Originally published in Hinnom Magazine, December 2017
We moved in a year ago. A month after Mom died. Just me and Dad and Piper and an old, salt-rusted Victorian with big dormer windows and a swooping front porch. It’s not much to look at, really. A faded-blue clapboard construction fronted by a yellow-piss lawn and a view of the Safeway parking lot across the street. Not exactly what I expected when Dad told me we were moving to the coast. He had to get away from her. Or from the memory of her, anyways. Something like that. Some bullshit line about missing her too much.
“Nick,” he’d say with the nicotine lines sprinting away from the corners of his mouth. “She haunts me. Every night I can feel her in the room haunting me. Us. It’s not good for me here no more. Or for you and your sister. We need a fresh start somewhere else.”
But I knew it wasn’t a fresh start he needed. No, he wanted to run. I could see it in his nervous, washed-out eyes every time we went to the store, darting this way and that, looking for the I know what you did looks. The tight smiles with the curt nods. The poisoned glances. And at home, the trash cans boiling over with empty vodka bottles and crumpled-up cartons of Camel Lights. The floors ashed over with dust. No one to clean them up anymore.
So one day in late October, he pulled up in front of my school with a U-Haul tacked to the back of our rusted-out ’98 Chevy Silverado and we left. No warning. No time for goodbyes. Just a quick, “Get in, kid. I found us a place up the coast. A good place. A place we can get right again.”
Piper cried the entire way. And me, well, I just bit my tongue.
The fear always starts in my toes when he speaks. A sinister prickle that blooms through my feet and spreads up my legs like a swarm of hatchling spiders in search of a meal. Some writhing, webbed-over treat to devour.
“I can helps you. I can makes it all go away.”
The Wallpaper Man’s voice is brittle and flutters through the air of my room like a wisp of acrid smoke.
“Will it gives it to me? Will it gives me the pain?”
I shudder in my bed and pull the sheets higher, close my eyes and hope to snuff it out, to drown it in the black void of my dreams; anything to make it stop, to make it go away. But I know better.
He never stops until I answer.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling brave, I try to tune him out. I think about things like Piper’s smile when I tell her my stupid knock-knock jokes. It’s crooked-perfect, with a little gap between the incisors that lights up the room when she laughs. I think about Mom. About how she smelled like lavender when she hugged me. I miss those hugs. A lot. When those things don’t work, when I’m too afraid to think about anything else, I focus on the fear. The color of it: black. Definitely black. Its consistency: thick, like Ragu. Its taste: a bitter copper-like when I bite my lip—like how I imagine battery acid would taste.
It doesn’t work.
Nothing does, really.
Nothing but answering him.
The Wallpaper Man is used to kids who can run.
Me, I have no use for legs.
The ALS took them six months ago.
Most people are nice enough when they see me. I mean, sure, they stare a little too long and nod a little too hard when they say hello, but they mean well. And the women. Oh man, do they drive me nuts with those big, fake plastic smiles and the way they talk to me. Like I’m dumb or something. Like I’m a two-year-old. I’m not. I’m sixteen. I just look young.
The men, well, they mostly ignore me.
But whatever. I can’t say I blame them. Who wants to spend time talking to death warmed over in a wheelchair? I sure as hell wouldn’t. I mean, I can’t even stand to look at myself in the mirror. I try not to. I know how I look. The right side of my face droops like a stroke victim, the muscles frozen in place and not quite working right, the other half compensating with a strange twitch when I talk like I’ve stuffed my mouth full of sour candy. I have eyes that are encased in sharp sockets and my mouse-brown hair sprouts from my head in weird directions that don’t quite make sense no matter how hard I try to smooth it down.
And the pain. It’s my entire existence. Cramps that go on forever. Muscle spasms and skin sores on my legs. Joints that lock up like rusted old latches.
Despite this, like I said, most people are nice.
Everyone except Roger Smith.
The bathroom door bangs open, and even before he speaks, I know it’s him. “Hey! Look who we have here. It’s Nicky Twitch!”
“Leave me alone, Roger,” I mutter into the floor.
