I grew up in a loud home. Not the bad kind with arguments and screaming but the kind that invited midnight jam sessions and spontaneous singing. My parents were musicians; pops was a D.J. in the 90’s underground hip hop scene and my mom was a pianist. And my sister? Boy, my sister plays drums like Animal from the Muppets, her purple and blue dreads flying around.
The music gene skipped me. All I knew how to play was Street Fighter and Battle Toads. My family never made me feel bad about my lack of musical talent. They never pressured me to take up an instrument. They were cool like that. They understood that I just liked quiet.
Even though the noise I’m talking about was stuff like Mozart in the living room or Run DMC from the basement, it was still noise to me. Inescapable, loud noise. Until I found my refuge. The kitchen cupboards.
I crawled inside one of the cupboards and discovered it was pretty much soundproof. We usually ordered takeout so there weren’t any pots and pans in the way. It gave me plenty of room to read comics, mess around on my GameBoy or just be alone with my thoughts.
My parents were real cool with it. They got me a hand-crank camping lantern so I wouldn’t have to hold a flashlight while reading. They even put a sign on one of the doors that read “Luke’s Place”. Which is what it was; my happy place. But overtime I wouldn’t just go there to escape the sound of admittedly good music... I’d go there to escape the sound of kids calling me names or laughing at me.
While I knew my family was cool as hell, kids thought they were weird for not having 9-5 office jobs like their boring ass parents. I’d defend my folks at first, protect their honor like in the comics. That may work for Wolverine and Batman but it didn’t work for the smallest kid in school.
I soon learned that my best defense against bullying was to play dead. I don’t mean curl up on the floor and lie still, I mean play dead on the inside. I kept my head down, my mouth shut, and just gave in to the taunts and attacks. I let them tear my homework, steal my shoes, whatever, so long as I looked like it didn't bother me. Just a blank, numb reaction. It usually worked and kids would stop when they failed to get a reaction. Except for this one kid a year above me.
Tom was his name and he was a cruel mother fucker.
Tom would do things like push me into traffic if I was standing close the curb or choke me until I passed out. He’d laugh each time. Especially when he'd eventually make me cry or worse, piss myself.
My parents tried to help but Tom’s family was rich and big time PTA donors. No matter how many times my folks tried to have him punished no one did anything. Not Tom's parents, not the school, no one did anything. What it did to was make Tom angrier. I eventually told my parents that Tom had a turn of heart and had stopped messing with me just so they’d stop calling the principal.
My early childhood was spent alone. Until I met Doobie.
It was 1994, the middle of winter break. I was in my cupboard after the worst run in with Tom I’d ever had. He didn’t put his hands on me but what he did -- what he said -- hurt me worse than an elbow or slap. He called me and my family names that just... that just made me feel less than human.
I felt so awful about myself that I couldn’t concentrate on reading my newest issue of Uncanny X-Men. I kept seeing the slurs written in ink. Instead, I sat there turning the handle on the electric lantern my parents had gotten me.
The hand crank was what charged the batter. It made this electric whine -- mmmreee... mmmmmreee... mmmreee -- with each rotation. The sound used to sooth me more than any piece of music I’d hear outside the cupboard door. But it wasn’t working that day. I was broken. So I took my notebook and started to write.
When Tom kills me, I want my sister to have...
It was my last will and testament. It wasn’t because I had plans to off myself -- I’d never do that to the people I loved -- but because I was convinced that Tom would kill me one day.
I had gotten to bequeathing my Super Soaker to my Uncle Ron when my lantern went out. I reached for it, started cranking... mmrreee...mmrreee... and it'd take some time for it to be a steady light but it did start to flicker back to life. Like each crank would create this blink of light. It was in one of those flashes that I saw I wasn’t alone.
It was someone in the far corner.
I worked up the courage for one more turn of the handle. It granted me another second’s worth of light, enough to see a boy, huddled in the corner with his back to the wall. The lantern's light once again blinked out of existence. I froze, clutching my lantern in the cupboard's lightless interior. Then I heard the boy in the dark ask in a soft, sandy voice...
