Rebecca Montez was in a library. It was only to be expected, after all. She had been haunting the library ever since she had first learned about the Society of Feminist Literature, a group formed to fight patriarchy in novels. And now here she was.
The library was pleasant enough with large airy windows to let in plenty of light. Books lined the honey-colored shelves, home to great big fat tomes and slim paperbacks. Rebecca wandered amongst the shelves, letting her fingers lightly skim over the book bindings. Some books were slippery with plastic covers and others were rough to the touch. Inhaling deeply, she savored the scent of the books, a familiar homey smell.
Under one arm, Rebecca cradled a stack of books, books deemed by the Society as needing stronger heroines. She checked her list. The Yellow Wallpaper, it read. Scanning the Gs, she stopped at Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She set her stack of books down on the shelf carefully and pulled the short story off, flipping idly through its pages. It was a rather battered copy, with some sort of jelly-like substance smeared over the last few pages.
The Yellow Wallpaper was going to be her first mission. As a brand new agent, she would be jumping in and changing the course of the story line. In the case of The Yellow Wallpaper, she would be escaping from her husband before succumbing to the delusions that the protagonist had faced. Jumping could be dangerous, of course. If an agent couldn’t complete their mission, they could get trapped in a story until a fellow agent staged their rescue. True, agents in trouble could flee to designated safe houses, but they were only meant to be used as a last resort.
Rebecca checked her list again. Yes, The Yellow Wallpaper was the last book she needed. She wound her way through the nonfiction section, approaching the librarian’s desk. She dumped her stack of books on it unceremoniously.
“I’d like to check these out,” she said to the librarian, an elderly woman with snowy white hair in waves around her face.
“Excellent,” the woman said. “May I please see your library card?”
Rebecca fumbled in her too-large purse for her card, a flimsy thing made of purple plastic. It had the words Seagull Gulf Library emblazoned on the front. She pulled it out triumphantly after a few moments of rooting around in her purse.
“Here it is.” She presented it to the elderly woman. The woman scanned her card, returning it to Rebecca.
“You must be an agent for the Society,” she said. “I saw your badge.”
All active agents were required to wear badges like the one Rebecca was wearing. It was a practical rule: when pressed, the badges emitted a holograph, one that was complete with an extensive database. Agents could search for guidelines and tips on it.
“Yes, I’m an agent,” Rebecca confirmed.
“Well, good luck,” the librarian said, smiling conspiratorially at her. Rebecca thanked her, flashing a smile at her before grabbing her stack of books. She walked towards the sturdy wooden door, nudging it open with her foot.
Blinking at the too-bright sun, she made her way to the train station, hopping over puddles and dodging goose droppings.
The train station was crowded. Strangers dotted the platform. At platform 3, she joined a businessman wearing a suit and a young mother with her three whiny, sticky children. She waited impatiently for the train to arrive, tapping her foot on the cement. Tap-tap. Tap-tap.
Finally the train flashed into view. It steamed to a stop, and the doors opened automatically, in a graceful movement. Rebecca crowded forward with the businessman and the young mother, finding a window seat.
She stared out of the window as the train pulled forward, the sights of Boston streaming past her eyes. They passed the Boston Common, a park carpeted with riotous pink, orange, and yellow wildflowers, then they flashed by the quaint brick row houses of Beacon Hill. Victorian and Federal-style brick houses streamed past. If it were night, they would be illuminated by antique lanterns, but during the daylight they were simply charming houses.
The train finally reached Rebecca’s stop. She slipped down the staircase to the sidewalk, re-adjusting the books in her arms to a more comfortable position. A sign welcomed her to her housing complex, Meadowcrest. She meandered past it towards her apartment, enjoying the bright sunshine filtering down. At last she reached her front door, recognizable by its peeling yellow paint. Balancing her library books on her hip, she fished in her purse for her key. She found it and jiggled it in the lock, the door swinging open to the cool darkness within.
She made it to the couch before she collapsed. The books she let drop to the floor, where they landed, spread-eagled. So much for avoiding library fines, Rebecca thought.
It had been a long day. She rubbed her forehead, feeling the beginning of a headache coming on. There was a prickling feeling behind her eyes that didn’t bode well.
