This story is by Stacey Brown and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The ceiling was lower than yesterday. The walls had advanced closer to the bed, even the furniture loomed larger. She lay on the bed, sweating under the tangle of restraining blankets, and pondered the change with little surprise. Daily the room compacted. The nightstand was nearer, buried in debris in the airless shadows. Heavy shutters bound the windows. She’d wanted curtains on those windows, not shutters.
No, her mother had said, the streetlamp will keep you awake. Be practical.
Her mother had chosen most of the furniture in her house. The style she’d wanted wasn’t right. Her mother was helping her decorate, she was fixing everything, so it would be stylish, a lovely presentation. People didn’t like those deep jewel colors.
Be practical, Be reasonable.
The sound of those two words made her nauseous. She’d heard them all her life, insinuating words. She wasn’t competent to make these decisions; the words said.
A concert? No, you can’t go. Be reasonable! It’s not safe. A party? No. That outfit, no. Then, not that college. No, you can’t move away, no you can’t travel by yourself. Her mother scrubbed her neck with powdered toilet cleanser, she couldn’t be trusted to keep clean, she was a dirty child. They insisted on their name on her bank account, her bills. They wouldn’t give her the password they’d used to freeze her credit. If she ever moved, she could not turn utilities on or get a phone. She couldn’t buy a car. All to help, to keep her safe.
And her world continued to shrink.
The chair had shifted in the night. Invaded closer to where she lay. The room was sweltering. Her back ached from the rigid position. She was hungry. She wondered if the floor was lifting upward at the same rate the ceiling was lowering. She’d be able to touch the ceiling fan soon. It didn’t work anyway, there had seemed no point in fixing it.
Last summer she’d planned a trip. An expansive one, out of the country. Her mother had begged and cajoled her not to do it. Her father had threatened her. Then came the usual call.
Your poor mother can’t sleep. She’s worried herself sick over this. We won’t be around much longer, you know. You should have discussed this with us, we would have taken you somewhere, somewhere reasonable. That flight isn’t safe, you’ll get lost.
She’d cried, agonized, felt guilty and ashamed of herself. In the end, she’d gone. The trip itself had been pure happiness, freedom, but on the way home, the airline canceled a flight. She’d called her parents, tight with anxiety, to let them know she’d be home a day late. They fell apart.
Everything she did was a disaster, they’d tried to tell her, but she always just did whatever she wanted, didn’t care about anyone else.
They’d called her every hour until she was back in her own house. Her breath had compressed to brief gasps, constricting her lungs. By the time she got home she felt dead inside.
They wanted her to see someone. She had to do something, they couldn’t go on worrying about her, it was killing them. Her mom insisted on going to the counselor with her. She explained to the doctor how her daughter was, how hard she’d tried.
She just wanted her daughter to be ok. Her daughter was always having a crisis. Look how she’d put her life on hold and come all the way down here again. There was always some disaster.
After her mother left, she’d gone to the next appointment alone. There’s nothing wrong with you, said the Dr. You’re perfectly fine.
When she’d told her parents what the Dr. said, they’d agreed that the Dr. must be a quack, in idiot, incompetent. That’s what they always said.
She stared at the ceiling. Her eyelid twitched. A drop of sweat rolled down her neck. The light moved across the narrow space as the day passed. The air compressed. She reached her hand into her hair and tugged the matted tangles and wondered if it would ever come out. She decided it didn’t matter.
After the trip disaster she’d tried hard to find purpose again. She’d found a weekend art workshop being held only two hours from her house. Her parents asked for the website, the address, the schedule.
At first her parents agreed. Excited, she’d planned out all her outfits, projects, and daydreamed about spending the days painting and discussing art. She’d gotten her hair cut and bought makeup. Her body became loose.
Two days before the art retreat, the phone rang. Her mother.
I’ve been looking online at that neighborhood where your bed-and-breakfast is. It’s near a poor area, I don’t think it’s safe. The area nearby is a “transitional” area, you know what that means. And you won’t use any sense, you’ll go walking around at night. I don’t think this is a good idea. Two women alone in that house? No, you’ve got to use common sense. I’ll find something better for you. That thing sounds like a scam, anyway. And now you’ll lose all that money you paid. I wish you would talk to us before you do these things. I’d be sick with worry. You have got to be more practical. You’re a grown woman, for God’s sake.
And then her father had called. All the usual, after all we’ve done for you. On and on.
After they hung up, she’d quit breathing. She was dead, hollow, flat. No more anger, no more grief. There had been nothing. There would always be nothing.
The room darkened, shadows flowed over the bed, exerting pressure. She’d not eaten. She was an empty body, a husk that would dissipate into dust. The walls had crawled closer; the ceiling crept downward. The world constricted.
She screamed. Run. Run. She fantasized about going to another country to live, a city busy and full of people. The room was inky, no light filtered through the shutters. She could sense the walls shift. The night was oppressive, the blackness rigid.
The phone rang. Each ring was a heavy blow, rearranging the structure of the room. The sound, relentless.
When she woke the next morning, the ceiling pressed against her face.