Before I have a chance to brace myself, he’s behind me, whipping my wheelchair around, sending the contents of my catheter bag all over my lap. The smell of ammonia stings my nostrils and I frantically wipe at it with a nearby paper-towel, hope to soak it up before it sets into my jeans.
“Hey, someone needs to cheer—“ The corners of his mouth tick up into an evil grin. “Oh, my God. Did you piss yourself? You did, didn’t you?” He barks out a laugh that tells me something bad is coming. “That’s so disgusting. Wait till everyone hears about this. Pissing your pants! What a baby.”
He spouts a few more jags of laughter and stomps out of the bathroom, leaving me alone with my urine-stained lap.
Roger has everything.
Perfect bone structure. A strong jawline already sprouting stubble. Broad shoulders. Girls chasing him everywhere he goes. He even drives a red Dodge Charger his lawyer father bought him.
He still has his mother. One who loves him. It’s not fair.
He’s everything I want to be.
And everything I hate.
A ray of moonlight cuts through the blinds and washes over the yellowed wallpaper of my room. Over the Wallpaper Man: ten-inch serrated fingers fall past a set of disjointed knees. Angular shoulder blades. Bones that slope sharp into a razor-blade neck. His skull is long and segmented and punctuated by a jaw that curls inward, bones crackling, when he speaks. Ridged eye sockets bulge from either side of his head and shift when he moves. Four eyes in all. It’s like something from one of those Alien movies, but so much worse because I can’t see all of him. I’m forced to imagine what he looks like. Forced to picture the true horror that lies beneath the wallpaper. The slick, black rows of teeth that sometimes flicker against it when he speaks. The skin I imagine to be thick and pocked and reptilian.
“Threeee. Has it brought them to me? Gives me the names and I will takes the pain, yesh?”
The wallpaper ripples as he slides through it like oil, his joints working in a sick, unnatural fashion as he moves. I think of an arthritic centipede. My stomach sours at the sight. The putrid-sweet odor of his breath washes over me as he nears, his foul exhalations awaiting my response. Night—after—night the same question: Will I give him his gifts? Will I give him his three? And night—after—night I croak out a wet-gurgle no, my voice a weak, dry breeze. Baby vomit. I don’t want him to hurt anyone. But tonight, something’s different. Tonight, something cold boils through my blood at the prospect of having to face another day with Roger Smith in it.
Without thinking, I whisper his name.
I half-expect to see Roger sitting at his desk the next morning, slouched down jock-style in his chair. Maybe it was all a dream. Maybe I’m just losing my mind talking to empty walls. But as I roll past, his desk sits wonderfully empty. The sight of it fills me with relief. I can breathe. No looking over my shoulder. For today at least. And it only gets better. He doesn’t come to school the next day. Or even the next.
It isn’t until Thursday that I start to worry.
Is he dead? Surely not, right? I didn’t want to kill him or anything. Maybe just punish him a bit. Make him feel the way he makes me feel: like trash. Worthless for a while.
It’s not until Friday that I finally see him. He sits with his head cupped in his hands when I enter the class. He doesn’t bother to look up. His hateful eyes are obscured by a thick swoop of hair and his foot taps out an irregular beat on the floor. A frantic tap! tap! tap! that sends me to my desk a little faster. As I glide past him, he pushes a burst of air through his lips and a strange odor tickles my nose.
The sticky tack of glue fumes.
I watch Roger the entire class. There’s something off about the way he sits, hunched forward like an arthritic eighty-year-old. But there’s something else. Something worse. His skin. It’s taken on a strange chalky texture. Like drywall. Like it would crumble beneath my fingertips if touched. At one point, Roger feels the heat of my gaze and his eyes flick to mine. I quickly look away. For some reason, I expect him to know this was my fault. That I did this to him. But what I see staring back at me isn’t anger.
A lake of it.
Cold. Clear. Fear.
It’s crisp outside as I roll up to the curb and wait for Dad to pick me up. I shiver in my windbreaker and wonder how late he’ll be today. Yesterday it was half-an-hour. The day before, forty-five minutes and reeking of booze. If he’s that late today, I’ll freeze.
