Read an exclusive except from Roy Schwartz’s The Darkness in Lee’s Closet

This Thursday, ya author Roy Schwartz is taking over YEM’s Twitter account! Roy recently released his debut novel, The Darkness in Lee’s Closet and the Others Waiting There. The book, perfect for middle school readers, has elements of darkness and fantasy. A macabre adventure set in the world of the dead, it’s a thrill ride full of frights and frolics that can only be overcome with the strength of family, friendship, and faith in oneself.

Roy is offering YEM readers an exclusive YEMDLC50 code for 50% off the digital copy, plus YEMALL35 for 35% off all other Aelurus books, until the end of May. Visit: https://aeluruspublishing.com/the-darkness-in-lees-closet. For the Twitter takeover, we’re raffling three signed copies to participants, so be sure to follow along!

Before Roy takes over our account, check out this exclusive excerpt from The Darkness in Lee’s Closet and the Others Waiting There:

 

Lee couldn’t wait for night to arrive so she could paint again. It was the weekend, which meant she got to stay up late. This was her favorite time to paint; the night was her perfect canvas, vast and full of promise.

She spent dinner shooting eager looks at her dad. He teased her, returning a mysterious, whimsical smile. She looked to her mom for a hint, but she would betray nothing. Her big brother Ron, as usual, was oblivious, going on about something or other at school. Lee didn’t pay attention. Every weekend, her dad would bring home one new item for her ever-expanding assortment of art supplies; a different tip brush, a new color paint tube, a canvas in a texture she’d never tried before. She wondered what he had gotten her this time. As soon as dinner was over she dashed to her room to wait for him. When at long last he showed up, he brought with him a whole new set of watercolors.

“I know I promised you these for your birthday, but I couldn’t wait.” He was almost as excited as she was. “What should we paint?”

She ran up and gave him a big hug. She thought about it, looking over all the different color options. “You!”

“Me?” He was surprised. She did, after all, paint him only a few weeks ago. “Why me? You should paint something strange and wonderful. Like your mom.”

Lee laughed. He usually managed to make her laugh. She liked painting portraits, and she loved painting his most of all. His face was strong, full of shape and color with an alertness she always found inspiring.

She sat with her back to the mirror on the wall, angling the easel so he could see what she was doing and guide her. He was the one who taught her how to paint. He wasn’t a professional painter—it was just a hobby—but it was a passion they both shared. And even though she was only ten and a half, she was already more talented. Or at least so he said.

She began with the outline of his head, putting down the foundation image. She had to ask him to stop making faces more than once, but as long as he held his pose and she wasn’t painting his mouth, he could talk. They went late into the night discussing a million different things, mostly the big vacation they were saving up for. The family was going to Europe in the summer, to England and France and then maybe Spain or Italy. Lee had never been to a foreign country before. She was especially looking forward to seeing all the art. They were both getting so excited they were having a hard time holding still, and she ended up making a bit of a mess of his left eye. But he didn’t mind. It was always about the fun of them painting together, not how the painting came out. Before long, she was done capturing him in portrait.

Lee stopped painting after her father died. He had a heart attack. Her mother found a job in a different town in a different state. When they moved, Lee didn’t pack her paints.

Chapter One: 

Lee’s new home was a small, white and red two-story house standing atop a small hill covered in apple trees. It overlooked a neighborhood of identical-looking houses arranged on a grid, as if it came out of a box. She spent most of her time alone at the house. Ron was usually out with his new friends, even on school nights, and their mom worked very long hours at her new job, managing a restaurant belonging to an old friend of hers.  

She couldn’t fall asleep in the new house. She tried hard. But her new room was too big: twice as wide as her old one, and twice as tall, and twice as empty. And too much moonlight seeped into it at night through its large window drapes. She could feel the light slither across the bare walls and ceiling, even with her eyes closed. One night, without really thinking about it, she decided to take her pillow and blanket and lie on the floor of her closet, which was just large enough for her to curl up in. She liked being surrounded by the total blackness. From then on, every night she would wait for her mom to look in on her, then sneak into the closet. She had her own alarm clock, and in the mornings she would wake up a few minutes early to ruffle her bed, so it looked like it was slept in. She didn’t want to make her mom worry.

