Wallpaper

There wasn’t anything wrong with the house when we first moved in. Nothing we could’ve noticed, at least. It was old, but that wasn’t a turn-off; my wife and I loved old things. Antiques, curios. A little bit of strangeness was charming.

Perhaps the strangest feature of that house was the inner parlor. That’s what we decided to name it. It was the only room that didn’t have access to the outside through either a door or window; it was completely blocked in. But the strangeness didn’t stop there. The inner parlor was also completely furnished—the only room in the house to be so. Armchairs, end tables, a fireplace—even a working grandfather clock. Aside from the dust, you’d have thought someone was still living there.

What my wife and I found strangest, however, was the wallpaper. It was a green floral pattern, with human faces peering out from between the leaves and flowers.

Strange, but nothing wrong.

We cleaned it up. All the furniture was in good shape. The grandfather clock was the only item that wasn’t in perfect condition. Although it kept the time, we soon learned that the chimes didn’t work. Each hour came and went in silence, save for the tock, tock, tock of the hands as they turned.

My wife and I spent many evenings in the inner parlor during the winter. When blizzards howled outside, the room’s cut-off nature muted the storm and held in the warmth. The strange green wallpaper wrapped us like a blanket, and we loved it.

One person, however, didn’t share our enthusiasm. Our son, who was a baby when we first moved in, began avoiding the inner parlor as he got older. He’d only go inside if we were there with him, when his only other option was to be alone somewhere else in the house.

One night, while my wife and I were talking by the fire, I noticed that the sound of our son’s playing had stopped. I glanced over to make sure he was alright, and found him staring at the wall. His body was rigid, his eyes unblinking. It made me think of a cat who’d just spotted a mouse—or perhaps the other way around.

“What’re you looking at?” I asked.

He pointed at the wall. “That one has a bad smile.”

I followed his finger to one of the faces hiding in the wallpaper. It peeked from behind the leaves with an impish smirk, its eyes betraying friendly mischief. Just like all the others adorning the wall. I couldn’t find anything to set it apart from its brothers, but I could understand how, between the firelight and his active young mind, our boy could imagine something different.

My wife thought the same thing, and she said, “It’s just a trick of the light. See? It looks no different from all the others.”

He seemed to accept that explanation, and went back to playing, although he kept throwing glances over his shoulder. When I tucked him in later that night, I thought that would be the end of it.

Not so. When I came home from work the next day, my wife informed me that our son had entered the inner parlor on his own that afternoon. It was such a strange thing for him to do, since he usually avoided that room, that she checked in on him. She found him kneeling on the floor, staring at the wall. The exact same spot, she emphasized, that he’d pointed to last night.

We were in the kitchen when she told me this. From where I was standing, I could see down the hall, and I could see the door to the inner parlor. As my wife was speaking, our boy came ambling down the hall for supper. He slowed when he reached the inner parlor, and his head turned to look inside. His eyes lingered on the door even after he’d passed it by.

“What do you see in there?” I asked, mostly joking.

In that voice that all children possess, which turns everything into a matter of absolute seriousness, he answered, “Bad smile.”

I chuckled, but once our son was out of earshot, my wife whispered, “I need to show you something after supper.”

When we’d finished eating, my wife sent our son off to play by himself, then led me to the inner parlor. “Look.” She pointed at the baseboard below the wall that had captured our son’s attention. “Those weren’t there until today.”

Flies. Spiders. Other bugs I couldn’t identify. All of them dead. It was more than just a handful; it was like someone had dumped a bucket of them on the floor. Every insect in the house must’ve been lying there at my feet.

“Did he do this?” I asked.

“I asked him,” my wife replied. “He said no.”

While my wife washed the dishes, I got a broom and swept up the bug carcasses. I tried to think of an explanation, but nothing obvious sprang to mind. I didn’t like it. While my wife and I appreciated strange things, this was a little too strange for our tastes. Perhaps that’s why I slept so restlessly that night.

I woke up at one to the sound of the grandfather clock chiming the hour. Stupid clock, I thought in my groggy, half-unconscious state. Should find a way to stop it from doing that.

Then I woke up completely and remembered the grandfather clock’s chimes were broken.

The sound came again, and now I was not only awake, but alert. It was definitely the chime a grandfather clock would make, but I knew that ours didn’t work, hadn’t since the day we moved in. However, I couldn’t think of anything else native to our house that would make such a noise.

A third chime.