“Whacha writing, pal?”
I responded by freaking the fuck out.
I dropped my lantern and scrambled to get out of there. The cupboard door wouldn’t budge. Stuck inside the pitch-black interior, I pounded on the door, kicking and screaming for my parents to rescue me from my special place. It was useless.
“Hussshhhhhh... you know better than that.” said the boy in the dark. “Good boys are quiet. Aren’t you a good boy, Luke?” he asked. He made my name sound more like a croak than a word.
Believe me, I still wanted to escape... but cowering in the dark like that made my survival instincts kicked in. I played dead inside. I said yes.
“That makes me happy. I’m a good boy too.”, he responded.
Then I heard my lantern... mmmreee...mmmreee...mmmreee... and its amber glow returned, giving me a better look at who was keeping me company.
The boy in the corner hugged his legs, knees brought up to hide the lower part of his face. I could see just enough to notice that his cheeks were raw with pimples. He had a crewcut but patches of hair were missing. Otherwise, dressed in jeans and a Ghostbusters t-shirt, he looked somewhat ordinary. Ordinary enough for me to I ask him his name.
“Promise you won’t make fun of me?” He asked, bashful.
“My name is Doobie.”
I was suddenly hit with this overwhelming sense of kinship. His name, his features, the way he looked at me, everything told me that this kid was bullied for the simple crime of existing. Like me. It made me forget how bizarre our meeting was.
Me and Doobie quietly talked for hours. He knew all of the comics I was into, all the cartoons, he even told me cheat codes for Battle Toads. Conversation came easy... it came easy because of the way Doobie spoke and expressed himself. It was familiar. I could tell he was holding on to a lot of pain. Like me.
The more we spoke -- the more relaxed he became -- the more I noticed things about Doobie that were... off.
Cupping his knees, his flat hands were way too wide for a third grader. His fingers were too long for an adult, dangling like a willow’s branches. I noticed his waxy skin would crease in thick folds whenever he moved or spoke. It reminded me of a Stretch Armstrong -- that rubber doll from the 90’s with sand inside.
I didn’t say anything about how he looked. I knew what it was like to be picked on for things you can’t control.
Doobie finally asked, “Can I see what you're writing?”
I showed him. I explained what it was and how Tom treated me. Doobie listened the same way my parents did. He cared.
“Does he call you mean things, too?”
I said yes.
I felt self-conscious but eventually told him. When I was done, I heard him giggle. I assumed he was laughing at me so I called him out, saying how I didn’t laugh at his name.
“I don’t think what he called you is funny at all, Luke. No, no. Not at all.”, Doobie said. “I’m laughing because he’ll get what’s coming to him.”
That’s when Doobie leaned forward and, for the first time, his face was fully illuminated by the lantern’s light.
The whole time I had thought Doobie had dark eyes like me but, with his face fully lit, I realized his brow had been casting a shadow over green eyes peering from deep, deep sockets. I had never seen eyes set so deep in a person’s skull.
What struck me the most, though, was his smile. It was wide with too many gray teeth bunched so tight that many overlapped. Like his eyes, they were also deep set, like an inch or two from where his lips began. It reminded me of a muppet.
Again, I didn’t say anything about his appearance. It’s funny but I worried if I did that I'd scare away my new friend. I just asked what he meant by "He'll get what's coming to him".
Doobie leaned closer, like he was letting me in on a secret. He smiled, gray teeth gleaming, as he whispered...
Bad comes back, round and round.
Cupboard kids see you’re found.
Even home, safe and sound.
Cupboard kids don't mess around.
It was lyrical, Doobie’s sphere-shaped head bobbing in time with his sing-song tone.
Knocking at the cupboard door startled us. It was mom. We were going to Pizza Hut for dinner and I had to get ready.
