This story is by Monisha Mukherjee and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The glass glinted in the morning sun. The crags of rock craned sharply upwards, reaching out to Nike. What a comforting view. She jammed the window shut, and locked it, turning to face the room around her. The place was bare and cold. The wooden floors were buffed to a subtle shine, as if they could hide the obvious dents left behind. Against the side wall, there was a bed that she wanted to move next to the window, but it was bolted to the ground. It was surrounded by a nightstand on one side, too far away to reach from the bed, and a desk on the other, with holes in wood where someone seemed to have stabbed it with a pen. The wallpaper was brand new and the room still smelled slightly of polish and glue.
“So what do you think?” Henry asked Nike.
“How long are we staying here?”
“About a week.”
Henry had insisted on buying and remodeling this silly house to be a beach house, despite being far from the sand, but that’s what he believed, and now he insisted on living in it.
She had told Henry the truth, that she didn’t want to be on vacation at all, but there they were. At least he let her bring her computer with her, so she could still work .
“Are you going to come down to the beach later? Melanie and Hannah are going in ten minutes.” Henry asked
“Uh, I think I’m just going to get some work done first. Besides, you know I’m expecting a call from my literary agent.”
“Yeah, I know,” Henry responded rubbing his temples. Nike rolled her eyes. Henry always rubbed his temples when he was frustrated.
“Just promise me you won’t spend this whole vacation working. You need to get outside, get some fresh air, and take a break once in a while too.”
Nike felt her eye twitch.
“Of course. I know, it’s just today.”
“Yeah, okay.” Henry walked out quickly, still staring at the floor. Nike waited until he was down the stairs and then slammed the door behind him. She pulled out her computer and dropped it onto the desk. She didn’t have time for Henry’s platitudes.
That evening, she would get a call from her agent, who would get a call from the publishers, and she would be a published author. Everything would be perfect. She let her hands rest on the keyboard as the computer started up. Its subtle hum embraced her ears, and, on instinct, Nike’s hands moved swiftly across the board. Her fingers violently stabbed at the keys, imprinting her every desire and whim. No one understood why she worked so hard. Not Henry, not her family, and not any one of her supposed friends. But with the words appearing at lightning speed, she felt it. This world she made was her own. To make or break as she chose.
The morning sunlight quickly turned into a high noon, leaving Nike with an appeal to take on a wild n’ western tone. Her fingers weren’t flying anymore, and the high of the morning had fallen, and her work interrupted by the giggles of her friends playing in the sand and the crashing of the waves. The noise was relentless. She felt her eye twitching as she jumped out of her chair, pushing it back so hard it slammed into the opposite wall. The chair fell over with a thunk, and a slight scratching noise echoed out. Nike whipped her head around to stare at the wall. The wallpaper shone all over, but just where the chair had hit it, a dent appeared with a little slit. She hesitated but could feel her fingers itching to find out what it was hiding. She leaned closer and closer to the slit. The closer she got, the more apparent it became the slit ran all the way up the wall. It was a mask, abruptly sliced, used to cover up something that was once there. Her fingers trembled as she grabbed the edge of the wallpaper. What was it hiding?
Her fingers twitched away from the wall at a sudden noise, and the paper tore off, leaving a bald, greyed spot. Her phone was ringing relentlessly. She dropped the piece of wallpaper and ran for the desk, answering her phone immediately.
“Yes!” Nike answered
“Hello, Nissa. Are you enjoying your vacation?” Her mother’s familiar voice echoed through the phone. Her excitement shriveled and died.
“Yes, mum. It’s great.”
“Tell me you’re not stuck inside working.”
Nike just sighed.
“I understand you didn’t want to visit us but please take a break from work for once.” her mother said.
“I can’t! Why is this such a difficult concept for everyone to understand?”
“You’ll work yourself to death going on like this, Nike. Plea-”
The dial tone cut off her mother. She threw the phone. It flew through the air and hit the wall above her bed. No one ever understood. She thought of her family always telling her to come home and visit, her friends always telling her to take a break. Nike felt her eyes watering, and her fingers digging into her palms. She unfurled her fists and started to bite her fingernails. She sat back down at her computer. She couldn’t take a break. She couldn’t stop. She refused to be just Nissa. She wanted to be Nike. A contrived smile returned to her face as she started to type again. She needed to be Nike, because Nissa wasn’t good enough. They would understand someday. The scratching noise echoed out again, but this time from above the bed. She squinted to see another slit had appeared in the wallpaper there. Her eyes darted back to the laptop for a moment before being pulled back to the mystery of the wallpaper.
She dug her nails under the side of the tear. Another piece of the wallpaper tore off, much bigger this time, the plaster coating her fingers in a chalky white sheer. The bald, greyed wall continued behind, but this time there was a peek of something else behind it. A large slash cutting into the wall, exposing the wood behind. She stared into the cut and the scratching sound returned to her ears, slightly louder this time. It was definitely coming from behind the wall. She grabbed the edge with both hands and tore an enormous chunk of wallpaper off. The glossy fresh paper fell to the floor, leaving the wall bare. The dull grayed wall behind was defiled with scratches. They ran down the wall, digging through the plaster to the wood itself, and raced all the way to the headboard of the bed. Her hand quivered as she touched the trail left behind, and the marks fell perfectly in line with her hands. The afternoon haze sent a strange light on the wall, marking shadows across Nike’s face. Her nails started to dig into the exposed wall. Just then, her phone began to ring again. Nike threw herself off the bed, grasping at it furiously. It was her agent.
“Yes, hi Nike. So listen. The publishers called me back. I’m sorry but they say they are not ready to handle this material right now.”
Nike’s heart dropped into her stomach.
“But you said they were so excited about it last week.”
“That was then, this is now.”
“I don’t think you understand. This book deal is all I have. I haven’t thought about anything else for months- for years! Just call the publishers back. Tell them I’ll do anything, please!”
“I’m sorry, Nike. Have a nice vacation.”
The dial tone echoed back in her ear, her words stolen before she could say them. She knelt there on the floor for a moment, unable to let go of the phone. Because any moment now the agent would call back and say the publishers changed their minds. Any minute now. Right? She clutched the phone harder. This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. She was supposed to be here with all her friends and family, celebrating her book deal.
The scratching in the wall echoed again, louder than ever this time, forming words for her.
“What friends? What family?”
The phone slipped from Nike’s hands. No friends, no family, nothing. Her eyes twitched back.
“I just have to write more! Work harder!”
She grabbed her laptop, expecting to see all she had written that day, a validation of her dream, but a blinking cursor was the only thing there. And with everything else gone, Nike charged at the wallpaper.
When Henry wandered up to check on her, the sun was gone, and the room was dark. The wallpaper was ripped and scratched off the walls, all of them, and Nike was nowhere to be found. Just a big, empty room with a ghostly chill flowing in through the open window.