bed and felt blindly for the box underneath. She pulled gingerly, careful not to jostle the contents. As soon as she looked down the tears began to fall.
She cleared a small space on the bed to sit and set the box in her lap. On top, covering everything were a few of Seth’s t-shirts, the old ones he hadn’t bothered packing. Cathy held them up to her nose, and, despite the dust, they still smelled like him. Her chest shuddered as she breathed in.
What she truly cared about was under the shirts: a smaller box filled with the pictures she’d gotten rid of. Some were still in the frames, taken right off the walls and shelves during Cathy’s purge.
She took her time looking at each one, holding them with both hands and re-introducing herself to them. Seth usually had his arms wrapped around her from behind, protective and playful. Cathy was always caught laughing or with her eyes closed, but Seth stared straight into the camera, smiling.
Cathy flipped through about half of the photos before an observation began to bud in her mind, a common aspect to each image. Every single one had been taken inside the apartment. None of them were outside, at a restaurant, or a park, or a beach. Her stomach sank as she frantically checked the rest of the pictures. Surely there had to be one . . . But no, there wasn’t.
Panic rose up to her chest as the realization hit her. How could she have been so clueless? She had never truly understood why Seth had left her, or what his last words to her meant. But now . . .
Cathy had relied on Seth for everything after they’d moved in together when they graduated. He was the one who did the grocery shopping, had the job in the city, went out with friends to bars. Cathy stayed home. And she didn’t mind, she didn’t even notice. But Seth did, and he couldn’t stand it. She realized that now.
Hugging the pictures to her chest, Cathy lay down on the bed. The tears had stopped and left her face numb. She fell asleep with the light still on, surrounded by her old belongings.
Cathy woke up slowly, feeling disoriented. She found that she was still clinging to the old photos and carefully set them back in their box.
She looked around the room, letting her eyes take in the clutter. It was absolutely absurd; she tried to suppress a laugh, but decided to let it out after a few seconds. She’d survived. Nothing hurt her.
She was okay.
Standing up and walking into the kitchen, Cathy saw that it was almost 10:30 in the morning. Em was probably already at the cafe; she was always unfashionably early.
Cathy pulled some clean clothes on, barely noticing as she passed the guest room, the door wide open.
She made her way to the front door, hand hovering above the handle. She couldn’t see the guest room from where she was, but for the first time ever, she didn’t care. She wasn’t going to let it scare her anymore.
Cathy opened the door and shut it behind her, feeling safer and freer than she had in a very long time.