I got out of bed. Whatever it was, I was going to find out. I made my way out of the bedroom, down the hall, and to the top of the stairs. I found myself cringing; my mind had already analyzed the silence between chimes, and a fourth one was due any second…

It never came. I stood atop the stairs both relieved and irked. The silence was preferable to those impossible chimes, but now that they’d stopped there was no way for me to find out where they were coming from. Just to be safe, I decided to go investigate anyway.

Upon entering the inner parlor, I first examined the grandfather clock. As expected, there was nothing to detect. It towered in the darkness, the tock, tock, tock of its hands echoing off the walls. The walls. My eye was drawn to them, to the patterns of leaves and petals, to the faces hidden between. A few more flies had accumulated since I’d swept earlier, but nothing else seemed out of the ordinary.

As I returned upstairs, a mewling sound pricked my ears. I recognized my son’s voice instantly, and rushed to his bedroom. I found him sitting up in bed, staring into space as he whimpered.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, switching on the bedroom light.

“It got out.”

I followed his gaze through empty air to the corner of the ceiling. Nothing. Just a wisp of cobweb. “It’s just your imagination,” I told him. “Just the shadows. A trick of the light.” To prove it, I walked over to the corner and waved my hand through the air. “See? There’s nothing here.”

But he wasn’t looking at me. He was staring above my head. Then his eyes slowly fell, as if tracking something as it floated down.

Chills rippled over my skin, an inexplicable dread rising to swallow me. What would I feel when his eyes came to rest on my face? Something settling over my shoulders? No. I was the adult here. I had to show strength for my boy, not cave to juvenile fears.

My son’s head suddenly jerked downward, and he was staring at the floor beneath his bed. “It’s under there, now.”

“Well,” I said, with more bravery than I felt, “let me see if I can flush it out.” As I knelt down to peer under the bed, I added, “So what is it I’m looking for?”

“The one with the bad smile.”

I saw nothing down there, but I made some noise before poking my head back up. “There. All gone.”

“No it’s not.”

I sighed. “Alright then, how about I stay with you until you fall asleep? I could tell you a story?”

He nodded, so I sat on the bed next to him while he laid back down. “Let’s see,” I began. “Once upon a time—”

The bed shook. My son whimpered, and I swallowed whatever noise tried to come out of me. “Don’t worry,” I lied. “That was just me shifting my weight.” I’d lost my train of thought, so I started again. “Once upo—”

This time my son screamed. I felt a very distinct point of impact. Something had hit the box spring from below. The echo of its impact rattled my bones, and I felt sick.

“Daddy, make it stop!”

But I couldn’t. There was a third thump, and then a scratching sound. Fabric tearing. Springs rattling. Wood cracking. Something was under there, and it was digging its way up!

I grabbed my son and yanked him out of bed. Setting him down, I ordered, “Go to mommy and stay there!” He ran out of the room and I stayed behind, ready (no I wasn’t, who am I trying to kid?) to face whatever would come through the mattress. The blankets bulged, were thrown off the bed. I braced myself to see a ghastly form pulling itself out of a ragged hole, dragging scraps of cloth and wood splinters in its wake. What I actually saw was…nothing. The bedsheets settled, and the mattress remained whole and unharmed.

I stared at the bed in disbelief. I heard something claw its way through the box spring, rip its way through the mattress. Blankets didn’t just toss themselves into the air! Something had thrown them, but what?

I backed away from the bed, creeping toward the door. I didn’t want to stay in here any longer. Not in this bedroom, not in this house. The charm of its strangeness had worn off. I turned to leave my son’s room.

The door slammed shut in my face. It hit me in the nose, and I smelled blood before landing on my back on the floor. At first I saw double, then I saw nothing.

I woke up in the inner parlor; I recognized the wallpaper instantly. My wife was there. So was our son. She sat reading a book by the fire while he played with his toys on the floor. They looked so normal, like we hadn’t just had the most terrifying night of our lives. “What happened?” I asked.

My wife didn’t respond at all. Didn’t even glance up from her book. My son, however, turned his head toward me and stared.

“What’re you looking at, kid?”

Panic surged through me. That was my voice, but I hadn’t spoken. My son pointed at me, I heard footsteps, then I stepped into view.

Me. My skin, my clothes, my face. I was looking at myself.

“Just a trick of the light,” the thing with my skin said. It patted my son’s head, then looked directly at me. Smiled. And it was a very bad smile.

James Colton

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