It was bound to happen. It’s called evolution. The kind of thing that, once you hear it, is completely unexpected and also inevitable.
Two teenaged girls who are superheroes—or something like that—wearing costumes made of yellow wallpaper. We’re a literary allusion. If you don’t get it, that’s okay. But also? Look it up.
The suits cover all of our skin. In fact the yellow wallpaper is a kind of second skin. And we have capes. They’re also made out of yellow wallpaper, except thin and gauzy. The capes came last; we willed them into being.
At first glance, the wallpaper looks old, brittle like it was used in a Victorian orphanage—all sad and full of shame and abuse. But look again and it’s ornate with designs that go on and on until, like suicidal lemmings (or suicidal teenagers), the patterns fall off of cliffs (or cut their wrists). It’s an ugly yellow, for sure. Like an infected wound. And sun-faded. It was once brighter, maybe even orange, but that was centuries ago. This yellow wallpaper is alive but ancient. We’re pretty sure that before it was wallpaper it was something else. Maybe dirt or moss.
It has a pattern and a sub-pattern—like everything, if you look closely enough. And both patterns are always moving, changing. Sometimes the pattern is a woman who takes on a shape, bubbling up from the wallpaper on our backs or stomachs, flashing across a thigh. Her face rises like she’s trying to take a breath from the surface of a lake. Sometimes it’s lots of women. Too many to count, they rise and fall and stretch and cry out… The wallpaper is definitely powered by women.
And yeah, the wallpaper isn’t perfect. It’s not here to make us look sexy either—it’s not like Spanx or something. It has scars. Little bleeds and gouges, too, that go past the paste. What superhero hasn’t wanted to claw their way out of their own skin? Still and all, those scars are strong. Maybe the toughest parts of all.
But this isn’t about who we are or what we wear. It’s the story of how we came to be.
Della was the first to find the yellow wallpaper. It started as a spot of new skin on her inner thigh. She knew this spot; there was still a bruise there. It’d been dark purple then blue, now yellow. (She’d had a lot of bruises. She’d showed them to her mother. She told her they were from her mom’s boyfriend. Her mom told her not to lie. Dan’s great. We need him. He’s helping pay this mortgage. You want to lose your grandmother’s house and be out on the street?)
This was the spot where her mom’s boyfriend used his knee to pin her down and open. She once saw wings pinned to a corkboard behind glass—a set of butterfly display cases stacked in a box in her grandparents’ basement. It was what she thought of—wings pinned down and open.
She first saw the new skin in a bathroom stall in the locker room just before gym class. It always smelled like barf and hairspray in there. She could hear girls at the sink. Those girls were gossiping about a party. And a basement. And a girl who maybe had sex with three guys in that basement. Except that girl didn’t have sex with three guys in that basement. I know because I was that girl. Vivi Hernandez-Hennessey.
And when the girls at the sinks, looking in the mirrors, putting on fresh lip gloss, were talking about me having sex, Della knew it wasn’t just sex. She knew it was probably rape. She knew me, a little. We’d been in two classes together English and French, our freshman year. Yes, we were assigned a certain short story about a lady who goes crazy in a room with yellow wallpaper, like a lot of American kids with feminist teachers like Ms. Michaels. Della also remembered the way Madame Demeaux would say, “Oui oui, Vivi,” when I got something right. “Oui, oui, Vivi,” boys would say to me in the halls in weird low voices and then would laugh like it was funny.
But I said no to those boys. Over and over, I said no.
So this story—me and the basement and those boys—was just a sick feeling in Della’s stomach. Something she’d try to forget. And it wasn’t hard because here was this weird spot of new skin. It scared her, but her body scared her a lot those days. The ache of new tits, the hot pain of cramps, blood slipping out, sweaty armpits, dark hair, and most of all how she couldn’t shake the stains left behind where Dan grabbed her—the memory of him on her.
And so the new skin surprised her but also it didn’t. Since he came into her room that night, her body felt like someone else’s body. Like she was a ghost within herself. Like she existed deep down under her own skin. Like she was trapped there—or safe there, deep down. It’s hard to say.
The new skin was pale and almost dusty, yellow within the yellow bruise surrounded by white skin. She touched it and it was like the center of a flower, dusty pollen.
She pulled up her underwear and gym shorts. She decided that she wouldn’t show the new skin to anyone.