Sighing, she bent down and retrieved The Yellow Wallpaper. Flipping it over to read the blurb on the back, Rebecca learned that it had first been published in 1892. She skimmed the story, taking mental notes as the plot progressed and the climax drew ever closer.
Satisfied with her skimming, she returned to the first page of the novel. Jumping was surprisingly easy: all she had to do was read the first line of the book out loud, imagining herself in the world it created.
Rebecca read aloud, “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral homes for the summer…”
She closed her eyes and pictured the ancestral home in vivid detail.
When she opened her eyes again, she found herself standing in front of a large, colonial mansion, one that seemed a bit neglected. Dandelion globes dotted the front lawn, and a large and shady garden sprawled over the grounds to the east. In the distance, she could see a greenhouse with cracked glass.
A man stood next to her, of middling height, with closely-cropped dark hair and piercing brown eyes that seemed too shrewd by half.
John. This must be the main character’s husband. No, he was Rebecca’s husband now.
No sooner than she’d had the thought than she shook herself free of it, feeling unnerved. It felt strange to take the place of the main female protagonist.
“Don’t be silly, my dear,” John was saying to her in a low baritone voice. “There is nothing the least bit queer about the house.”
“Don’t you think that it’s a bit odd that it was let to us so cheaply?” Rebecca asked, by rote. It was a line straight from the manuscript and she immediately regretted saying it. She was here to change the story, not copy it directly. The Society would not approve, of that she was quite certain.
“There’s nothing the least bit odd about the house,” John countered. “You know that I am a physician and don’t hold with such superstitious nonsense! … Now, let’s think more cheerful thoughts, and get you up to the house, shall we?”
It was more of a command than a question. He took her arm, tucking it beneath his.
Play along for now, Rebecca thought. Wait until he least expects it, and then make your escape. So she followed John inside, gaping at the large foyer, her steps echoing eerily in the vast space. He showed her through a side door that opened up to a twisting set of stairs, and they ascended to the second floor.
“Here we are,” he said proudly. He opened the door, ushering her inside.
“You need to get some rest,” he said. “And remember what I told you: absolutely no writing. I fear it is making your temporary depression—your slight hysterical tendency—much worse.”
Rebecca was starting to detest her new husband. “I will do as I please,” she said, snappily.
“Are you quite well?” John asked, as if her irritation were some kind of classifiable disease, a disease that he could cure. “If you get too hysterical, we’ll have to ship you off to an asylum, shan’t we?” His tone was half-joking, but it was a threat nevertheless, with just the slightest edge of malice to his voice. She gulped. There was no way she would be able to survive in a Victorian-era mental institution.
“All right,” she promised, “No writing.”
“Good! Now that we’ve got that settled, I’ll leave you to rest,” John said.
His steps receded down the hallway. She waited with baited breath, until she was certain he was gone. Then she slipped out of her room and found her way outside. The risk was high, but it was part of her mission. She needed to escape, to find her own way in the story.
She explored the grounds, her heart beating erratically in her chest. What if John found her before she was able to make her getaway? The nearest village was supposed to be three miles off. But in which direction? There were no clues to be found in the large, boxed garden. She was just about to press her badge and call up the Society’s database when her musings were interrupted.
“What in GOD’S name are you doing out here?” a furious voice shouted at her from behind.
It was John, of course, and his face was thunderous.
“I told you to get some rest,” he said, through gritted teeth. “And yet here you are blatantly disregarding my commands. You are my wife and I expect you to obey me. No, don’t say a word. Come back to the bedroom.”
Rebecca froze, her mind spiraling. She had to be careful. One wrong step, and she’d be locked away forever. But she didn’t want to come off as pathetic and weak, either.
John broke the spell, grabbing her by the arm and dragging her forcibly along behind him. She struggled, kicking him, but his grasp was as strong as steel. He dragged her all the way to the bedroom, where he finally released her.
“In!” he commanded.
Her heart was still beating like a rabbit’s in her chest. Her hands felt clammy and damp, and she wiped them nervously on her dress.
She stumbled into the room. To her horror, she heard the sound of a lock clicking and the deadbolt being drawn behind her. She was locked in.