A shrill whine snaps me out of the thought. An ambulance. Distant, but coming closer. Then I hear the cry. Roger’s. Pain-drenched and terrified—like he’s burning alive. He stumbles from the soccer field arms draped around two of his jock friends. Two cheerleaders swirl in front of them like gnats, screaming for help.
As they near, I squint and try to see what’s wrong. His legs seem okay. His arms fine. Nothing’s broken, but his face is all twisted up and his hands, they’re…flapping. Like a pair of panicky birds. Dripping watery-pink fluid everywhere. And—Oh, God—the skin…
All of it.
In its place, fibrous red muscle entwined with nerve endings. Strips of bone peak through the tissue. And there’s something else. Sticky white clumps of—paste?—speckled all over his palms. His forearms. It coats his naked digits and runs up to his wrists where the skin is peeling back in tattered strips.
I choke back a slug of bile.
The gym teacher, Mr. Johnson, abandons his post directing traffic and sprints over. “What happened?”
One of Roger’s friends looks up wild-eyed, the spray of freckles over his nose suddenly dark in the afternoon sun. “It—it just—” He looks away and shakes his head, looks back with tears in his eyes. “His skin just came off, Mr. Johnson. Like a pair of gloves. We were playing catch, and Roger started screaming when he caught the ball. We didn’t know what happened at first…”
Roger unleashes a painful howl that cuts through my chest.
I did this to him. I made this happen.
A moment later, the ambulance tears up to the curb and I watch the EMT’s load Roger up, his eyes wild with pain, rotating in their sockets like dirty, brown marbles.
That night, my eyelids scrape open to sheer darkness. A tomb. I can’t see the street light through my blinds. Can’t find the assuring glow of my alarm clock on my dresser. My torso is slicked with sweat.
Roger’s skin…I can’t stop thinking about it. The way it sloughed off like boiled meat. The way it—
A chill washes down my arms, my legs.
Someone’s watching me.
I can feel it.
I can feel him.
My mouth goes sandpaper dry, my tongue swelling in my mouth. I can’t handle him tonight. I can’t give him another name and do this to someone else. Do what I did to Roger. I won’t, I’ll—
“N—Nick? Are you awake?”
Piper. My heart assaults my ribs. She can’t come in here, not now.
Not with him.
But he’s only ever talked to me, never to her. In more than a year. And there’s something wrong with her, I can feel the panic radiating off of her. Can hear it in her voice.
She needs me.
“Hey, there, yeah. You okay?” I ask.
“Can I sleep with you tonight?”
“Of course. Get in here,” I say, lifting up the sheets. She used to sleep with me all the time when she was little, used to slip into my room clutching her teddy bear and complaining of nightmares. Really, it was when the fighting got too rough. Back when Dad would lose his temper with Mom and the snap of his voice would pour through the house like dull thunder.
But that was years ago, and now she’s ten, sprouting knobby knees and braces, her features blooming into those of a young woman. Every time I look at her it hurts. All I see is Mom. Piper’s all I have left of her.
I drape an arm around her as she slides in and I realize she’s shivering.
“Hey, hey, what’s the matter? You have a bad dream or something?”
She shakes her head, her hair brushing against my chin.
“It was—” She shudders, lets out a sob.
“Go on. You can tell me. You know that, right?”
She nods her head and lies quiet for a long moment before saying, “It was Dad. He was in my room again.”
I stiffen, every wasted muscle in my body snapping taught. My throat glues shut as I run a hand over her head and soothe her until her breathing evens out. Then I lie wide awake, my heart thundering so hard in my chest I think it will burst. It hasn’t beat this hard since the day I found Mom in the bathroom with the empty bottle and a few stray pills scattered around her fingers like snowflakes. Dead-eyed and foaming at the mouth, she lay there motionless and cold, the hem of her sweater hiked up just enough for me to see the purple patch of skin peeking through.
Dad always liked to keep his handiwork hidden.
I lie cardboard stiff for hours, waiting and waiting and waiting. Unable to sleep. Staring at the wall. Near three A.M., I finally catch a flicker of movement above my headrest. A serriform grin.
I say his name.