I know all this because she would eventually tell me. And I’d tell her. The telling of our stories—of what happened to us—is how we saved ourselves and each other.
When she got home, she wondered if she’d made up the new skin—the way her mom said she made up the story about Dan. (He’s so good to me, to us. Why do you want to ruin things?)
Della lived in a big but super rundown house. It probably was the only house for miles around at one point, but now it’s surrounded by suburban developments. She went to her bedroom, which was on the second floor—there were three floors total—and closed the door. This bedroom used to be her mom’s bedroom. It was strange to think about that. Her mom used to be a teenager in this very spot with these very walls and this very bed. Same mattress. Sometimes even the same sheets. She turned on the bright overhead light—which was the same overhead light—and took off her jeans in front of the full-length mirror.
The new skin had a design. Had that been there in the bathroom stall? She stared at it, hard. And she saw all the things that I already mentioned. But also there were toadstools and they were sprouting and blooming and dying fast — like in time-lapsed photography. She’d seen footage like this in an Earth Science class. The toadstools muscled up, shot stalks, then sent down skirts that were almost lacy. Sometimes they’d frill with gills like bunched up organza. Or puff like risen bread. Or pop out like umbrellas and curled up at the edges. They could turn as they grew, this tiny twirl.
Della pulled her jeans back on and tried to ignore it. She ate dinner—microwaved burritos, alone at the kitchen island. Her mother and Dan were out at a party. They were very social and got invited to everything. Even though her mother didn’t believe Della, she hadn’t had Dan spend the night since Della told her. It felt like an unspoken agreement: You and I will pretend this didn’t happen but I’ll also make sure he doesn’t have access to you again.
Still, she needed a plan, just in case.
She walked upstairs to the third-floor bedroom where her grandmother died. She and her grandmother had been tight. Della and her mom had moved in with her grandmother after her parents divorced when she was eleven years old. Her grandmother had died the year before, when Della was a freshman. She had an illness that made her sick but doctors thought it was all in her head. When she was actually diagnosed, it was too late.
Della stood for a moment in the huge room. There were tons of windows looking out at all those little housing developments. She walked up to one of the windows that faced the bay. It was out there in the distance, looking quiet and still. She opened a window and stuck her head out for a second just to feel the breeze. She touched one of the divots in the house’s exterior. Her grandmother told her there used to be bars on the windows, but they’d been removed a long time ago. When she shut the window, the room felt hushed with heavy carpeting and thick drapes and puffy comforters. It smelled like it still held her grandmother, both life and death. Like sharp and sad and sweet. Della paused for a second, just feeling it all.
She used to get in bed with her grandmother. She slipped under the comforter now and remembered back to all of the stories her grandmother told her—about ghosts and maidens and strange doctors and evil wolfish men. When her grandmother got too tired, Della took over and whispered the stories back to her.
Della looked around, wondering if she could hide in here. She got out of bed and moved to the closet. It was filled with her grandmother’s coats, dresses, slacks, shoeboxes, and photo albums.
She started stacking the shoeboxes high, making everything look a little messier. She created a space between the closest wall and the shoeboxes and pulled a coat off its hanger. She shoved herself into the gap and draped the coat over her head. The coat was wooly, and the small space was hot and dark. She curled up tight.
She could last a long time here. As long as she had to.
Anyway, her mom wasn’t going to bring Dan back here. Della told herself, This is normal! I’m fine! There’s nothing wrong!
To prove how normal this was, she pretended it was a fun place to hang. She looked at Instagram photos, catching up with her classmates’ lives. The junior and senior girls dressed up for prom. A few girls on the soccer team just won All-Conference awards at a ceremony in the cafeteria.
She even saw a picture of me—Vivi Hernandez-Hennessey. I was in a manic state, trying to prove that I was fine, too. I posted pics of me and my dog, Arlo, who is very elderly and slightly blind. And a pic of a birthday cake for my mom. GIFs of my favorite movie and throwbacks from me learning to ride a bike and links to Buzzfeed listicles. Damage control. Distraction. I was trying to tell everyone it’s me—the same girl as before. I was trying to convince them but I was also trying to convince myself.
Della remembered the sick knot in her stomach when the girls were gossiping about me in the bathroom. Oh my God, what a slut! She saw my feed and she knew something was wrong. She recognized something but didn’t want to.