For almost a month, she spent each night in the closet in the utter silence. She’d let her imagination explore the depths of the darkness around her. With every night that passed, she could swear she could see farther and farther beyond the back of the closet. She could hear distant sounds, just for a split-second, right before she would fall asleep—until one night it was as if the closet unfolded into a vast, endless darkness. Lee stared into it. The sounds that came from deep within seemed less muffled now—like people talking.

She lay there for a while, trying to make out what was being said, before it occurred to her to see if she could pass through the back of the closet. She reached out; her hand continued past where the wall should have been. She stood up, slowly put one leg forward, and, to her surprise, found solid ground. It was colder there. She took another step, becoming aware she was barefoot and wearing only pajamas. She couldn’t see anything—not what she was walking on, not even her own hand when she held it right in front of her. She followed the sound of the voices for what felt like forever, until she saw a dim glow ahead of her. Tiptoeing closer and trying to be as quiet as she could, she approached the glimmering light.

She knew there were people there, but she couldn’t tell yet what they looked like, only that they were all sitting around in a large room with fancy couches. The room seemed to have only one actual wall, like the set of a play, with a burning fireplace that provided light. Above the fireplace, the wall was covered in old, flowery tapestry the color of cherries, and on its mantel stood a clock with a dark wood rim carved with wild shrubbery. It was the most magnificent clock Lee had ever seen.

Something small rolled on the floor toward her and came to a stop by the edge of the fire’s glow, just in front of her. She stepped into the warm light and picked it up. It was the color of ivory and weighed very little.

“Allo,” came a sharp man’s voice with a Spanish accent.

Lee looked up sheepishly and was about to return the pebble when she saw the man standing in front of her. Only it wasn’t a man at all: It was a skeleton, smiling at her. She knew she should scream and run away—a skeleton. A smiling, talking skeleton! She wanted to, but she couldn’t find her legs. All she could do was stand there, staring. He was wearing white pants, a shiny, ocean-blue short-sleeve button shirt, which clung to his ribcage, and a hat, the kind worn by men in old black and white movies only made of straw. His pants, while perfectly clean and a shade brighter than the bare bones of his feet, were zigzagged with wrinkles of all sizes, a result of having only his pelvic bones to hang from. He tipped his hat “hello,” his sleeve swinging from his arm bone like a sail from a ship’s mast.

“My name is Óseo Gordo. Please, call me Óseo.”

He stood on one leg and bent the other across it, took the white pebble out of her hand, and snapped it into the bottom of his foot. “Yu know, there are two hundred and six bones in the human body.”

“And Gordo manages to lose every single one at least once a week,” a woman’s voice came from Lee’s right, heavy with a French accent but light as a cloud.

Lee turned her head: The woman was wearing a lilac velvet gown, with a very wide bottom that was covered in all kinds of flowers and ribbons. But where her head should have been she had a big glass jar, held in place with leather straps that ran under her arms. The jar had a small, round pillow in it that matched the dress, trimmed with golden lace and intertwining tiny peacock feathers. On it, the lady’s head was placed crookedly, almost sideways, ending mid-neck. She looked a little older than Lee’s mother and was very pretty, though Lee thought she wore far too much makeup.

“And that is Señora Coron,” Óseo explained, “¡who only lost her head once!” He seemed very amused.

“Ze name is Madame Couronne,” she enunciated with a magical emphasis. “And I’ll have you know zat I used to be seventh in succession to ze crown of France.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Lee replied, trying to sound proper. She couldn’t help but consider that her sanity had perhaps derailed, and all this absurdity escaped its cargo.

“Je je je je je,” Óseo snickered. “Come, let me introduce yu tu the others.” He reached out his boney hand to her. His smile looked gigantic without lips or gums to cover his teeth.