Doobie made me promise to come back the next day. I said yes, forgetting that my plans to visit my aunt and uncle across town.
I’d learn that Doobie didn’t like that.
I’ve always had trouble sleeping in other people’s homes. My Auntie Mona and Uncle Ron’s was no exceptions. I was lying on the living room futon, playing on my Game Boy while the rest of my family slept. Then I heard something over the snoring.
It was my cupboard lantern. I hadn’t brought it with me. I rolled out of bed and followed the rhythmic cranking to the kitchen. I wasn’t scared. I knew it was Doobie coming to visit. I never had a friend visit me before.
Auntie Mona's kitchen was tiny. There was no way my little ass could fit in any of those cupboards much less Doobie. But when I saw my lantern’s light flicker from behind one of the cupboard doors, I knew he could. I thought it was cool. For a moment.
I opened the cupboard door and there he was, contorted with his knees up to his ears. He glared at me, with my lantern between his fingertips. His long fingers reminded me of daddy long legs.
“You lied, Luke Puke.”, he hissed.
More than Doobie being there, more than seeing him squashed into the cramped cupboard, it was him calling me one of the names my bullies used that surprised me. I asked him why he insulted me, tears forming at the corners of my eyes.
“Bad comes back, round and round.” he snarled as he extended a long, lean arm from the cupboard, lifting the lantern close to my face. His eyes narrowed on my tears. “You lied about seeing me today. Lying is bad, Luke Crywalker.”
I apologized. He asked if I meant it. I did. His smile returned.
“I knew you were a good kid. Just like me and my friends.” Doobie craned his head and addressed the cupboard door beside his. “Right, Chi-chi?”
The cupboard door opened. A girl in a Care Bears Christmas sweater poked her head out. “That’s right, Doobie. Cupboard kids see that you are found.”, she whispered with a slight squeak.
Chi-chi had the same features as Doobie -- the deep-set eyes, the fingers -- but her hair was in sloppy braids and her pale, waxy skin hung loose from her face and neck. Like a bloodhound.
I asked what they were doing there. Doobie said he liked me so much that he wanted me to meet his friends. Then the three remaining cupboard doors opened. A different cupboard kid poked their head out. These ones looked less like kids and more like toothed tadpoles in t-shirts. Their pit-like eyes on me made my scared.
I pissed myself.
It wasn’t the first time I’d pissed myself in front of other kids but it was the first time it wasn’t because of bullying... like the time Tom threatened me with a baseball bat with a nail in it. I was expecting Doobie’s buddies to do what all the other kids did; point and laugh. They didn’t. Instead they quietly told me how cool my Garfield pajamas were and how Doobie said I was awesome at Doctor Mario.
Then they asked me about Tom. I was embarrassed to tell these new “friends” what I’d been through.
“If you tell us you’ll feel better.” Squeaked Chi-chi, her smiling revealing dirty teeth and bleeding gums. “You can even say naughty words if that makes it easier.”
Even though most of my dad’s music was full of curse words, our house had a strict no swearing policy. But I let it rip, whispering how much I hated Tom as I described every insult he’d called me, every slap to the back of the head, every rock that hit me.
I had the cupboard kids’s full attention and, yeah, they smiled the whole time. I was too by the end. Chi-chi was right. It felt good to let all that out.
When I’d finished, I noticed Doobie was stroking his chin with his spindly fingers... like he was toying with a thought. Then he said, “Tom needs to know he’s a bad kid.”
I told him how me and my family tried. How it was pointless.
“But you have us now.”, said a cupboard kid named Lefty, his skin so tight his mouth barely moved. “Bad kids listen to us.” he added with a thin lipped smile.
I imagined what that would look like. Me and my new posse walking up to Tom at school, cursing him out, making him feel small and weak and dumb. Adrenaline pulsed through me. I wanted to do it. I asked when.
“No time like the present, Luke.”, giggled Chi-chi. Then she shimmied backward, disappearing into the cupboard and gently closing the door behind her.
