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Had she slid her plant back a few inches the night before? The plant was a gift and she treated it with abundant care: it was repositioned as the seasons changed to catch sunlight, watered diligently, spoken to, plant-sat when Vi herself couldn’t attend to it. Weekly she slid it out of its usual spot to sweep up dead leaves and dirt. Yesterday was that day. She could remember preparing a pitcher of water, and wetting the soil until it was damp to the touch. Could remember the browning leaves, flecks littering the floor. Could remember setting the pot back in the same spot that it always sat, enough space separating it from the wall to allow for its leaves to droop, lightly, at the end of their stalks. This morning the leaves brushed the wall, beginning to bend. She pulled the plant a few inches toward her.
Her curls fell about the sides of her head as she unwrapped her scarf, coiled like loaded springs after last night’s sleep. She was content to leave them that way. Violet worked from home, which meant trips to cafes and libraries to maintain her sanity, followed by bouts of hermitic reclusion. Today was a day of the latter sort. She would hunker down on her couch – a cup of tea to the right, laptop centered, and two warm, day-old scones to her left – trying to turn the phrase that her cursor had been blinking, mockingly, in the middle of for days.
The screech of the kettle beckoned her across the short length of her apartment. In her hurry to turn it off – the walls here were thin and she was careful to be considerate of the neighbors – Vi knocked over the cinnamon which she kept precariously perched on the ledge of the stove, just above the oven timer. Frustration flared as Vi watched the little bottle careening through the air. There was a small gap between the stove and the wall, too small for most of her spices to fit into, but big enough for her cinnamon, which was packaged in a container a quarter of the size of the others. Her cinnamon falling behind the oven would mean that she’d have to move the oven; having to move the oven meant she’d have to deal with whatever was behind the oven. The prospect didn’t excite her. The cinnamon had fallen last week too and, as she’d scooted the range forward to grab it, a mouse dashed for a hole in the wall, squeezed in, and disappeared. That was the first time she’d seen any pests in this apartment; she’d sealed the hole and placed traps all throughout the kitchen (if the corner of a one-room studio could be called that) the same day. But she couldn’t be sure that the mouse was gone. Vi wasn’t in the mood to do battle with a rodent, even a small one, at this time of day.
The cinnamon didn’t fall. It got caught in the gap that, just last week, it had slipped into. Violet was grateful, but surprised. Her efforts to close that gap last week had failed, she was sure. Pipes and knobs protruding from the wall and the oven meant the chasm was something she would just have to live with. Still, she could not deny what she was seeing; the cinnamon was still neatly wedged between the oven and the wall as proof. She slid it out and placed it on the stove.
Still poring over the cinnamon, Vi poured her cup of tea. She popped two scones into the convection oven. They’d be ready in minutes, but she could use that time writing: Lord knows she needed it. Writer’s block didn’t do justice to the rhetorical drought that Vi currently found herself in. It went beyond having no ideas – she couldn’t find the right words to say anything. Her sole consolation, if there was one, was that she undoubtedly did her best work at home. She was hopeful that today would bring the deluge of metaphors and similes that she was used to enjoying.
This was not to be. Every clever idea she’d ever had sunk into the soft fabric of the seat as her body did. Five minutes later, when the scones were ready, Vi was in the same place that she’d started. Now she found herself torn between the desire to produce a single word and her aversion to burnt food. Reluctantly she wrenched herself away from her spot on the couch and headed toward the kitchen. Though her body moved, her mind did not follow. Vi was consumed by the unchanged page.
She bumped into the kitchen counter three steps later, so engrossed was she in thought. But three steps was too soon and this realization broke Violet’s trance. Her apartment was small – a one-room studio with a couch and bed along the north and south walls, and the kitchen and a set of three windows on the west and east wall respectively – but it wasn’t so small as to be traversed in three steps – not unless the person walking was tall enough to play on a professional basketball team. Vi whirled around, perplexed, hoping to see something that would explain how she’d reached the kitchen so quickly.
What she saw added further to the mystery. Normally the sun shone through Vi’s windows and gave her room a warm glow. It lit up the tiles separating the bed and couch from the wall, but the light never touched either piece of furniture. The sun rose and passed overhead, its rays never quite reaching the mahogany legs that supported her bed, never reflecting off of the blue fabric of her couch. Until today. Today, streaks stole across the couch’s armrest and the bed’s footboard. They crept slowly, as tendrils, further up and along her upholstery.
Surely her eyes were playing tricks on her? Surely there had been other days when the sunlight had touched her couch or bed? Try as she might she couldn’t remember those days. She had spent some part of every morning in this apartment for the better part of a year now; likely as it seemed that she was simply mistaken, she wasn’t ready to believe that she’d been so inattentive, for so long.
