“Wallpaper” won the SB Literary Journal Phantastic Fiction Award at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference 2019 and is featured in the forthcoming Santa Barbara Literary Journal Vol. 4.
by Jesse Krenzel
When Jason Brown bought the old house in Bounty, California, he knew all about its many problems, all but one.
The heirs welcomed his low-ball offer for the old, water-damaged white craftsman due to their father’s bloody suicide there months earlier. When Jason’s research uncovered the property and the relevant facts, he pounced on the chance to turn a large profit with a small renovation. Shortly after the purchase, he arrived in Bounty with his luggage, tools, and one mattress.
Soon the odor of new paint and fresh lumber began to displace the stink of mildew and cigarette smoke. It felt good to work with his hands again, but the long days reminded Jason of how soft he’d grown working as a researcher for ZenTech Properties. His thinning red hair and growing paunch should have been evidence enough, but now the aches in his back and knees drove the point home with new clarity.
The hall bathroom had a shower-tub combo and dated wallpaper that was both bizarre and fascinating. During his frequent pee breaks, Jason faced its repetitious pattern of black-and-white sketched characters in what looked like an 1890s bathhouse. Men with handlebar mustaches, and a woman with hair pinned up in a bun, preened before mirrors and relaxed in great claw-footed tubs. By the third day, Jason found himself focusing on details in the wallpaper pattern. In his favorite scene, the buxom woman climbed out of a bathtub with a towel clutched against the generous curves of her chest. Kind’a hot for old wallpaper. Her curvaceous figure spawned bittersweet memories of Diane Miller back at ZenTech Properties. She’d had a thing for him, but he’d been too busy to pursue a relationship at the time. That night, after a tall whiskey, he found her number through a paid Internet service and called.
“Hello?” she said.
“Hi, Diane? It’s me, Jason.”
“Yes, from work.”
Pause. “Oh, Jason-who-got-fired.”
“Yeah, that was nasty of ZenTech, but shit happens. Anyway, I was wondering if you’d like to get together some time. You know, for coffee or something. I’m not far.”
“I heard they sued you for stealing a property lead.”
“Nah, they just say that to keep the other researchers in line.”
“Oh? So, how’d you get my number?”
“I looked it up.”
“That doesn’t really mean much anymore.”
Another pause. “Yeah, well this still feels a little creepy.”
“Oh, come on. It’s just a coffee.”
“Sorry, but I don’t want any trouble at work. I need to go.” Click.
He called again to apologize, but no answer. He shuffled to the bathroom, grumbling, “My research found this house. It’s mine.” He unzipped his pants and let his eyes wander across the wallpaper. All those little men involved in their lives, soaking in their tubs, trimming their mustaches with long-handled scissors, and the woman . . . she was looking straight at him. His heart fluttered. He zipped up and started back to the living room but stopped at the door. The woman’s eyes seemed to track him. He shrugged off the illusion.
That night, a thump in the dark somewhere down the hall woke him. The clock on the floor next to his mattress read 3:00 a.m. He lay awake for a long time after that, thinking about Diane and that crazy wallpaper thing.
The next morning, he shaved, showered, and pondered the woman on the wallpaper. She had four different poses in the pattern: three solo tub scenes and one where she conversed with an indifferent, bare-chested, muscular guy with a big handle-bar mustache. Her expression here seemed different. She frowned and looked at the floor as if he’d told her to drop her towel and get to work, or perhaps to drop his towel and get to work. A pendant hung from her neck. Lettering. L-I-Z. It looked like Liz was being accosted by the muscle man. What the hell was in that artist’s head when he drew that?
When he started his day’s work, Jason found his tools in disarray on the mahogany floor of the living room and his paint-scraper’s razor blades missing. He was still on the hunt when his brother called.
“How’re you holding up?” said Jeff.
“Fine, but I’m working my ass off rehabbing a 70-year old house.”
“Find another job yet?”
“Don’t need one. I’ll make three years’ expenses when I flip this place. Hey, I could use some help tearing out about 300 square feet of wallpaper.”
Jeff laughed. “Sorry, but I’d rather swallow broken glass.” As kids, they both hated removing wallpaper for their father in his contracting business.
In the pause that followed, Jason sensed the approach of the awkward question. “I’m taking my medication, Jeff, in case you were wondering.” A lie, but his brother would find it more comforting than, I quit my psych meds to drink more.
“Alright, alright. So, you’re doing good?”
“Yeah, pretty good, but I could use a girlfriend.”
“True love is always out there, little brother. In your case, you’ll need your laptop and a credit card.”
Jason had a few extra drinks that evening with his frozen pizza. He couldn’t get the sub-zero conversation with Diane out of his head. He’d thought they were friends, and she had a figure just like Liz’s. That’s when he realized that he’d miss that curvy, dot-eyed woman whose images would be scraped to shreds by the weekend.
That night, brushing his teeth, he saw a new detail in his favorite wallpaper image. He looked more closely at Liz stepping out of the bathtub. The towel she held to her chest had slid down a bit, exposing a little arc of darker pigmented skin on each breast. Curvy little Liz was having a nip-slip.
“Jesus, how much did I drink?” he said aloud, first amused, then puzzled. He checked other repetitions of the image in the pattern. All were identical. How could I have missed such an outrageous detail? He noticed that the corners of Liz’s mouth had turned up in a new, seductive little smile. Confused and frightened, he backed out of the room and hurried to his laptop on the kitchen counter. Doubting both his vision and his sanity, he opened his property research file. The oddity of prior owner James Scranton’s suicide by unspecified self-inflicted lacerations had made the death notable in the press. The local Bounty Times obituary said James had inherited the property from his grandmother, E. Granville, a famous occult author in the 1930’s. Jason broke into a sweat as he read the article’s closing sentence three times: At the time of his death, Mr. Scranton was living alone at the family property while remodeling it.
Jason had another drink and considered what to do. Sleep on it, he decided.
But things were even weirder in the morning.
He woke with a pulsing pain in his brain and a fog over his eyes. The aches in his back and knees felt like he’d been beaten. He made his way to the bathroom and swallowed a palmful of aspirin and ibuprofen and splashed cold water on his face. When he felt sufficiently awake, he fully opened his swollen eyes. The nip-slip was gone, but Jason’s relief was short-lived. Now Liz had a rose-colored bruise on her cheek in every image. The redness shouted out from the otherwise colorless black-and-white lines of the pattern. And the line of her delicate mouth had dropped to a painful frown. Someone had struck her, and he knew who.
“You son-of-a-bitch,” he shouted, slamming the flat of his hand against the nearest muscle man’s image. The pain in Jason’s head suddenly had teeth that bit and tore at something behind his eyes. He clawed at muscle-man’s face, but his fingernails were no match for the vinyl wallpaper. A needle-sharp pain shot up his finger as something brittle on the paper went under a nail. Pulling back his hand, he stared dumbly at the blood smeared on the muscleman’s scissors. He thrust his throbbing finger under cold running water at the sink. What the hell am I doing? Have I lost my mind fighting with the wallpaper?
How does "Wallpaper" end? Please read Vol. 4 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal! Jesse Krenzel was a finalist in the 2018 NYC Short Story competition and a previous double finalist in the San Francisco Writer’s Conference Indie Competition. His short stories have appeared in bosque (the magazine) and The Santa Barbara Literary Journal. He is currently completing a science fiction novella based upon one of his earlier published short stories, The Post.