Paper: a short story
Laura sighed. Three missed calls and her phone kept vibrating. She blew her nose and answered the call. “What do you want, Mom?”
“Sweetie, don’t talk to me that way.” the speaker crackled. “What happened? I just talked with David and he told me-”
“Seriously? He answered your calls? He’s not answering mine.”
“Yes, and he told me he left. Is that true? You don’t live together anymore? What did you do?”
“Mom! I didn’t do anything. When I woke up this morning he was gone.” Laura whimpered. “He left me a note blaming me for his financial worries. We’ve argued a lot in the last few weeks. He’s still paying the rent but he told me I have to pay the electric bill, so we missed a payment.” She raised her voice. “I couldn’t pay it and he knew that. He told me to get a job even though I can’t handle my studies and work at the same time. One day he was supporting us, no problem, and the next day he had issues with our established agreement. Nothing had changed.” She could no longer hold back the tears. “What did he say I did? What — that I exceeded our grocery budget a few times? You know what? I admit that I prefer not to buy the store brand of certain things, but it’s hardly a luxury when David makes-”
“Sweetie, I’m sorry.” her mother interrupted her, lowering her voice. “I didn’t mean to imply anything like that. He didn’t tell me much. Actually he was pretty short with me. I must have called him ten times before he picked up. He just told me he doesn’t live with you anymore and to quit calling him and then he hung up on me.”
Laura had cried for almost an hour, so, like the tide, the impulse to cry gently subsided and left her numb. Little light came through the window and barely illuminated her small room.
“Laura, are you still there? Sweetie?”
“Yes, Mom.” she muttered.
“Have you eaten? It’s one your time.”
“No.” With a distracted hand Laura fiddled with a relief of a daffodil on the wallpaper. A fuzzy bee sat in its corona, gulping nectar.
“You’ve got to eat. Poor thing.”
“You’re right.” She shuffled to the pantry. She took out a jar of honey and two slices of bread and put them on the counter. “I’ll make a honey sandwich.”
“What kind of sandwich? Honey?” Her mother sat in pregnant silence.
“It’s the only food that I don’t find disgusting right now.” Laura spread honey on the two slices of bread. She pressed the two slices together, picked up the sandwich, and took a bite. She chewed slowly. Suddenly a wave of revulsion overwhelmed her and washed the bite up until it slipped out and into the sink in a guttural heave. Laura moaned and heaved again but no more came out. “Well, honey too, I guess.” she panted. She wiped her mouth with her sleeve.
“Yeah?” She lumbered back to the table and collapsed into the chair. Once again she ran her fingers over the daffodil, feeling the raised image. A seam cut through the bee’s sting, which continued on the next sheet of wallpaper. She picked at the seam, prying the sheets apart.
“Are you sure nothing else happened between you and David?”
Lying on the floor in the dark, surrounded by tatters of wallpaper, Laura had spent the evening trying in vain to sleep. Finally hunger was about to overcome fatigue. Laura sighed. She didn’t feel like sitting up. Nothing mattered. Nothing made sense. Nothing sounded good to eat.
She unlocked her phone. 7% battery remaining. One notification: Are you late? Tap to track your cycle. In the soft glow of the screen she surveyed the shreds around her. On one of them was the image of a rose. Laura placed the phone on the floor and picked up the shred in both hands. She could almost smell the rose and pistachio ice cream she used to buy from the Persian store down the block when she was a girl. No, not exactly pistachio, but something similar. She scratched the rose and sniffed it. She turned it over and sniffed the back. Something very similar to pistachio. She licked it. Could it be the glue? The glue on envelopes always has a mild flavour to make it palatable to lick, but wallpaper glue? She licked it again. It tasted pretty good. She took a bite out of it. The crisp texture was unexpected but pleasant. The initial texture gave way when chewed to a smoother one, like oatmeal. She swallowed it. She grabbed another shred and stuck it in her mouth.