Though Lee generally gave herself good advice, she seldom followed it, so she took his hand. It felt lightweight and brittle. He walked her to the center of the room.

“Hello, dear,” a little old lady in a green nightdress said, smiling at her from an armchair. Her voice was as warm as summertime. Her left eye was turned out a bit, but otherwise there was nothing unusual about her appearance.

“Hello, ma’am.” Lee beamed back.

“What’s your name, dear?”

“My name’s Lee, ma’am.”  

“Oh, it’s such a pleasure to meet such a fine, well-mannered young lady. My name is Mrs. Adocchiare.” She stood up to give Lee a kiss on the cheek, but as she leaned forward, her left eye squeezed out of place with a loud, wet “POP,” rolled over Lee’s shoulder and down her back, across the floor, and under a couch. It left behind a moist trail on her pajamas that smelled like mildew.

“Oh, my!” Mrs. Adocchiare put her hand over her empty eye socket and shuffled across to the couch. “Excuse me, dear.”

An old man, though not as old as Mrs. Adocchiare, got off the couch and bent down to look for the eyeball. Óseo glanced around, but was more interested in talking to Lee.

“It happens all the time. I call her Señora Cíclope,” he said, giggling.  

“That’s not very nice,” Lee protested, even though she really was a little startled, as well as a little repulsed.

“I’m afraid that Mr. Gordo here has a… shall we say, particularly unpalatable sense of humour,” said the older man with a hearty British accent. He had found the eyeball and was now rubbing it clean with a monogrammed handkerchief. His round belly, which seemed to start at his knees and end at his chin, rose and heaved as he stood up. He handed the eye to Mrs. Adocchiare, who slipped it back into its socket and returned to her armchair, slightly flushed.  

“I’m Percy.” He offered a slight bow, making Lee feel like a princess. The top of his head was bald and shiny, and he had white hair on the back and funny fuzz on his ears. He also had bushy white eyebrows and a large handlebar mustache, which covered his mouth and curled slightly upwards. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Percival was on safari in Africa, and he wanted his picture taken with a rhino,” Óseo said. He could barely contain himself. “And now he spends all his time calculating how much of his inheritance money his wife has spent on hats and shoes.”

Lee wasn’t sure what Óseo was talking about. The whole thing was very confusing, really.   

“Alas,” Percy stated, tucking his puffy pants into his boots, “he hath the joints of everything, but everything so out of joint. I’m afraid he’s right though, darling. Tossed me around like an omelette, it did. And the Missus went on to spend all my hard-earned wealth on bloody pish-posh.”

Percy sighed, shook his head, and offered Lee a seat next to him on the couch. Everybody sat down, including Madame Couronne, who sat down very slowly and gracefully, though Lee wasn’t sure if it was because she was royalty or because she was afraid her jar would fall off.  

“What did you pass away from, dear, if you don’t mind me prying? You’re so young and pretty,” Mrs. Adocchiare asked with pity.

“So wise so young, it’s a bloody shame.” Percy nodded.      

“‘Passed away’?” Now, she really was starting to get scared. She wasn’t dead—she couldn’t be. Her heart tried to beat its way out of her chest, which she took as proof that she was still very much alive. “But I’m not dead—I just walked through the back of my closet!”

 Óseo, Percy, Mrs. Adocchiare, and Madame Couronne stared at one another, looking like skeptical wax figures in the light of the fireplace.

“You mean to tell us, lass, that you got here on your own volition?” Percy’s great eyebrows arched.

Lee nodded as vigorously as her neck could bear.

“Sacré bleu! Impossible,” Madame Couronne declared.

“La niña está mal de la cabeza,” Óseo decided.

“Shush.” Mrs. Adocchiare calmed everyone down. “Lee, dear, do you think you can go back if you want to?”

She hadn’t thought about it—what if she actually couldn’t? What if she was now trapped in this room? She’d be all alone, and never get to see her mom or Ron again. She couldn’t imagine it. She wouldn’t. A shiver of cold rattled her small frame, but she didn’t make a sound. It took all she had to suppress the surge of tears stinging her eyes.