She looked away and, in the glow of her Instagram feed, Della saw a patch of the closet’s wallpaper. Yellow with a pattern on top of a pattern, Victorian, ornate. She saw eyes. Maybe a face? A woman’s face? And toadstools, spooling and turning and popping open and dying. Where did the pattern start? Where did it end?
It matched the pattern on her inner thigh.
This made no sense. The bedroom didn’t have any wallpaper at all. The room was painted plain white. But maybe this entire room had been wallpapered and someone was just too lazy to strip all of it from the closet.
She pushed the coat off her head and turned on her phone’s flashlight. There was only this one section, and it was scratched up, like someone had tried to get it all off but it was impossible so they gave up.
It scared her. She scrambled from the closet, out of the bedroom, and down the stairs.
Della spun around her own bedroom for a little bit. She checked the spot on her inner thigh, the spot of wallpaper—she knew that’s exactly what it was now. It was still there. In fact, it was bigger than before. It got wet and turned a darker shade of yellow. She rubbed it and tried to pick at its edges. It didn’t give or peel. It was thicker, denser than the rest of her skin.
Tougher. She needed to distract herself. She did homework. She tried to sleep but couldn’t. She hoped that her mother would come home alone or text her to say she was staying at Dan’s place. She looked up the difference between mushrooms and toadstools on her phone. Toadstools are thought of as poisonous, and mushrooms can be toxic but are also something you eat, something that can get you high. Mushrooms, like humans, breathe oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, and the mushrooms we see are just the fruiting body, most of the mushroom is underground, hidden from view.
She heard a car in the driveway. The engine turned off immediately. This meant Dan wasn’t idling. He was coming in. If her mother was drunk, she’d pass out and Dan might come into Della’s bedroom.
Della heard them walk into the house. Her mother let out a loud drunk laugh. Della got out of bed, and quietly rushed up the stairs and slipped into her grandmother’s bedroom. She heard Dan and her mother’s voices, loudly sniping at each other. Her mother could be mean when she drank.
Della’s heart thudded. She opened the closet door and restacked the boxes. I’m fine! She felt dizzy and sick. This is normal! I’m okay here! It’ll all go away soon! She squeezed between the boxes and the wall and threw the coat of her head. Everything went still and silent.
She wasn’t sure how much time passed. She pressed her t-shirt into her armpits because she was sweating.
She heard footsteps in the hall.
The closet was dark. She breathed, light and quick, under the thick woolen coat.
She heard Dan in her bedroom. He called her name.
The bathroom door opened. The shower curtain screeched on the pole.
Her mother was out cold because Dan didn’t even try to be quiet. He was drunk, too. Della could tell by the thudding of his footsteps, the way he was throwing his body around. She thought of her grandmother. In her stories, the women didn’t always win out. Sometimes they went crazy. Sometimes they were devoured. Sometimes they threw themselves off cliffs.
Della put one hand on the wallpaper on the closet wall. She touched its feathery edges. She closed her eyes. She rubbed it a bit, as if for luck. She’d been afraid of the wallpaper before, but only because it felt strange and powerful. She knew that the wallpaper was good. She just knew it.
Her grandmother’s bedroom door swung open and popped against the springy doorstop. Dan’s footfalls were padded by the carpeting but, for a moment, she imagined his feet were what was padded, thick and heavy. He was very heavy. (There had been many bruises.)
He grunted as he knelt down to look under the bed. Then he grunted again, getting back up.
She heard him throwing back the long drapes.
Within the closet, Della kept quiet. And she felt a strange sensation spreading across her wrists, her chest, and legs. She knew what was there even in the pitch dark. The wallpaper. It cuffed her arms, it encased her ribs. The places where Dan held her down, pressed against her. She touched the new skin at her wrist. It felt dusty with pollen, like before. And within the small tent of the coat, she could smell the wallpaper. It filled the cocooned space with a scent she could only describe as a color, yellow.
The new skin—again, like time-lapse photography—curled over her collarbones and skittered up her neck. It covered her whole body like a soft, flexible exoskeleton. Except it left holes for her mouth, her nostrils, her eyes. The wallpaper knows never to cover a girl’s eyes, nose, and mouth.