The absurdity of the situation made her laugh. What would David think if he could see her like this, sprawled out in the midst of a pile of paper, eating it up? Her laugh grew to a cackle. Why should such a coward’s opinion matter? That rotten piece of shit had left her alone in this apartment without even paying the electric bill. He had hurt her with a flimsy pretext meant to justify the cowardice of fleeing what they had created together. Her cackling grew to a wail. All that they could create together came to an end before beginning in earnest. Laura was left with the immense task of dealing with what David had left her: the great burden of an incomplete family.
She kept eating until the whole pile of paper was gone. A patch of the eastern wall was bare, with loose ends sticking out all around. They clung on like irritating hangnails surrounding a chewed fingernail. Laura could not leave them sticking out like that. She carefully ripped off a dangling piece, leaving a nearly smooth surface, and stuck it in her mouth. She knew it couldn’t be healthy to eat so much paper, but she only needed to leave the patch with a neat, smooth edge. So she had to remove a little more, just a little more, to tidy up the rest of the edge, and then she could stop.
The view from the window of their apartment was very poor. The wall of the next building was very close and didn’t let much light in. She awoke when the midday sun touched her face, leaking in through the narrow gap between the buildings. Laura rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
She sat up and picked up her phone. Dead. She wanted more than anything to talk with David. If she could only tell him how she still loved him, surely this time apart would be enough to give affection room to grow again.
She looked up shamefully. The part of the eastern wall under the window was completely stripped all the way to the corner. She had tried to leave a precisely straight edge in the corner, but the last sheet of wallpaper hadn’t ended right there, but rather had continued a few millimetres onto the southern wall under that wall’s first sheet, so, without tools, peeling it had left a meandering edge that Laura simply hadn’t been able to leave alone.
A spot on the southern wall caught her eye. What she had done blindly the night before had revealed a wooden rectangle behind the wallpaper, perfectly flush with the wall, twenty centimetres from the floor. In the middle there was a hole some fifteen millimetres wide. She felt the edge of the wood with her fingers. There was no lip on the edge, just a slight difference in texture. She couldn’t detect any gap between the wood and the plaster, as if the edge had been enveloped in the wet plaster and then sanded to make the surface perfectly flat, undetectable behind the paper. She knocked on it. Her knuckles left a shallow dent. It sounded thin, as if it covered a hole, but it didn’t ring crisply like hard wood. This panel seemed to be made of balsa wood, that extraordinarily soft, light species that is sold in craft stores.
Was it a repair? Why not repair the wall with a drywall patch? And what was the hole for? She tried to peer through it, but she couldn’t see anything inside. She couldn’t even see how deep the cavity was because she couldn’t get her eye close without her head blocking all light from getting into the hole.
She tried to stick her index finger in. It didn’t fit. She stuck her little finger in and probed down to the first knuckle. She turned her hand around to feel in different directions. She didn’t feel anything. With more force she managed to insert it even more, down to the last knuckle. When she probed at that depth and bent her finger, she touched something rough that unexpectedly moved and made a dull click. With a startled tug she fell back, ripping out the panel. Chips of plaster flew from the wall.
Laura cringed. There was no monster inside, just a plastic bag. She gripped the panel and twisted it loose. The panel popped off of her finger and she threw it on the floor. She crawled up to the hole, sat, and gently pulled the bag. It was clear and sealed at both ends with tape. Inside were several bundles of bills. Laura took the tape off of one end and examined the contents, dumbfounded. There were only the money and the straps that grouped the bundles. She lined up the twenty bundles on the floor. Each one had a hundred-dollar bill on top. She picked up the last one and counted it. A hundred hundred-dollar bills. She thumbed through another bundle. All hundreds.
