Nightmare Magazine

Dystopia Triptych banner ad

Advertisement

Fiction

Wallers

The day her mother brought Mr. Nelson home, Martha faded into the wallpaper. It seemed the safest thing to do. Martha had never met Mr. Nelson, but she had met the others, and she knew what they could do to her. Had done to her. And her mother. It was possible that this one was different, but Martha did not want to take that chance.

“Martha?” called out her mother. She was clinging to Mr. Nelson’s arm, Martha saw, and swaying a little. Just as she had with the others. “Martha?”

“Martha?” repeated Mr. Nelson.

Definitely just like the others.

“She must be at a friend’s,” Martha’s mother said, swaying again. “She does this sort of thing. I wish she’d text me.”

I don’t have a phone, Martha thought, but didn’t say, because her mouth was covered in wallpaper.

Mr. Nelson’s eyes narrowed. “Something up with your walls?”

“What?”

“Never mind.” His teeth gleamed in the lamplight. “Not the walls that I’m interested in.”

Martha’s mother giggled.

As they went into Martha’s mother’s bedroom, a flower fell from the wallpaper.

Martha didn’t try to pick it up.

• • • •

Sink into the waiting wall,
waiting wall, waiting wall,
Do it right, you won’t fall,
you won’t fall, you won’t fall.
Do it wrong, you will break,
you will break, you will break—
Don’t make even one mistake—
one mistake, one mistake—
How many did Sally make?

—Jump rope rhyme collected from Georgia, early 21st century.

• • • •

The worst thing—other than the wallpaper, which was sticky and warm and miserable—was that Mr. Nelson had a place of his own. A place he wouldn’t stop talking about. With a much better TV—Martha’s mother hadn’t bothered to update to a smart TV with 4D and all that, even though Martha had asked and asked—much bigger bathrooms, plural, one of which had a spa bathtub and a separate shower, plus a balcony that overlooked a golf course.

“I can’t,” Martha’s mother kept saying.

“But why?”

“Martha.”

The ceiling lights flickered.

“Uh huh.”

The ceiling lights flickered again.

• • • •

The phenomenon, initially described by Edward Turner Hudson in 1884, and again by Carl Mutenfering in 1904, has proven impossible to replicate in laboratory and other settings, and has therefore been relegated to the status of an urban legend. Nonetheless, a few scholars continue to gather reports of so-called wallers. Most involve abused or otherwise traumatized children; a few isolated cases appear to have happened in outwardly happy homes.

• • • •

The second worst thing—or the third worst, really, thinking of the wallpaper—was the food. Martha usually took money out of her mother’s purse and kept herself fed on fast food, but now, with Mr. Nelson around whenever her mother was around, that was impossible. Mr. Nelson brought plenty of takeout, but he also ate plenty of takeout, and conscientiously took all of the leftovers out to the building dumpster every morning on his way to work or his home, before Martha could creep out of the wallpaper and snatch some.

That left only the flowers and leaves in the wallpaper. They were dry, and tasteless, but she could not stop licking them, and sometimes even nibbling on the edges, leaving holes in the flowers and leaves. Which, naturally, Mr. Nelson complained about. “Who designs a wallpaper that looks like something’s been eating it?”

Martha’s mother yawned. “Probably just the cheapest thing at the hardware store.”

“Well, with a pattern like this, it would be.” His eyes narrowed. “Does it ever seem different to you?”

“The wallpaper. Like—like it’s more eaten or something.”

“No.”

The lights flickered.

“You really should call the landlord.”

“Later,” said Martha’s mother. “Let’s go to bed.”

“Heard from the kid yet?”

“She’s fine.”

She’s hungry, thought Martha, but the wallpaper still covered her mouth.

• • • •

Jill needed bones to make a cake,
If Jill had thirty cakes to bake
How many people did Jilly take?

—Jump rope rhyme collected from Florida, early 21st century.

• • • •

Mr. Nelson opened up all the windows and the door to let as much light in as possible. Then he pulled out his measuring tape, checking the distance between every flower and leaf in the wallpaper from the floor and the ceiling and noting it in his paper notebook and on his tablet, and tapping regularly on the wall.

This made things difficult for Martha. She was tired, and hungry, and she had to keep creeping away from Mr. Nelson before he tapped her, and because she was tired and hungry, she couldn’t creep well, which meant that she kept shaking the leaves and the flowers, making Mr. Nelson’s eyes even more hard and narrow. He measured again and again, and tapped even harder, and Martha had to try very hard not to cry.

• • • •

Wallers and faders have been blamed for lost keys, electrical and plumbing problems, and even murder and other crimes. In one notorious case, accused drug dealer Jeffrey Kent claimed that the six pounds of cocaine found in his wall “must’ve been put there by one of those fading kids. You know them!” Kent produced documentation showing that his house had had electrical problems for three years, and blamed faders for making all his girlfriends “vanish.” He was sentenced to a seven year prison term.

• • • •

“I got the most disturbing message at work today,” Martha’s mother said. “From the school. They say they haven’t seen Martha. Can you believe this?”

Mr. Nelson photographed more flowers and grunted. “I haven’t seen her.”

“That’s different,” said Martha’s mother.

“How.”

“Well.” Martha’s mother opened a can of beer. “She might want to avoid you. But she loves school.”

I hate school, Martha thought, but the wallpaper kept that thought safely silent.

“You gonna do anything about it?”

“Well, I think they’re the ones that need to do something,” Martha’s mother said.