Her immediate thought was to tie the bed sheets together and escape out of the window.
But the window was barred, barely allowing any sunlight to enter into the room. It must have been a nursery at some point, she thought.
It felt like a prison.
She turned her attention to the rest of the room. A mahogany writing desk stood pushed up against the far wall. It was the only furniture in the room, save the two beds. There was not much else in the room besides the infamous wallpaper. It was a hideous yellow, featuring an endless, dizzying pattern of unblinking eyes. And it was torn, too—great strips of it hung all around the writing desk.
Rebecca shook herself. Studying the wallpaper had led the protagonist down a tragic path. She refocused her attention on the writing desk, opening the top drawer and wincing as it rattled. She didn’t want to alert John to what she was up to. The drawer contained an inkwell, a quill, and paper.
It was as if fate were tempting her.
Some time later, she had poured out her frustrations in large, looping letters. She had found it hard to resist commenting on the wallpaper since there was not much else to describe in the room: The wallpaper is a repellant shade of yellow, and the eyes! The eyes are horrifying to behold, multiplying like monsters, she wrote.
Rebecca shivered, recalling the disturbing ending of The Yellow Wallpaper. She must not allow the wallpaper to get to her. But there was something fascinating about the lurid yellow pattern, something that caught her attention and held it, dangerous like trapped lightning.
It was the only interesting thing in the room.
Days passed, then weeks, and there was little chance of escape. John’s sister Jennie brought meals to her, meticulously locking the door behind her.
If only she hadn’t been caught out on the grounds, she would have had the freedom to explore, to find out which way led to the village. In the original story, the protagonist had gone on walks through the garden. But she—Rebecca—had lost her husband’s trust. She couldn’t help but wonder if it was a fatal mistake, that she would be trapped in the room with the yellow wallpaper forever.
She tried to adjust, tried to acclimate herself to living within the same four walls day in and day out, but the longer she stayed trapped in the bedroom, the more the wallpaper started preying on her mind. It had started with her seeing row after row of eyes in the pattern, but now she could see the outline of a formless figure skulking behind the wallpaper, desperately seeking some escape.
Poor thing. She was just as stuck as Rebecca was.
She found herself addressing the figure out of sheer loneliness. John and Jennie flitted in and out of her life like fireflies, but the woman in the wallpaper was always there, a constant companion. For the figure was a woman, of that she was quite certain.
“At least you get out at night,” she said. “I’m trapped in here all day and all night—for my own good, of course,” she added sarcastically. She didn’t get a response, but then she wasn’t expecting one.
The mysterious figure was constantly creeping, seeking escape from her paper prison. Sometimes Rebecca caught her movements out of the corner of her eye, the crawling figure clawing at the wall. She felt a bit frightened of her, but she also felt a sense of kinship. They belonged together, she and the figure behind the wallpaper.
She didn’t tell John about it, of course. He would only scoff at her, tell her that her imagination was running wild. She didn’t want to give him any other reason to keep her locked up.
She had almost given up on the thought of escape. It seemed improbable, even downright impossible. The only way out of her prison would be to physically attack John or Jennie.
But she was getting desperate enough to try.
One evening, she hid behind the heavy bed, holding the inkwell in her hand. The woman behind the wallpaper was creeping as usual. Creep, creep, crawl, she went. Rebecca could hear John’s booted feet on the stairs, taking them two at a time. And then the door creaked open, and he was standing there in the doorway. She leapt up, inkwell in hand, and bludgeoned him over the head with it, knocking him unconscious. Her heart clattering against her ribs, she tore down great swathes of the wallpaper, liberating the creeping woman in the wall once and for all.
“Be free,” she whispered, then hurriedly left the room.
She slipped down the stairwell as quietly as she could manage. It wouldn’t do to alert Jennie to her escape. She reached the great entryway, hugging the walls. She didn’t feel safe in open areas.
When she reached the grounds, she pressed her badge and called up the Society’s database. There was a faint humming sound and then the transparent blue database popped up. “Direction of village in The Yellow Wallpaper,” she typed in the search bar. The circle on the database spun. Ding! The database illuminated the path she should take, bathing it in a reddish glow.
