Creative Writing Competition Winner: Words that fall from bedroom ceilings

Shafts of grey afternoon light poke stubbornly through the gap in the curtains, illuminating dust specks in a way that makes me acutely aware of the taste of my own tongue. Be that as it may, I can’t bring myself to get up and close them.

It’s a grim day that I’d rather not stare in the face, so I plan to spend a few hours catching up on sleep. But the light is preventing me from drifting off. The distance from the bed to the window wouldn’t be an issue, except it is. I breathe a sigh into the silence.

The light crawls around the room, the dust pirouetting lazily. My watch, pressed against my cheek where my arm is pinned beneath me, ticks persistently, even gratingly. It seems designed to remind me of the time I’m wasting, time I imagine filtering through a sand timer, scratching over smeared glass, slowing, falling. The sand is black, volcanic.

As I shift from my side onto my back, my cheek smarts where it loses contact with the clock face. Touching my fingers to it, I feel the shallow ridge left indented on my skin. Strange how it’s only once I’ve moved that I realise how uncomfortable it was.

Unclasping the watch, I feel its weight in my palm, place it on the bedside table. Yet I can still hear it ticking steadily, uncaringly on. So, swiping it up again, I slip it under my pillow and lean back to muffle the sound. Shift a little, eyes meeting the ceiling. It’s cream and water-marked and there’s a dark patch in the top left corner which looks slightly suspect, but I’m trying not to think too hard about it. 

I distract myself by tracing the lines where the ceiling meets the walls, picturing myself covering the space with something, blue paint, black ribbon. But my gaze snags on that corner again, on the dark substance which can only be mould. I prop myself up on my elbows to peer at it more closely. For a moment, nothing happens. Then it starts to move.

I think: it’s a trick of the light.

I think: it’s my tired eyes deceiving me.

I think: there’s something up there.

Picking purposefully, at a loose thread on the duvet, I tell myself this isn’t real. Though my eyes are saying something different as they flick back up to the ceiling, where the shadow-stain is beginning, as I observe with horror, to spread.

Now that I think about it, I can’t remember how long it’s been there, if it’s new or if I’m only just noticing it. The possibility of something growing in my room all this time produces an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach, like I’ve swallowed a stone that is settling heavily.

There must be an explanation. Charred plaster, soot, paint, something. Studying the places where the darkness is moving, I think I can make out a pattern – a whirlpool. Suddenly, I have the absurd feeling that the ceiling is transforming into a wave of black water that’s about to come crashing over my head. With a start – a juddering, tumbling-down-an-elevator kind of start – I cower away from the ceiling, arms up defensively. It takes me a moment to recognise that the noise drumming through my ears, the sound of water slapping against a shore, is really my own heartbeat. Coward.

Taking my hands away from my face, deliberately, I look back at the ceiling. There’s no wave, of course. Fool. In fact, the marks I can make out are less whorls than inelegant, sprawling shapes, curling in on themselves like knuckles flexing. There’s something repulsive about this sight that makes my skin crawl instinctively. As I try to place it, it dawns on me that it’s the same sensation as going to wash your hands only to find a spider in your sink.

Oh, I think, I know exactly what you are. Spiders. Dangling from my bedroom ceiling in a web-spinning tangle. And the movement I’ve been witnessing is the crawling of their legs.

Now, one spider I can deal with. But there are far too many, latching onto the ceiling like so many leeches, their legs darkening veins. It can’t be natural. Curiosity stirring – and probably not for the better – I perch on the edge of the bed and crane my neck to determine what they’re finding so interesting.

Under my gaze, the shapes start to look less and less familiar, like a child’s drawing of a spider, a scribble that doesn’t quite fit the original. No, this can’t be right either. With a sound like a tide going out, I let out a sigh of relief I didn’t know I was holding, as, looking one final time, I realise what is on my ceiling. Not mould, not a whirlpool, not spiders. Ink.

Ink which sticks to the ceiling like black water and shines like slick tarmac. Ink which spreads and pools and begins to drop. Ink which forms individual letters that curl and spider into words.

And as I watch, one of them starts to fall.

FEAR/

The chute of this first word is like a waterway opening. Before I know it, the words

HATRED/ TIRED/ SICK/ GREY/ GROUND/ SWALLOW/ WAIT/ TEARDROP/ WRINKLE/ HURT/ EYE/ MESS/ ACHE/ DEEP/ SHADOW/ CRACK/ WALL/ CEILING/ DOOR/ FRAME/ CARPET/ YELLOW/ BROKEN/ CROCKERY/ PATIENCE/ FATIGUE/ RUNNING/ BREATHE/ FALL/ SLIP/ YELL/ SCREAM/ DANCE/ SILENCE/ ECHO/ MEMORY/ DOLLHOUSE/ SWING/ MOTION/ SICKNESS/ FIRE/ BELLY/ CANDLE/ BURNING/ SLEEP/ CURTAIN/ SHOOTING/ STAR/ EARTH/ CRASHING/ DUST/ ASHES/ ASTEROID/ FLYING/ BURSTING/ NOTHING/

Are falling from the ceiling.

Like Alice tumbling down a rabbit hole, they spin and hurtle on their way down, until the ceiling’s a blur, a writhing, alphabetic mass above my head. The words weigh me down in their weightless way, slowly spelling out a message. I catch glimpses, like shredded pages.

IS/ A/ HEAVY/ BE/ HOW/ SO/ THAT/ IT/ CAN/ HEART/

The sentence unravels like a loom spilling its guts, aligns itself, spells out:

How is it that a heart can be so heavy?

And I feel my own heart sinking with understanding, as I get bored of this game, my very own version of counting sheep.

My heartbeat slows, my eyes droop shut, and I drift off at last. 

The ceiling hovers over me, blank.