She put her hands on the new skin and felt its restlessness. The yellow wallpaper pattern was ever-changing, alive on her skin. As she moved, ever so slightly, it moved. Supple but tough. As it created itself, it made small clicking noises. It chittered. It had its own small voice.
The handle on the closet door twisted. It was flung wide. The dresses trembled and then the air went still.
Dan was breathless from his hunt.
The closet was dense with static electricity. The wallpaper ticked wildly across her skin.
Dan yanked the hangers and tore down the shoeboxes. He grabbed the coat and pulled it off of her.
And there she was, covered in this kind of second skin, the yellow wallpaper with its restless patterns flitting all over her. She turned her head and looked up at him through the eyeholes. “Jesus,” he said.
He stumbled backward, clawing at the hung dresses, trying to keep his balance. The dresses popped loose from their hangers. He fell to the carpeting.
Della stood up, and the yellow wallpaper, clicking and clicking, moved with her. She knew it would protect her. She knew she was safe. And she felt incredibly powerful.
As she stepped out of the closet, Dan crawled away from her. “What the fuck?” he said. “What the fuck do you want? Who the fuck are you?”
“It’s me. Della. Don’t you recognize me?” There was something about the fit of the yellow wallpaper that made her feel like she was in her own body, made her aware of her own power within her body, and that her body was her own.
“That you? It can’t be. What happened to you?” He was trying to stand up and also reach for the door. But he lurched and tried to catch himself. He looked around the room then, as if seeing something she couldn’t. He fainted, falling to the carpeting. It was a really gentle thud. And Della thought it was such a weird and kind of dainty thing to do, fainting.
She thought about climbing over him and going back to bed. But how would it ever end? And would she always have access to skin like this? Would it recede? Would it come when she needed it, a gift she’d learn to control? She wasn’t sure.
She knew it wasn’t just protective, though. It had a force to it, a currency. She knew it had a lot of power. She knelt down next to Dan. His face was blank, serene. For a second, she could imagine the boy he once was. Was he ever good?
She lifted her hands. They were covered in the yellow wallpaper as units, like mittens. But when she stretched her fingers, the wallpaper generated itself, a fast replication of skin, and suddenly each finger was its own, completely encased.
She leaned over him. She believed, though she wasn’t sure why, that if she put her hands over his nose and mouth, the wallpaper would remain—sealing him shut with its old paste—cutting off his breath.
She didn’t want to do it. But she also did want to do it.
And so, for just a second, she did.
When she pulled her hands back, it was just like she thought it would be—her handprint over his mouth and his nose was cinched shut with yellow wallpaper.
She smelled her grandmother again—yellow. It was so sharp that she looked for her. She almost called out, but then Dan came to. His face contorted. His eyes popped open. He struggled as if he were being held down.
Della backed away. The pale blue weave of the carpet threaded over Dan’s wrists. He tried to jerk forward but he was stitched into place. As his face reddened, the wallpaper holding its seal, the blue carpeting knit itself over his throat, his bobbing Adam’s apple. The carpeting appeared at his jaw, sending a spray of backing over his face, . He looked at Della through the mesh holes. But it was quickly covered in blue carpet, too. He tried to buck and twist but the carpet held him tight. It covered him quickly like a wild living moss.
Soon, there was only a human-shaped form writhing beneath blue carpeting.
The carpeting devoured him.
And then the blue carpeting was flat and still and silent.
Della stood alone in the room, imagining what it must have looked like when it was covered in yellow wallpaper. Still wearing it as a second skin, she grabbed her phone, walked out of the bedroom, down the stairs, and out into the back yard.
She looked up into night sky. Slowly, the wallpaper undid itself, receding back to that small spot on her inner thigh. She opened her Instagram and found my profile—Vivi Hernandez-Hennessey. At that moment, I was in a bathtub with a razor. It was very late at night. It was almost early morning. I hadn’t slept. (I’d stopped sleeping.)
She sent me a message: Do you want to talk? I think I can help.
Julianna Baggott is the author of many novels, including Pure and Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, both New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Her stories, essays, and poems have been published and anthologized widely with appearances in Best American Poetry, Agni, at Tor.com and on NPR. She teaches screenwriting at the Florida State University Film School and is the creator of Efficient Creativity: The Six-Week Audio Series. Follow her on Twitter at @jcbaggott.