She began walking, slowly, toward her windows. She’d made it about halfway before a grating sound, as wood on metal, drew her attention back toward the kitchen: back toward the oven. Vi knew what must have been the source of the sound. She whipped around and froze, stunned by what she saw. The oven, which shortly before had been separated from the wall was now firmly pressed against it. Its metal legs were scraping Vi’s hardwood floors as the whole apparatus advanced toward her. An onlooker, entering the scene at this moment, surely would have thought her mad were it not for the din. The oven’s movement was almost imperceptible. Yet for Violet, who lived with this oven every day, it was unmistakable.
In an instant it was clear to Vi what was happening and clear what she needed to do. She judged the pace of the oven and assumed she had ten minutes. Ten minutes before she either suffocated or was crushed by the walls of her apartment. Ample time. She slipped on a pair of shoes and headed for the door. A simple solution to a simple problem. If the apartment was intent on shrinking, fine, but Vi didn’t need to be present when the constriction was complete.
Constriction, though, does not proceed through the application of localized pressure. No, when a predator constricts it encircles, applies pressure from all angles. Vi learned the horror of constriction as she looked up at her door. It was no longer its usual shape. The pressure of the walls bearing in on either side had made it convex. It was growing increasingly warped every second. She tried the lock – it didn’t budge. Even if she’d been able to open it, though, the latch she’d installed on the inside of the door was now impossible to unhinge. She tried bursting through, shoulder first – tried kicking it open. Nothing worked. Two minutes and several beads of sweat later, she was no closer to making it out of this sarcophagus.
Vi whipped around and made for the windows. On the second floor the choice she faced was between death and broken bones. She would choose broken bones every time. Unfortunately, that choice was not hers to make. The vice grip that her apartment now found itself under had already decided she was not to exit that way either. Her portals to the outside world – the ones that had sustained her and her plant, the ones she had sat near on rainy days to watch as people scurried to safety and listen as cars whooshed by – were now no more than two-inch slits. Vi tried to muscle them open, but it was impossible to pry them loose of their locks.
Tools! She grabbed a wrench, hammer, screwdriver; went to work on the windows prying, screwing, trying to shatter. After two minutes she was getting nowhere and, frankly, she knew that, even if she did manage to eek one window open, there was no hope in fitting through it.
The windows, then, weren’t an option. The tools, however, brought new hope. Maybe she could unscrew the latch she’d had installed or, if that didn’t work, maybe she would be able to remove the door from its hinges entirely.
To access the screws which secured the door to the wall one had to be able to open the door. Detaching it entirely would be impossible. Vi went to work on the door latch. A minute later, the latch clanged to the floor. A smile crept across Vi’s face for the first time since she’d realized the walls were closing in on her. She set to work unscrewing the deadbolt next. The first screw slid out in seconds. Vi spun the next. It turned, and the smile became a large grin. It turned further and Vi felt her heart jump, warmth flush through her, her focus intensify. It turned further. It turned further still. The grin began to fade. It turned. Vi’s blood ran cold. The screw turned for what felt like a full minute before Vi conceded that it was not loosening. It wasn’t her, Vi was working more furiously than she ever had, but the deadbolt was old – the screw was old. The screw was stripped. It was not going to come out.
She let the screwdriver clang to the floor. Flung the wrench across the ever-shortening length of her apartment. Violet had exhausted every escape option she could think of. Sweat skied down her cheeks, tears welled up in her eyes, her shoulders slackened, tension flowed out of her muscles, and the fight drained from her body. She estimated that she had about two minutes left to live, and, rather than fight, she finally gave up resisting and began to make peace. She was going to die. The walls now circumscribed her furniture almost perfectly. The bed and couch were touching, the plant’s leaves were slowly being crushed, and her kitchen was in her “living room.” Vi had nowhere to go. She flopped on the couch, defeated. The laptop still rested in the place it had been when she’d begun writing this morning, cursor blinking as if to mock her. That could not stand. She may not have been able to stop the relentless march of the walls, nor could she stop whatever force had set this process in motion, but she could stop the unchanged page from redoubling her failure.
For the first time in days, too, she had plenty to write about. It takes a lifetime to come to peace with dying, for those that ever do. Vi had only minutes and this fact brought a flood, not of metaphors and witty language, but of sincere questions: What would she tell her parents if she had one more opportunity to speak to them? Her friends? Her sister? Who deserved an apology that she’d never gotten around to giving? Who did she admire – respect, appreciate – that she hadn’t told? What had she put off, for fear of failure or judgement, that she should have done? And how insignificant was that phrase, for a piece her heart wasn’t in, for a publication that didn’t care about her career?
Vi had thirty seconds to let as much of this thought and emotion flow out of her as she could. Thirty seconds before she was pressed between two walls and made paste. Thirty seconds to do the writing she should have been doing from the start. Thirty seconds to write how she really felt. Thirty seconds, yet for Vi, there was no pressure. Her mind was clear; she knew what she wanted to say.
She typed the first sentence. The walls stopped.
Reggie Gilliard is a writer and education researcher from New Jersey.