She got up and walked to the edge of the light where the darkness began, with the four skittering behind her.

“If yu ask me, she is a few chocolate chips short of a cookie, sí?” Óseo scoffed.   

She stood there for a minute, took a deep breath, and stepped out of the room’s glow. She turned around. They were still standing in the room.

“Why won’t you come out of the light?” she asked, but none of them answered. They were just looking in her direction, but they couldn’t see her or hear her anymore. She stepped back in.

“¡Caramba!” Óseo gaped, and his jawbone dropped to the floor. He picked it up and snapped it back in place with a gentle click, then opened and closed his mouth a few times to make sure it worked.     

“What’s out zere?” Madame Couronne asked, losing her pickled pout to unbridled anticipation. “What’s outside of zis room?”

“I don’t know,” Lee replied, as if she’d been asked to explain how gravity worked. “Just my closet.” She stopped to think for a moment. “You’ve really never left this room?”

“We can’t,” Percy answered.

“How come?” she wondered.

Mrs. Adocchiare waddled over to her. “Because we don’t know where to go, dear. You see, if you don’t know where you’re going,” she explained, “you’ll never get there.”

Everything was finally starting to make sense—or a sort of sense, at least. She was oddly comfortable in this room, with its strange furniture and stranger fireplace and strangest occupants, walled in by darkness. And though she understood it all had to be a dream, she knew it wasn’t. Her dad must have passed through there. That’s why they were in her closet. That’s why she could travel in and out of the darkness. So she could bring him back home.

“Have you seen my father?” she asked, wishing beyond hope. She told them his name and what he looked like: at least one of them would be able to recognize him and know where she could find him.

But they only shook their heads. Except for Madame Couronne, who pursed her lips.

“We have seen no one but each ozer since we came here.” Her sigh was so full of sadness it misted the front of her jar. “Zere is just us. No one else.”

Lee stared down at her feet and squirmed her naked toes about. She didn’t know if she had any room left to take on their sorrow.

“How long have you been here?” she finally asked.

“We haven’t the foggiest notion.” Percy put on his cheerful face again, to her great relief. “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time…” He paused, sneaking a glance at her to make sure his audience was properly impressed. “All we know is that we are most certainly deceased. Last I remember, I was gallavanting about the African savannah before that ill-tempered rhinoceros stripped me of my mortal coil, and I found myself in this…thing…of darkness.”

She glanced around the room again. The fireplace was crackling, and sparks flew up around the clock on the mantle.

“Are you in my closet, or am I somewhere else?” she asked, even though she knew they wouldn’t know.

Óseo, who stood next to Percy, pulled his hat to the back of his skull and clucked his tongue in disapproval. How he could cluck something he didn’t have, or how he managed to smile at that, Lee had no idea, but since he was perfectly able to see and talk, it seemed reasonable enough.    

“¿Haven’t yu been listening, mi niña? We are nowhere. We did not know where tu go, so we got nowhere.”         

“Ach! You sound like my mum’s kettle,” Percy said, jumping in. “All we do know, love, is that we seem to have arrived here at the same time, regardless of when we departed.”

She nodded, her thoughts racing like a herd of horses and making twice as much ruckus.

Mrs. Adocchiare sat back down in her armchair, waving at her to come over.

“Do you know what these are, dear?” She pressed her finger gently into one of Lee’s dimples. Lee opened her eyes wide.

“They’re the footprints of angels,” Mrs. Adocchiare declared. “They sent you to us.”

The idea was absolutely marvelous.  

“Madam, I do say!” Percy’s heavy eyebrows folded down until it looked like he had two mustaches, one below his nose and one above it. “We endure quite enough monkeyshines from this fellow of infinite jest.” He twitched his head at Óseo, who on his part flashed a broad grin at Lee and shrugged his shoulders, causing his right collarbone to fall down his shirt, clinking and clanking its way out his sagging pant leg. She almost managed to stifle a giggle. Percy, without turning around, just closed his eyes halfway and took a long, deep breath. “This devout drivel is uncalled for. Really, a woman of your years, speaking of angels. Such humbug. Humph.” His mustache—the real one—wiggle-waggled like a small, jittery dog shaking off its wet fur.  

