This story is by Amy Ren and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The slam of the door echoed behind me. Fuck.
I whirled around and lunged at the handle, but it vaporized between my fingers. Within a few heartbeats, the seams of the door melted into the creamy white wall.
“It’s not real,” I reminded myself, forcing my voice to stay firm. “It’s all in my head.”
Keep it together, Amy. I squeezed my eyes shut, waited for three heartbeats, and reopened them.
Wonderful. Now the walls were oozing honey.
I struggled to keep my breathing steady as my fingertips wandered around the space where the handle had been, but only honey greeted me. I yanked my hands back, watching as glittering strands of syrup stretched between my fingers and the wall. My breaths hitched in my chest before I smoothed them out, ignoring the viscous liquid dripping down my hands. Gritting my teeth, I tried to locate the gap between the door and the wall.
“You can’t do this to me,” my voice cracked, hollow and unfeeling, like a jar that had shattered in the kiln, fractures spiderwebbing across its surface as it baked.
I stared at the honey-coated space the door had been. Nate would come back. He had to. My best friend wouldn’t dare me to break into the unused dorm room, then lock me in and abandon me to my distorted reality. Surely he’d poke his head through the doorway in a few minutes, green eyes sparkling with mirth. He’d run a hand through his tousled chocolate hair, a smirk on his face as he caught the punch I’d throw at his shoulder. He was steady, reliable. He wouldn’t leave me here.
With that warm thought, the honey disappeared. I wrapped the thin shreds of comfort around my shoulders to combat the chill of isolation. After I wrenched my eyes away from the wall, I observed the room on stumbling legs. It had a familiar layout – a bed tucked into the east wall and a pair of windows opposite it, a desk under the morning light, and a kitchenette near the disappeared entrance.
But something was off. Steeling myself, I opened the windows. Though I could see branches shifting, no breeze rushed into the room. The air felt abnormally still. My mouth dried, and I half-collapsed into the chair nearby. A wave of nausea loomed over me.
Deep breaths, Amy. In and out. Remember your pre-race sequence.
I felt like I was suspended in sickly sweet honey that tried to worm its way down my throat and settle into my lungs, drowning me as I breathed. The golden glow pouring in from the windows was a terrifying echo of the honey pooling around my throat and twisting around my body, immobilizing me. My vision swam. I blinked slowly, feeling like an insect stuck in tree sap, struggling futilely as the liquid around me hardened into amber.
I glowered at my hands and willed them to clench. Bit by bit, my fingers jerked into a fist, and I curled them until my nails bent and pain seared my palms. As my hands throbbed, the pressure evaporated off my shoulders and the sunlight stopped choking me. The honey spilling into the room seemed less acidic and more welcoming. After another heartbeat, my head cleared. I relaxed, letting my palms sprawl across the wooden desk.
My fingertips tingled as they danced across the desktop, the scars flecking the back of my hands rippling with the movement. “Piano hands,” my friends called them, even though I gave up playing the piano seven years ago. I studied the network of veins, the slim fingers that were as long as my palm, the joints that clung to knobbiness. There was a freckle on the second joint of my left pinkie. I’d never noticed it before.
On my right hand, a pale crescent lay above the place where my pointer finger connected the back of my hand, raised and slightly puckered. I held my hand in front of me, palm facing the window. A cluster of three tiny white arcs danced on a vein, shimmering slightly in the sunlight. On top of the tendon stretching from my pointer finger to my wrist, a diagonal scar the width of my nail stood out, pink against my tan skin. Nearby, a smaller, purple-tinged mark reflected light differently than the rest of my hand. I wiggled my fingers and watched as the tendons shifted underneath the thin skin mottled by veins and scars. As I traced the raised vessel running down my thumb to the side of my wrist, I marveled at how much strength was literally at my fingertips.
It had been ages since I’d had enough time to slow down and observe. I hadn’t even noticed the minuscule purple circle below the ring finger of my own left hand until mere minutes ago. If I didn’t know myself well, how was I to know exactly how I affected the people around me? I shook my head. I didn’t even know my body well, much less my mind, yet both had served me faithfully for nineteen years.
The air had lost its malicious bite, or maybe I had just become more comfortable. Maybe Nate had seen what I was too blind to realize – that I needed time to relearn who I was outside the library and swimming pool. That between all my studying and training, I had lost myself. A soft smile stretched across my face, and I shook my head.
I dug my phone out of my sweatshirt pocket and raised an eyebrow. Forty-three minutes had already passed. That couldn’t be possible, but the numbness in my legs told me it was true. My eyes weren’t deceiving me this time. I stood and stretched, then winced after I cracked my knuckles.
Perhaps being alone could be a good thing.
I let my eyes wander the room, and noticed a bookshelf hiding in the corner, next to the wall where the door had been.
“Next to the door wall. Door. Wall!” I snickered, and it grew to a laugh so full that I doubled over, wheezing with tears in my eyes. I coughed, the ridiculous smirk still lighting up my face. How long had it been since I truly laughed for myself, because I wanted to and not out of obligation?
I racked my brain, and my smile flickered when I came up empty. I’d laughed at jokes and incidents that Nate told me about, I’d laughed at myself, and I’d laughed out of misery and stress. But that feeling of pure, unadulterated joy was missing from those memories. If happiness was honey, lush and sweet and satisfying, then I’d forgotten how it tasted.
I shook my head and reached for one of the many books on the shelf. The Hunger Games came back in my hand, and I grinned. A new classic. Plopping down on the navy covers of the bed, I cracked open the pages of one of my many childhood favorites. I paused. I was only nineteen and still young. When did I start thinking of myself as an adult? When was that transition?
Maybe I had changed irrevocably during the nights when I drafted and rewrote my college application essays until I fell asleep. Or perhaps it was the afternoon where I captained my high school swim team to a state championship and nearly fell off the podium in my exhaustion. It could’ve been the day I graduated high school and almost face-planted as I walked up to receive my diploma. Or was it the morning I set up my dorm room with Nate?
I couldn’t remember, and it scared me. My grip on reality had started slipping three years ago, but I neglected to realize I also lost myself. Now, I was a husk of the person I used to be. Honey dripped from the ceiling and pooled onto my shoulders, poised to twist around my neck.
With hands trembling like a leaf in a storm, I flipped the page.
And another one.
The honey around me relaxed. As I sank deeper into the story, eyes devouring the words as they appeared on the page, my worries eased. I finished The Hunger Games and reached for a second book.
And then a third.
I kept reading and lost count of how many books I absorbed. The words flowed over me, cocooning me with their balmy glow and warming me from the inside out. A smile crept onto my face, and I let it stay. As the weakening sunlight streamed into the room, it also seemed to curl around me, joining the luminesce of the words and the honey. Together, the three substances shifted into a cloak of comfort, draped around my shoulders.
The shadows shifted on the walls, and my fingertips grew sore from turning pages.
But I didn’t move.
I was at home, wrapped in honey.