She closed the database and began walking down the path it had indicated. It was raining, ice cold water that slid down her collar. The mud sucked at her feet, and she made slow progress on the twisting trail.
But she didn’t stay on the path long. John may be stirring already, and he would certainly search for her on an established route. So she took to the underbrush, her feet squelching in the mud as she weaved her way through the trees. She walked and she walked, the same, intermittent rain sluicing down on her. She was soon drenched, with twigs and leaves caught in her tangled hair.
She pressed on.
Dusk fell, bathing the world in shadow.
She called up the database again. Her heart sinking, she realized that she had gotten turned around somehow in the sea of trees. The village was to the east, still a mile away. All around her were thick, gnarled trees, forming a dense canopy overhead. Drip, drip. The sound of dripping water was enough to make anyone go mad, she thought, irritably.
She needed to rest. She found a log spongy with moss, and sat down gratefully on it. It was unpleasant and damp, but at least she was off her feet. Brightly colored mushrooms poked up out of the mud, and there was a smell of rotting wood in the air.
She took stock of her situation. She was free, but deep in the heart of the woods, with no outdoor survival skills. She didn’t know how to start a fire, how to form a shelter to keep her warm and dry. Normally, as a Society agent, she’d be trained in these sorts of things, but she had skipped the outdoor survival skills class in college, opting instead for an interior design class. She stifled a laugh at her own expense. How ironic, knowing how fascinating she’d found her prison’s wallpaper!
But she quickly sobered. What was her next move? For once in her life, her mind failed her. She was so cold and wet—
She froze, in the middle of her complaints. Had she just heard a twig breaking? And were those lights bobbing like lanterns in the distance?
She had to hide.
The imperative need sent blood rushing through her veins, her heart thumping.
She pulled herself up into a tree, clumsily. Twigs snapped off, sprinkling to the ground and alerting her pursuers to her presence.
The group of grim-faced men held their lanterns up, casting shadows across their faces. They caught sight of her standing frightened in the tree in her stained and torn dress. John was among them, of course.
“Little goose,” he said to her tenderly. “I am here to save you. You’ve given us all quite a scare! Now, why don’t you just climb down from there, carefully, carefully.”
Rebecca felt herself slipping from her perch against her will. She crashed to the ground in a shower of twigs. Soft pine needles cushioned her fall, and she rolled forward to avoid any injuries. But before she could struggle to her feet, there was John, grabbing her arm with a grip like iron.
“Come, the carriage is waiting,” he said, as if they were having afternoon tea, or a jolly picnic. He had a large goose bump on his forehead from where she had smashed the inkwell.
She twisted free of his grasp and elbowed him below the ribs, following it up with a powerful punch to his face. His head snapped back, and his nose began gushing blood. It flowed onto the forest floor, a dull reddish-brown that blended in with the brown pine needles.
One of the men, a bearded giant, grabbed her arm and twisted it behind her back. Hot spikes of pain shot up her arm.
“This is for your own good,” the bearded man said, shepherding her inexorably forward. Rebecca knew when a fight was over, and this one was. She gave up struggling, allowing the man to push her towards the estate through the dripping, melancholy trees. She stumbled occasionally, her foot caught on a root or a loose stone, but the bearded man showed no sign of mercy and pressed on. They walked for what seemed like miles before the trees gradually thinned and they reached the soaring columns of the mansion.
A black carriage stood in the drive, a sinister sight that made the blood in Rebecca’s veins turn to ice.
“What—what is the carriage for?” Rebecca asked, hating how frightened she sounded.
“You’ve gone quite mad, I’m afraid,” her husband said. “You attacked me entirely unprovoked. And you’ve torn down great sheaths of that pleasant yellow wallpaper.”
“It isn’t pleasant,” Rebecca muttered under her breath. She needed to focus on trivialities to keep her mind off the horror of what was happening to her.
John forced her into the carriage. It was a dark, small space, claustrophobic, even. She felt trapped like an animal.
“Please,” she begged. “Let me come home.” There were tears trickling down her face. If only John would show her some mercy. But there was a hardness in his eyes.
“To the asylum,” he said. “Take her away.”