In the morning, I wake Piper and have her help me into my wheelchair. The kitchen has been fitted for me—the one thing Dad’s done right around here—so I make a breakfast of scrambled eggs. Sausage and orange juice and toast just like we used to with Mom on Saturday mornings. Piper just sits there. We eat in silence, and she barely touches her food, pushing it around her plate and glancing down the hall at Dad’s bedroom door until it’s time for the bus.
As she stands to grab her backpack, I take hold of her arm.
“Hey, that stuff with Dad. It’s never going to happen again. Ever. You don’t have to worry about him anymore, okay?”
She stands frozen in place, her lips pulled into a thin line.
Her delicate jaw bunches tight. Again, I see Mom: that waterfall of brown-chocolate hair and bubble of a nose. The warm olive skin that’s so different than mine.
She issues a quick nod, and her eyes flick down.
She doesn’t believe me.
But she should.
After she leaves, after I tell her I love her, I stare at Dad’s door for a long time. My fingers vice-grip the armrests of my wheelchair, clenching and unclenching and clenching again until my forearms feel like blocks of cement. Finally, after an hour, I knock once, twice.
I expect to hear his voice groggy and graveled over with sleep, expect for him to yell at me to go away like he does every morning when I wake him for my ride to school.
Hesitantly, I push it open and roll through. Dust motes clutter the air and the carpet is scattered with dirty laundry: greasy tee-shirts and jeans and boxers. A crumpled construction vest. An empty bottle of Jack Daniels lies cockeyed on his dresser and the room reeks like he hasn’t opened a window in weeks. The blinds are drawn and, as I roll through the gloom toward his bed, I catch sight of his crumpled form beneath the blankets.
“Dad?” I ask.
I ask again.
I reach out and clutch the comforter, hesitate; the last time I woke him after a night on the bottle I got a black eye for my trouble. I clench my jaw and give it a tug. Another one. The comforter rustles down over something thin and fibrous, inch-by-inch, until it’s visible.
Miles of it.
The ugly brown and yellow striped stuff on the walls of his room. It blossoms beneath his bed and runs up and over his arms, his torso, his legs. Encases his skull and stretches taught over the outline of his gaping mouth. I can’t tell for certain, but his eyes appear to be stretched wide and his head is angled back in a sick fashion that makes me think he saw it coming.
I find a crease in the wallpaper near his chest and take hold of it.
A sprinkle of sand shivers through.
I pull harder and a stream of it spills onto the bed and scatters to the floor. I know I should stop. That I should turn and wheel myself from the room, but I can’t, my fingers working as if operated by a puppeteer. As I unwrap the Wallpaper Man’s cancerous gift, beads of sweat erupt across my forehead, my back. And then I’m ripping it off in chunks, tearing it open like a toddler on Christmas anxious for his shiny new toy. Except what reveals itself is anything but shiny; rivulets of sand drift down to expose a pale cathedral of bone.
Nausea churns through my intestines and I nearly retch, but somehow keep ripping, tearing the wallpaper off a pitted femur, a wrist bone.
It’s bleached-white and vacant, the eye sockets two black pits of tar peeking through the grit.
I slip the comforter back up and wheel out of the room, drifts of sand crunching beneath my wheels, my stomach assaulting itself, spasming with disgust. But also, a sick satisfaction that it’s finally over.
Piper never has to worry again.
The Wallpaper Man won’t stop without his third.
He’s warned me.
I know who he wants.
The thought sends a wave of gooseflesh rippling down my arms.
That won’t happen. He can’t have her. I have his final name; I’ve had it all along.
But first I need to make a call.
I wait for hours, the house creaking around me as I sit in the silence of my room and stare at the wallpaper: toy bears marching with trumpets, leading a troupe of stuffed animals through a candy-cane forest. Rabbits and deer and bug-eyed badgers following behind, each with an instrument of their own. A crazy, never-ending parade. It’s awful stuff—probably some baby’s room before I moved in. Likely a boy’s room, based on the heavy bent toward blues and yellows. Dad said he’d take the stuff down in a couple weeks.