“Holy shit.” she whispered to herself. Two hundred thousand dollars. But what the hell was it doing here? Who could have placed it? She got down on the floor to see to the back of the hole. The space inside was covered on all sides with wood, free of holes apart from the one in the lid… or door, or whatever it was. It must have already been placed when Laura met David, because his wallpaper hadn’t been changed since then at least. The box must have been sealed for at least two years. Why, if David had hidden it, would he have vanished without taking it with him? Had he forgotten about it? No, of course not, so David must not have known about this stash. So maybe a previous tenant had hidden it. Or the landlord. Of course, whoever had hidden so much money would not like that it had been found. But it had been hidden for a while of course, because David had lived in this apartment for five years.
Her eyes widened. Was it drug trafficking money? Or from a bank robbery? She scooted away. Someone was going to come back to retrieve it. What had she done? She had disturbed a stash probably made by criminals. They may not have come back yet to retrieve the money due to a prison sentence. What about when that was up? She started to hyperventilate, her eyes locked on the money. They would surely come to kill her for this transgression. What a stupid thing to do! Why had she ever started peeling the walls? Wasn’t there any more normal outlet for that anxious energy that wouldn’t have gotten her into this mess?
But she didn’t know any of that for a fact, right? She took three deep breaths and closed her eyes. The money had been there a long time, but how long? She approached the money again and picked up a bundle. She studied the first bill. Something about it was unfamiliar. The typeface that read “100” in the corners had very rectangular zeroes and was surrounded by wreaths or vines. She removed the band and fanned out the bundle. Benjamin Franklin looked more handsome, or rather just younger than usual, and printed just to his left was “series of 1954”. She thumbed through the bills. 1938, 1975, 1981, 1960, 1961, 1961, 1977, 1976, 1950, 1947, 1982, 1949. She repeated that with six more bundles until the bills formed a pile on the floor. The newest bill was from 1982. So could it be a stash from the eighties? Actually that idea seemed reasonable. The apartment was shabby, with a noisy radiator and yellowed linoleum in the kitchen. It was basically a time capsule.
The money may have remained there for forty years, more or less. Laura tried to imagine who would come looking for the money. An adult in the eighties would be sixty by then, or older. Prison is brutal. If they were a prisoner, or even just a serious criminal, they may not have survived all that time. No, surely whoever had left the money would no longer come back looking for it.
Well, then, finders keepers. With so much money she could completely change her life. All those money problems they had argued about would become irrelevant. Laura could finish her studies and David wouldn’t have to support her in the meantime. And maybe they would have money to spare for a down payment on their own home. She just had to convince David to get back together with her, to return home so she could show him that all their problems were solved. But she heard David’s voice in her mind. Laura, listen carefully to what I’m telling you. He would always say that even if she was already listening. The root of the problem is not a mere lack of money right now. That is the consequence of something more serious, that you can’t control yourself. You spend money without paying attention to our income, our budget. And now you’re thinking about starting a family? I am not going to do that with a reckless spendthrift.
It’s really something how after spending years together, one can mentally simulate one’s partner’s judgement with total clarity. And, okay, he was right. Poverty has a way of getting one used to spending what one earns right away. But Laura could absolutely change. She could do it to get David back. That would be reason enough. She didn’t know how she was going to get back in touch with him, but surely when she showed him how she had become a judicious steward of her finances, everything between them would change.
Everything hinged on how she would handle the money. The immense pressure drove her forward with anxious energy. Laura was going to put her big plan into action immediately. She tidied the pile of bills as best she could. Many of their corners had gotten dog-eared when she had rummaged through them. They stuck out of the bundles like errant straws from a bale. Laura couldn’t leave them itching at her gaze like that. She carefully ripped off a protruding corner, leaving a nearly smooth edge, and stuck it in her mouth. She knew she mustn’t waste much of the money like this. She only needed to leave this bill with a neat, smooth edge. So she had to remove a little more, just a little more, to tidy up the rest of the edge, and then she could stop.
I wrote this story for a competition in the Discord server Club de lectura y literatura social, which is a Spanish book club. It is my first story written in Spanish, and I’ve translated it here into English.