The coachman whipped his horses, the carriage jolting forward.
Rebecca sat with her fingers twisted in her lap, her mind racing. Surely, surely there was still some way to escape. She would have to knock the coachman unconscious; there was no way around it. Left to himself, he would deliver her to the asylum, and she wasn’t about to give up her freedom so easily. Her hands balled in fists, ready for a fight.
But the carriage went on and on, splashing through the mud. And to make matters worse, ice cold rain came slanting in through the windows, soaking Rebecca to the bone. She shivered, her wet dress clinging to her. She wondered how long they had left to go, and if she’d catch a chill and die before they made it to their destination. It was a foolish, dramatic thought, but it flitted in her head before she could stop it.
Bump! Suddenly, the carriage wheels hit a rock and she was jolted forward, out of her seat. She caught herself just in time before smashing her chin on the opposite side. The carriage ground to a shuddering stop, her door popping open a crack. She could hear the creaking of the coachman as he swung down from his perch, then the sound of squelching mud as he walked around the carriage, inspecting the damage.
This was her chance.
She inched her carriage door open, stepping down straight into a mud puddle. So much for keeping her feet dry, she thought. She could hear the coachman on the opposite side of the carriage, cursing under his breath as he examined the state of the damage. She bent down and scooped up a smooth, flat rock, speckled like granite. It was slippery in her hands. She waited breathlessly for what seemed like eons, ticking off the seconds as her heart beat too fast.
Finally she could hear the coachman approaching, the steady stream of curses getting louder. She sprang towards him as he turned the corner, rock in her hand.
“Bloody hell!” he exclaimed, before she hit him over the head with it. He dropped to the ground. Rebecca checked his pulse. His heart was still beating, and his chest was moving up and down. He was alive. She let out a sigh of relief, letting her heart rate return to normal.
Once her heart had slowed down, Rebecca could let the cold, hard truth sink in: she had failed in her mission. She had seen the figure in the wallpaper, lost track of reality. And worse, the village would no longer be the refuge that she had thought it would be. John had seen to that, banding the villagers together against her. Soon the coachman would revive and send a search party after her, hunting her down like an animal.
There was no way to return home without help. Normally, when an agent had completed her mission, she would automatically be sucked back into her own time and reality. But Rebecca had failed her mission and she wouldn’t be able to return that way.
She needed help from another agent.
She pressed her badge reluctantly and a holograph shimmered in front of her. It was the database. She deliberated whether or not to push the red button at the center of the screen, signaling to headquarters that she needed an agent to come rescue her. Her stomach twisted in knots just thinking about it. She wasn’t ready to admit defeat. It was her first mission and she didn’t want it to be a failure. But she needed the help.
Finally she tapped the screen. A message flashed on the screen. Agent 102C has been notified of your request, it read. If able, please seek haven in your story’s safe house.
It was done.
She felt a little dizzy, and she had to steady herself against the carriage until the spell passed. After a few moments, she felt ready to face the world again. She peeled herself off from the carriage. The holograph was still up in front of her, a translucent blue color. It would help her pinpoint the exact location of the safe house. She typed in the search bar: “Safe house in The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Two options popped up, one for the village of Millbanks, close to the sea, and another for Wren, marked as “obsolete.” Right. Millbanks it was, then. She closed the database down. Then she freed the horses, mounting the shorter one and tugging the reins to the right. She clucked for the horse to move forward, towards Millbanks. It broke into an uneven trot, hooves slinging up mud and clumps of grass.
It was a miserable journey. She bounced up and down on the horse, unused to the rhythm of his movements. The rain dripped down, steadily, and there was an occasional growl of thunder in the distance, as if some great beast lay in wait for them. She clenched her teeth and kept going. She could do this. She had to do this.
The road twisted and turned, winding through uneven, rugged land. There were few villages to pass through, just stretches of wilderness that went on and on. The tedious journey was broken up only by the smallest of things: a startled cardinal winging its way past her, a rabbit crossing her path, a log that had fallen over the road.
Dawn was just streaking the sky when she finally reached the outskirts of Millbanks. It was a tiny seafaring village, smelling of sea salt. The villagers openly gaped at her as she rode past them, their gazes hostile.