I watched Lefty, Bingo, and Waddles -- the other two cupboard kids -- retreat into their cupboards the same way. It was just me and Doobie. I looked at him, confused.
“It’s time we show him how bad comes round again.”
Doobie reached his hand out to me. With it so close to my face, I could see how blue green veins pulsing beneath thick, callused skin. It was ghoulish. But I took it anyhow, my hand wrapped in a nest of five long fingers. He gently pulled me into the cupboard. I gently closed the door behind us.
Doobie kept a firm grip on my hand, pulling me deeper inside the dark, musty space. My heart pounded, fearing I’d end up in the dark forever. But in seconds I heard door hinges creak. Suddenly I was stepping out of the cupboard in the biggest kitchen I’d ever seen.
The lights were off but I saw that the other cupboard kids were there. In the little bit of light that entered through the kitchen windows, I saw how different they looked when no longer confined to the cupboard. It was awful.
They were short, shorter than me, and stood on stubby legs. Even though they were shorter than me, their torsos were wider, bodies like pot-bellied tree trunks. Their arms also defied proper proportions, so long that they all rested their palms on the linoleum floor. Even while standing.
“That him?”, asked Chi-chi. She had a twisted, branch-like finger pointed at a family portrait. It was of a dad, a mom with a baby in her arms, and Tom.
I said yes. The cupboard kids hurried out of the kitchen. They walked on their hands, legs dangling. The only sound they made were whispers cloaked beneath their heavy breaths...
Bad comes back, round and round.
Doobie led me out of the kitchen down a long hallway. The cupboard kids were in front of us, quietly opening each door to see what was inside. They didn’t make a sound, not even the floorboards creaked beneath their weight. But I could still hear them whispering...
Cupboard kids see you’re found.
I had no idea what they were looking for but when they discovered the room they wanted, they quietly entered. Waddles smiled and waved at me as he carefully closed the door behind him.
Doobie and I entered the last room. There, in a big bed beside a window with a view of the entire town, was Tom. Fast asleep... safe and sound.
I felt a weight rest on my shoulder. It was Doobie’s malformed hand.
“Ready, pal?”, he asked encouragingly.
I said yes.
Doobie pulled himself to Tom’s bed and pounced onto my bully’s chest. Tom woke up with a gasp, the wind knocked out of him from Doobie’s weight crashing onto him. Doobie covered his mouth with one shovel-like hand and lifted him up with the other. Tom tried to push Doobie off of him but the cupboard kid was too strong.
“Go on, Luke. Go on.”, Doobie said as he effortlessly held Tom in place.
I looked at Doobie’s face. His lips were curled over his swollen gums and gray teeth. It was a smile but without a hint of sinister intentions. In fact, he looked supportive... almost loving. It was a stark contrast to Tom’s look of bewildered terror.
I whispered at first, remembering what Doobie had told me about staying quiet.
“Speak up, Luke! It's okay for good kids to shout at bad kids!” Doobie barked.
I did. I unleashed years of pent up anger and shame and sadness and hatred, calling Tom every name I could think of. I made sure to say how it affected me, how he hurt me and my family.
Then I heard screaming from the hallway. It was a man begging for mercy. A woman’s screams soon followed. Then I heard Chi-chi shout...
Think he's good, mom and dad,
Even though he acts real bad?
Such a shame your kid's a rat,
We cut your skin and eat your fat!
Tom heard it too. He started thrashing against Doobie’s powerful grip. It was useless. Tom quickly gave up, reduced to blubbering, tears streaming not the cupboard kid ringleader’s unnaturally large hand. My anger began to fade.
“What’s wrong, Luke?”
I asked Doobie the same thing, asking what was happening outside. Doobie told me not to worry, that it was part of teaching Tom what happens when bad comes back. Then I heard Lefty shout over the screams. Bingo joined in. Then I heard a baby cry.
Still think he's such a prize,
Even when we take your eyes?
Bingo joined in. I heard a baby cry.