• • • •

When her mom went to detox
Carrie went into a box
All they found were pairs of socks—
Yellow, red and white and blue—
And now the box wants to eat you!

Children’s chant, collected in the state of Alabama, early 21st century

• • • •

“There,” Mr. Nelson said. “Proof.”

“Of what?”

“The flowers are vanishing from the wallpaper. And the leaves are moving. See?”

Martha’s mother looked. “No.”

“It’s right here in the images. Look.”

“What am I looking for?”

“In this one, see, there’s seven flowers—that’s with the first picture I took. And then you can see—right here, see? Look—it’s basically six and a half flowers. Like something’s eating one of them. And then, just five. And now, four.”

“I don’t see it.”

“It’s gotta be some way that the electrical system or the pipes are interfering with the chemicals on the wallpaper.”

“Well. The wallpaper probably is pretty old.”

“Not that old.”

Martha’s mother got up and went to the kitchen, coming back with two beers, handing one to Mr. Nelson.

“You do see it, right?”

“See what?”

“Right there!”

Mr. Nelson pointed directly at Martha.

And then his jaw dropped.

• • • •

The ability to fade and become a “waller” is not said to be a natural one. It must be taught. Precisely how it can be taught—given that those with the skill are presumably locked inside walls, and mostly invisible—is an unanswered question, though some accounts claim a whisper network among children passes along the chant needed to allow a “waller” to enter a wall and fade.

• • • •

Martha realized she had done something very wrong—terribly wrong—because Mr. Nelson was looking right where she was standing, one leg on each side of the electrical outlet. And then he was lunging towards her, beer in one hand. She tried to move, tried to run, but her legs and arms were still tangled in the flowers and vines, and her skin was still sticky, and all she could manage was an inch or two before Mr. Nelson reached her, grabbing her arm. Martha tried to step back, but the vines held her legs, and she stumbled, falling down. Something heavy and hard fell on top of her: Mr. Nelson, who had not let go, and was now in the wallpaper with her. She tried to kick, but the vines held her tight, and Mr. Nelson was heavy, so heavy.

“What the hell?” said Martha’s mother, from what sounded very far away.

But Martha couldn’t answer. Her mouth was still filled with wallpaper. Cracking sounds came from above, and then something hit her, and then she felt something else, something cold and wet, followed by a crackling sound, and then another crackling sound, and then scream after scream after scream.

Mr. Nelson was still on top of her when it stopped.

• • • •

Are they permanently trapped? Here again, our accounts vary. Many claim that, once mastered, the skill allows wallers to enter and leave whenever they wish. Others contend that the longer faders remain in the wall, the harder it is for them to leave—until they no longer can. This inability is often used to explain accounts of poltergeists and similar inexplicable rapping and tapping sounds, as well as long marks inside walls that—say some observers—resemble the claw marks left by human fingernails. A few stories report that this depends upon the nature of the wall, with walls made from natural wood and stone providing easy access, but walls formed of manufactured drywall and wallpaper eventually trapping faders, until they end up slowly starving to death—or, in some legends, drawing others into the wall for sustenance.

• • • •

Mr. Nelson hadn’t moved, and her mother hadn’t moved, and Martha was hungry and thirsty and desperately needed a bathroom, and everything felt sticky and awful. Her nose was filled with scraps of wallpaper and glue and something nauseatingly sweet and acrid and sulfurous.

The knock on the door seemed very far away.

“Hello?” she heard. “Hello? Cypress Middle School system.”

• • • •

Five little monkeys waiting in the wall
One fell down and broke his head
Four little monkeys waiting in the wall
One fell down and bled and bled
Three little monkeys waiting in the wall
One fell down on a pipe of lead
Two little monkeys waiting in the wall
One’s just hanging on a thread.
One little monkey waiting in the wall
Trying not to become dead
.

—Variant of a popular nursery rhyme, collected in Texas, early 21st century.

• • • •

By the time the new renters moved in, Martha had eaten all of the flowers and half the leaves from the remaining old wallpaper. It made her almost glad to see them.

“What happened to the last two pieces of pizza that I put in the fridge?” asked one of the new renters the next morning.

No one answered her.

“Well?”

More silence.

“Sophie. I asked you a question.”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you lying to me, Sophie?”

The child did not answer.

“Because you know that I don’t like liars.”

“I don’t know.”

“You are lying to me.” The woman stepped away from the fridge, moving towards Sophie. “I’m not the only one who doesn’t like liars, you know. No one else does either.”

“Day one, and the internet is out already. Of course,” said the man.

The woman reached into one of the many open but unpacked boxes in the kitchen, pulling out a long orange ruler.

“Because liars are awful people, Sophie,” said the woman, moving forward with the ruler. “You don’t want to be an awful person, do you?”

“Oh, for sake, Salome.”

“You know I don’t want to do this,” said the woman. “She makes me do this.”

“I gotta get to someplace with working internet,” said the man.

“See you later,” said the woman. “Love ya.” She turned back to Sophie. “Now, let’s talk about that pizza. No wonder you don’t have any friends.”

I’ll be your friend, Sophie, thought Martha.

The ceiling lights flickered.

Enjoyed this story? Consider supporting us via one of the following methods:

Mari Ness

Mari Ness worships chocolate, words and music, in no particular order. Her work has previously appeared in Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons and several other publications, including previously here in Nightmare. Her poetry novella, Through Immortal Shadows Singing, is available from Papaveria Press. She lives in central Florida. For more, check out her occasionally updated blog at  marikness.wordpress.com, or follow her on Twitter at mari_ness.