I had this job delivering hot meals to the elderly. Some folks were wheelchair bound, some had a bit of dementia, some had their licences taken away or at least knew they shouldn't be driving. I'd usually stay and chat for a bit, which was expected since most of our clients had no one left to talk to. The company was almost as important as the food. One woman in particular I got to know pretty well.
Mrs. Burningham was a delight. She had this adorable little smile that would light up a room as they say. A petite thing she was, must have been less than five feet tall. She was one of those little old ladies you just want to scoop up and put in your back pocket. It was unfortunate that she didn't have anyone to take care of her. At least she had something to look forward to every day.
My favorite thing about Mrs. Burningham was the way she'd tell a story. She really knew how to grab your attention and pique your curiosity—her inflection, her lack of hesitation, the passion she felt for the life she'd led. She'd weave tales of grand romance, family struggles, women's suffrage. I'm sure a lot of it wasn't true considering her mind was going, but the way she spoke could make anything seem possible. And her voice, so delicate and soothing. I thought nothing could avert my attention from her daily anecdotes. That is, until I saw that tear in the wallpaper.
Her home was oddly pristine. I couldn't understand how an 85 year old woman kept everything so perfect. It was more than just clean and neat. Nothing was damaged or worn or faded. So then why? Why was there a tear in the wallpaper? Just a little tear about an inch long and a centimeter wide, begging to be yanked by some naughty, careless child.
I'm not sure how it got there or when. It could have appeared sometime since I started delivering meals, or maybe it was there all along. Either way, it bothered me...a lot. If someone was keeping her house all neat and tidy, why couldn't they mend the wallpaper? Was it not important? Why bother with the upkeep if you're not going to do a proper job? The logic seems a bit flawed now, but at the time I was too obsessed to realize how unreasonable it sounded. So the wallpaper was ripped. Big deal, right?
About two months had passed since I first noticed the tear, and it was apparent that no one was going to fix it. None of my business, that's what it was, but trying to ignore it became a chore. Mrs. Burningham would be deep into one of her elaborate tales and I would just stare...stare at the tear.
"Did I ever tell you about when I dated Neil Armstrong?"
Not this week, I thought. The story changed every time though; that was half the fun, really. But one day, I guess I just stopped paying attention.
"What is it, dear?" she asked me. "What are you looking at?"
"That," I said flatly, pointing to the wall behind her. She backed up her wheelchair and turned.
"Yes, what is it?"
"That rip. It's been bugging me. Why don't you get it fixed?"
"Hmm..." She wheeled a little closer to the wall and squinted. "I'm sorry, dear. My eyes aren't so good. I'm lucky I recognize who's coming through the door. Though, I always know it's you by the wonderful aromas."
I got sick of looking at the damned thing so I did a little redecorating. There was this ugly horse painting in the hallway that I figured I could use to cover it up.
"What are you doing with that, dear?" asked Mrs. Burningham. I convinced her the horse was lonely out in the hallway. She giggled and said it was a fine idea. It looked like the perfect solution, except that I'd have to put a nail in the wall. Seemed counterproductive. "Oh, don't worry about it," she assured me. "These old walls have plenty of holes." Now I knew she was going blind.
Sometime during my off day, the painting disappeared. I asked what happened to it. "What happened to what, dear?" she replied. Not only was the painting gone, but so was the hole I'd made with the nail. And yet there remained the infamous tear, slightly larger now.
An overwhelming desire came over me, and I wanted so badly to just grab and pull, but I figured Mrs. B. would have a heart attack. I think we've all been there before. You see a dangling thread or a hair out of place and you just want to yank it, right? I don't feel I'm unique in that respect. There's a reason people rip those tags off mattresses. It just feels good. Or maybe it's like OCD or something. I bet most people who saw how that little piece was just reaching out for someone to liberate it wouldn't have been able to resist as long as I did.
I tried other ways to cover it up, like moving a bookshelf in front of it. Someone moved it back. If Mrs. B. didn't have any family to cook meals for her then the who the hell was interfering? Someone had to be doing maintenance on the place but when I asked her about it she said, "Oh, I don't know. People come and go. They're not all as nice as you, dear." I still don't know what was true and what was her imagination—or mine.
My last resort was to avoid the living room altogether. That went well at first until I started hearing these faint sounds, like someone slowly tearing a sheet of paper, coming from just within earshot. I'd go check the living room and find nothing had changed.
