by Loren Rhoads
The first time I went away to sleep-away camp, I was a junior in high school. Michigan Tech, a university 500 miles north of my home, was hosting a weeklong writing program. I dragged my typewriter into my assigned dorm room and waved goodbye to my parents, excited to be a real writer for a week.
Almost immediately I met another high school girl there for the program. I really liked her at first. She seemed sunny and competitive and dramatic. I thought we’d provide a good challenge for each other. I looked forward to reading her stories.
I’m not sure what set her off. She and some of the guys from the program were hanging around in my room when I went into the large walk-in closet to demonstrate how big it was. Once I was inside, Nicole slammed the door behind me.
I heard giggling. Nicole enlisted the guys to help her shove the dresser in front of the door so I couldn’t get out. They talked loudly about going to dinner while I was trapped. They slammed the dorm room’s door behind them on their way out.
I didn’t have a flashlight. I didn’t know where the light switch was. With the dresser blocking the door, the closet was very dark inside. This was long before cell phones were a gleam in some engineer’s eye. My parents wouldn’t be back for a week. I wasn’t due in class until morning. No one would even know I was missing until then.
I sank down onto the floor of the closet, tears burning at the edges of my eyes. What if there was a fire? What if I needed to pee? If I screamed, would anyone hear me? Were there people on the floors above or below me? Would my tormentors only laugh at me more if I begged to be let out?
I decided I was too angry to cry. I tried to figure out what had just happened, what I’d done to be tormented like this. I’d only just met Nicole. I’d even admired her. I’d thought she seemed like fun, that we might be friends. Why would anyone be so mean to a total stranger?
I never realized I was claustrophobic until I found myself barricaded in that closet. As I sat there in the blackness, I felt the walls shooting away from me into space. I felt them contract toward me with every panicked breath. I couldn’t hear anything but my blood pounding in my ears. My body flushed with heat, then iced with fear. I understood why people went crazy when locked up alone in the dark. I wondered how long that would take.
I don’t know how long my classmates left me in there. Eventually one of the boys felt guilty and they crept back into my room to drag the dresser away from the closet door.
I walked out of the closet under my own power. Nicole laughed at me. I let my tears fall finally and asked them to leave my room. Then I locked the door after them and didn’t open the walk-in closet for the rest of the week.
The experience of sitting alone in the dark directly inspired “Claustrophobia,” the first story I published about Raena Zacari. That story ended with Raena’s imprisonment in an empty tomb on an abandoned planet. A feature of the weird stone walls of the tomb was that she wouldn’t age and couldn’t die. She would only wait for a savior who would never come, trapped in her tomb until her claustrophobia burned itself out.
Being locked in the dark by strangers isn’t an experience I would wish on any 16-year-old girl. Still, I suppose I have Nicole to thank for the In the Wake of the Templars trilogy. Not only did my confinement in that closet lead to that initial short story, but Nicole’s behavior inspired the villain of The Dangerous Type, the first book of the trilogy.
I’ve wondered over the years if Nicole’s lack of empathy led her to abuse others. It’s hard to believe that I was the only victim she ever singled out. She really didn’t know me. At the time, she blamed me for the length of my punishment. Apparently, she’d stood outside the closet, listening, waiting to hear me scream for help. When I didn’t satisfy her by begging to be let out, she decided to leave me in there a little longer, since I “appeared to be enjoying” myself. She didn’t apologize afterward, because as far as she could see, I wasn’t actually hurt by the experience. That complete failure to imagine herself in my place led directly to Thallian, the Imperial torturer who lacks empathy to the point that no one in the galaxy – except Raena herself – seems real to him.
I lost touch with Nicole after that week of camp, even though it turned out that we later had friends in common. I never forgave her for what she’d done. I also never forgot the lessons she taught me. My novel The Dangerous Type is the story of Raena’s eventual escape from her imprisonment and the vengeance she takes on the man who knew where she was trapped and never came to let her out.
Hopefully, finally, I have exorcised the experience at last.
Loren Rhoads is the author of the In the Wake of the Templars trilogy, published by Night Shade Books. The Dangerous Type is out now, followed by Kill By Numbers on September 1 and the conclusion, No More Heroes, on November 3. She is the co-author (with Brian Thomas) of As Above, So Below and editor of The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two. Spy on her at lorenrhoads.com.