Keep the egg but kill the flies,
Make him learn with your cries!
I wanted to run. I wanted to call out for help. My legs wouldn’t let me. My voice was caught in my throat.
“We brought you here for this, Luke. Don’t be ungrateful! Only bad kids are ungrateful!”
It was the first time I’d heard Doobie raise his voice. It was halfway between a pig’s squeal and the roar of an enraged old man. It made my ears ring and my legs shake. I felt like I would whenever Tom cornered me, demanding I give him my lunch money. I was going to have to do what I was told.
My forced tirade ended an hour later when Chi-chi entered.
“Hi, Luke!”, she said as she dragged herself in on her long, sinewy arms. I was expecting to see her wool sweater soaked with blood. She looked no different than how I’d seen her earlier that evening.
“How do ya feel? Better?” She asked as she approached. I tried to answer but couldn’t; my throat was too hoarse from shouting over the screams and the cupboard kids’s haunting rhymes.
“I think he got him pretty good.”, said Doobie. “Let’s find out.”
Tom had stopped crying a while ago, his bloodshot eyes fixed on me. I thought he was angry, biding his time to run and tackle me like so many times before. I even flinched when Doobie’s fingers unwrapped from around his mouth. All Tom did was cry and beg to be let go.
Chi-chi whipped her head around to face me. Just her head, her neck cracking as it spun 180 degrees. She smiled, proudly displaying her infected gums. “Great work, Luke!” she squeaked.
Chi-chi’s head returned to a “natural” position, her beady eyes focused on Tom as she stalked toward him. Tom whimpered as she leaned close to him, her unnaturally wide mouth near his ear. She whispered something that made Tom gasp. He turned to her, horrified as he stared into the black pits where her eyes presumably were.
Then the other cupboard kids walked in. There wasn't a drop of blood on any of them. It made me question if they had hurt Tom’s family at all. I watched as one-by-one, they whispered something in Tom's ear. Tom grew quieter with each word, my bully’s affect sinking deeper and deeper into despair.
I looked at Tom and in a moment of clarity understood what they meant. He was staring into nothingness, expressionless. No whimpering or whining, just a vacant stare.
Tom was dead inside.
Then we left.
I silently followed the cupboard kids down the hall. I kept my eyes ahead, making sure not to look into any of the rooms on our way to the kitchen. The smell of blood was enough.
“Same time tomorrow?”, asked Doobie as he helped me out of the cupboard back into my aunt and uncle’s kitchen.
I said yes.
My auntie found me in the kitchen the next morning, hugging my legs beside my lantern. I didn’t say anything about what had happened.
My family and I returned home later that afternoon. I went straight to my dad’s tool box, grabbed a screwdriver, and removed all the doors from the kitchen cupboards. My family even helped -- like I said, they’re cool like that. I had fucking amazing parents.
I spent the rest of winter break in what became the new “Luke’s Place”: my bedroom. I believed that at any minute the police would show up and arrest me for what had happened. They never came.
Tom never came back to school. Rumor was that his family had abandoned him, just got up and left, leaving only him behind. His neighbors found him in his bed days later. No blood, no bodies, just Tom, catatonic and unresponsive in bed. He lives in a mental hospital now.
If you're asking yourself why I'm telling you my story thirty years after it happened, it's because I have a kid of my own now. A nine-year-old girl. She's been a great kid up until my wife and I separated. Despite our best efforts, she hasn't been taking it well.
Me and her mom were called into the principal's office today. She'd been ruthlessly picking on this one girl. Of course we're going to do something to try and get her back on the right track, starting with having our girl apologize to the girl she'd been bullying.
This girl wasn't interested in an apology. Instead, she looked my daughter dead in the eyes and said,
Bad comes back, round and round.
Cupboard kids see you’re found.
Even home, safe and sound.
Cupboard kids don't mess around.
There aren't any doors in my home's cupboards, I made sure of that long ago. But my wife's new place does. And they're staying there tonight.