The safe house was located at the end of the row, a ramshackle shack that reeked of fish. Gratefully, she tumbled down from her horse and tried the door. Locked! She felt a kind of hysterical laugh bubble up in her throat. Of course. Of course the safe house would be locked.
Used to extreme measures by now, she picked up a stone from the street, throwing it through a window and shattering the glass. She climbed through the window, shards of glass tinkling to the floor as she slid to the flagstone floor.
The interior of the safe house was disguised as a fisherman’s hut, with great nets tangled on the floor and wooden paddles propped up against the wall. There was even a rowboat hanging from the rafters, wood rotting, by the look of it. But it was warm and dry, and that was all that mattered. Rebecca sank to the floor, wet and sore, and above all, exhausted. Her eyelids were heavy and they fluttered shut, and then shut again and again. Finally, she slept, her head lolling against the rough walls.
She awoke with a start. The door was rattling, as if someone were trying to break in.
Frightened, Rebecca grabbed one of the paddles, poised to strike the intruder as soon as they barged in.
The door swung open swiftly, almost violently, and a dark-haired woman came striding in, lugging a machine behind her. It was silver, all gleaming knobs and buttons.
“Society business,” the woman said briskly. “I had to pick the lock,” she said, conversationally, as if Rebecca wasn’t holding a paddle in her hand, ready to strike her.
Rebecca relaxed, letting her grip on the paddle loosen.
“Fellow Society agent,” she said, by way of introduction. “My mission went awry.”
“I can see that,” the woman said baldly, not mincing words.
“I couldn’t jump back home,” Rebecca said. “The mission was compromised, so I couldn’t return using traditional means.”
“Well, thank goodness we can get you home manually,” the dark-haired woman said. She gestured at the machine, which was humming softly, buttons blinking red in the semi-darkness of the room.
“Allow me to demonstrate,” the woman said.
She pushed a series of buttons, the machine beeping softly. Then she twisted a silver knob, disappearing into thin air.
It was Rebecca’s turn.
She stepped forward, her foot wrapping around one of the fishing nets lying on the floor. Her palms slick with sweat, she pushed the first few buttons that the dark-haired woman had pressed. The dratted net was irritating her, like a fly she couldn’t swat. She tried to untangle her foot, but instead she stumbled forward, accidentally hitting a blinking red button. It read “RESET” in neat black letters.
There was a roaring noise, like the surf pounding on a rocky shore. She closed her eyes, bracing herself for impact. Nothing happened. She cracked one of her eyes open, discovering that she was trapped behind the all-too familiar yellow wallpaper. She looked out at the room where she had spent so much of her imprisonment. There was the mahogany writing desk pushed up against the wall, and the two heavy beds carved from walnut.
She tried to take a step forward into the room, thinking she could break through the wallpaper. But it held her back with the strength of steel. Desperately, she began clawing at it, hoping to tear it down. Her fingers scrabbled against it, unable to find any purchase. She was caught like an insect in amber, totally helpless. A scream formed in her throat.
The door creaked open.
John stepped through, his boots clattering against the wooden floor. He led a young woman in by the wrist. Her reddish-brown hair swung down past her waist. She had pale, freckly skin, and she was as thin as a rail.
Rebecca felt a jolt of recognition. It was her fellow agent, Eleanor Kravinsky. The reset button must have signaled for another agent to begin a mission in The Yellow Wallpaper. If only she could reach Eleanor, could warn her of the dangers she faced.
“You need to get some rest,” Rebecca heard John saying to Eleanor, as if from some distant shore, his words rolling over her like a tidal wave. He continued speaking, but she couldn’t make out the individual words.
He left the room, leaving Eleanor to her own devices. She gave the wallpaper a cursory glance, coolly taking in the endless pattern of eyes.
Rebecca tried to reach out to her with supplicating hands.
But no matter how she clawed and tore at her wallpaper prison, she remained trapped behind it. She was helpless like a newborn babe.
Courtney DePottey earned her bachelor’s degree in English literature at Northern Michigan University. She is new to crafting fiction, and is excited to embark on an adventure into the writing world.