“Oh, don’t you listen to that stuffy old walrus, Lee, dear.” Mrs. Adocchiare took her hand within both of hers. “All he ever believed in was collecting money and trophies—collecting and collecting and collecting until he was collected.” She telegraphed a smile of satisfaction across the room to Percy, who didn’t look amused, but did look a bit like a walrus.

“Yes, yes, indeed. And while our saintly Mrs. Adocchiare is full to the brim with the holy spirits and what have you, the rest of us have a high moral obligation to be rational.”

Madame Couronne put her hands to the side of her jar. “Mon dieu! You two are giving me a migraine again.”

Lee could tell it was a friendly bickering, more of a show put on for her benefit.

Eager to change the subject, Óseo made use of the short moment of silence to introduce a topic of his own into the conversation. “Tell me, chica,” he said, winking at Lee, “¿What du yu du?”

She tilted her head in question.

“¿Outside of here—what du yu du?”

“I… go to school.” She wasn’t quite sure if that’s what he meant. He seemed unsatisfied.

“¿Du yu like yur school?”

“It’s okay, I guess.”

“Bueno… ¿what du yu du for fun then, eh?”

“I don’t know…” she mumbled, still unsure.

“¿‘Don’t know’?” His head rattled to the side. “I du not understand. ¿How can yu not know?” He paused to think, looking like a picture hung off its center.

“Yu must have a passion that sets yur blood on fire. No wonder yu have such a sad look, niña.”

“But I’m not sad,” she protested. If anything, she was enjoying herself more than she had in quite a while.

“I didn’t say yu were sad; I said yu have a sad look,” he clarified. “It’s in yur eyes.”

Mrs. Adocchiare brushed her fingers through Lee’s hair. They felt like chubby little sticks of sponge rolling across her scalp.

“The poor dear looks like a poor deer,” she offered compassionately, lingering on “deer” for distinction. “She misses her father, don’t you, sweetie?” Mrs. Adocchiare was about to say something consoling when Percy interjected. “What’s all this, then? Young lady, I’ll have you know that throughout my many years of travel, I have developed a rather keen eye for character, and you, my dear, are neither dull nor idle.” His voice became gentler as he continued, “Surely, there is something that uplifts your spirit?”       

She hesitated for a dozen long heartbeats. “Um… I used to paint, a lot,” she admitted, not sure she cared to. “All the time…”

“Jolly good.” Percy was pleased to no end.   

“But I don’t anymore, really,” she quickly added.    

“Well, then yu should start painting again,” Óseo said.

She hung her head, following her shadow dance across the dark wooden floor to the skittering rhythm of the fireplace flames.

“I… I don’t know.”

Percy lowered himself into the couch, leaning against his knees with a drawn-out groan, and looked back at her, now at the same height.  

“Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, dear, you are right.” He smiled in an understanding way.

“Mi Bonita, it is very simple,” Óseo continued enthusiastically. “To begin something, yu begin at the beginning. And if it is not the beginning, yu go back and begin again.”   

She couldn’t help but giggle, then broke into outright laughter. Soon, they all joined in. Even Madame Couronne, who did her best to seem uninterested, let escape a pearl of titters, filling the room with her voice, sweet and clear, like the scent of flowers filling a greenhouse.

Lee wanted to ask them a million more questions, but she was starting to get sleepy, and her eyelids were becoming heavy.

“Can I come visit you tomorrow night?” she asked.

All four seemed more than pleased with the idea.

“Claro niña, yu can come whenever yu want—we cannot divide day and night here,” Óseo answered.

“I shall say good night till it be morrow, then.” Percy stood up and bowed again, and with that, she waved them goodbye and returned to her closet.

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