Decayed fragments of light peek in around the curtains, tell me it’s getting late. Aunt Lauren will be here soon. A half-an-hour or so. She’ll stop me if she gets here before I do this. I could barely hang up on her as it was. One look at her and all the strength will run out of me.
I can’t wait any longer.
From my lap, I take the steak knife and press it against the left pad of my palm, feel its cold pressure dig into my skin.
Moisture frames my vision. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to die. Even if I don’t have that long left as it is. The thought of never seeing Piper smile again, of never hearing her laugh or wave at me from her bike. Never being able to tell her that I love her. That everything will be okay.
Because it will.
Aunt Lauren loves Piper almost as much as I do. Like Mom did. She’ll take good care of her. Better than I could, anyway. And she won’t let her see this—what happened to Dad, what’s about to happen to me. She’ll protect her. She’ll give her the childhood she deserves. The childhood I can’t.
I’ve never seen the Wallpaper man during the day. I don’t even know if this will work, but I have to try. I have to give him his name right now.
Before it’s too late.
I bring the knife back into place, and a trickle of red bubbles up around the blade. I hiss and grit my teeth so hard it feels as if my molars will crack. I slide the blade the length of my lifeline and nearly pass out.
The pain is indescribable.
Somehow, I manage to keep it together and roll over to the wall. My blood looks black as oil as I press my hand against the wallpaper and hold it there.
Say my name.
I can feel the blood pulsing out of the wound in thick torrents, turning the wallpaper sticky—slick. My head goes woozy, and I struggle to focus. I whisper my name again.
My hand slips an inch.
Wallpaper coated fingers.
Around my wrist.
A sudden, piercing cold rips through my arm, mixing with the warm gush of blood on the wall.
“I takes the pain, yes?”
“Yessshhhh.” The hiss is otherworldly, eternal, reverberating through my chest and washing down through my legs in awful, undulating bursts.
The fingers unfurl and I thump back into my chair unable to move, unable to blink. I can only stare dumbly at my wrist, at the ring of crusted black skin flaking off where the fingers held me. I’ve never known pain like this before. Like holding my hand in a hot pan of bacon grease.
A sheering sound brings my attention back to the wall where a single talon-coated finger at least ten inches long, cuts through the vinyl material in a clean, vertical line. Then, through the rift, another digit emerges. And another and another. So many fingers spilling through that I lose count. At least a dozen in all, maybe more. Black, knotted knuckles. Cruel-looking blades extending from each fingertip. They are impossibly long and pop and croak as they curl in and out.
“Do not be afraid. I takes the pain. I takes it all away.”
A gust of something foul spills through the rift, a noxious rot that sours my nostrils and sets my eyes to watering. I blink away the tears and stare dumbfounded at the hundreds of miniature patches of wallpaper tearing away from the wall and migrating toward the hand, crawling like maggots over one another and slithering onto its palm, leaving sticky trails of something mucous-like behind. Before my eyes, they writhe and contort and twist into one another in sick, disjointed motions, combining to sprout wings and antennae’s and hungry, sucking mouths. I watch in disgust, unable to avert my eyes from the seizing horde as it convulses into something I recognize.
Dozens and dozens of wallpaper butterflies.
A burst of rot spills through once more, and before I can make a sound, they take flight and hurtle toward me with terrifying speed. Their razor-sharp wings lash against my skin, their stabbing legs piercing.
I gag and choke on their rotten bodies as they work down my throat and burrow into my stomach, into the soft gelatin of my eyeballs. Pure agony swims through every cell of my being as they shred through muscle and bone alike, my life spilling out of me in a thousand cuts at once.
Muted, colorless shades.
I am everything, everywhere, all at once.
Flicking into existence.
My new body feels strange, electric.
A girl’s room.
I can tell by the mountain of stuffed animals bulging from the corner hammock: Dogs and cats and smiling monkeys. A jewelry case frosts a white dresser. Posters of boy bands and horses coat the walls. Beaded necklaces are draped over a rocking chair, and in the corner, beneath a plush bedspread, a spray of hair drifts over a pillow. It’s hard to see the color clearly through the striped wallpaper—it’s dark—maybe amber, maybe brown—I can’t quite tell with my new eyes.
All four of them.