"I think you're getting tired of my stories, dear," Mrs. B. would say. More like I was going nuts.
"Not a chance," I'd assure her. But something had to be done or that insignificant blemish on the wall was going to be the end of my sanity. I tried switching routes with someone but no one wanted to switch, and my boss was like, "Well, if you don't want to do it, I can hire someone who can." I explained about the wallpaper driving me crazy and he practically fired me on the spot.
Then one day when I went over there, Mrs. Burningham was still in bed. She said she was tired, so I helped her eat. After that, she fell asleep. Suddenly, I felt really strange being in her house, like I was there all alone. As I was on my way out, I turned around and looked at the tear in the wallpaper. This was my chance.
With unwavering determination, I snatched a pair of scissors from Mrs. B.'s lonely sewing basket. It was time to end this, once and for all. Serenity was just a quick snip away. But you know, it was hard getting the scissors flush to the wall in such a way that I could cut off the whole piece. There were still these two little slits left, mere millimeters each. All I could do was try and grip one side with my fingernails and peel it just a tad, enough to guide it an inch over and away, making a clean tear. But things didn't go the way I'd intended.
What started as a minor imperfection became a glaring injury. There was no way Mrs. Burningham wouldn't notice something that obvious, even with her sub par vision. I tried to do the same thing again, to make a clean tear, resulting in a second failure.
"Shit," I whispered. There was no going back now. Gently, I tugged at the protrusion. Christ, I knew it was wrong but it felt so right. The idea was to minimize the damage, but as I kept going it became impossible to stop. It was far too exhilarating.
I yanked with all my might as the torn section ribboned and snaked around, refusing to detach from the wall like it was holding on for dear life. Up and down and around it went. Over and around the window trim, the doorways, behind the furniture. I needed to continually advance my grip due to the ever increasing slack. It was like unraveling the largest sweater ever knitted, or winning an epic tug-of-war. When it was all over, I couldn't believe what I'd done.
Fired. That's what I was going to be. I'd be the first employee to get canned for vandalizing an old woman's home. I tried to convince myself it was nothing more than an unfortunate accident but the guilt ate me up all night, and in the morning I knew the right thing to do was to just tell my boss the truth, no matter the consequences.
A couple squad cars were parked outside the office; this was going to be tougher than I thought. Reluctantly, I headed for the chopping block expecting an earful and then some. As I approached my boss' desk, two officers grabbed me. Startled, I began blurting out an apology.
"I'm sorry! I didn't mean to do it! It just happened and then I couldn't stop! I just couldn't stop tearing! I'll pay for it, I promise! Just please don't fire me!"
"Oh, you'll pay alright," they remarked as I felt the cold steel on my wrists.
"I'm being arrested?!" I was afraid for my job and my reputation...but prison? My boss stayed silent as a third officer grabbed the front of my shirt and pulled me close.
"After what you did to that poor old woman," he told me, "you're lucky I'm a cop or I'd peel you like a fucking potato, you psycho freak." The other two pulled him away and stood between us. "Why'd you do it?!" he shouted, red faced and spitting. "Huh, you sick son of a bitch?! Why'd you do it?!" The guy was practically foaming at the mouth. Was what I'd done really worth that kind of reaction? My voice quivered as I struggled to make excuses.
"I...I swear, I tried to stop myself. I tried. But I had to know. I had to know how it felt. Haven't you ever wanted to pull a tag off a mattress? Or unravel a sweater? You know it's wrong, but you know it'll feel good. And then it just happens, and you can't stop! You guys get it, right?"
My words were met with mute tongues and horrified expressions. It was as if they'd heard something completely different than what came out of my mouth—something so vile and depraved, the shock had robbed them of their ability to speak. The silence broke at last, but only so an officer could read me my rights.
Alone in an interrogation room, I wrestled with memories of Mrs. Burningham. How could I have done something so disrespectful and destructive to someone so innocent and sweet? Then I had an awful thought. What if she saw what I did to her living room and her poor heart just couldn't take it? As the notion crossed my mind, a detective came in and threw down some photos on the table—gruesome, unspeakably grisly photos.
Timidly, I asked, "Who...Who is this?"
"Who do you think?" he replied in disgust. "It's poor old Edna Burningham."I looked again, but I honestly couldn't tell it was her. Every inch of skin had been torn from her body.
Written by Umbrello