Author’s Content Warning: This story contains descriptions of intense mental illness.

I have a condition… an ailment… a sort of sickness which can’t be seen. From the outside I look like an ordinary girl, but beneath the gay surface there is a kind of splinter in my mind. I feel like I am being pulled between two worlds. In one world I smile and breathe fresh air and embrace life. In the other all I see beneath the fabric of reality are awful rippling clusters.

My wife has booked us an all-expense stay vacation for the weekend in the large hotel which overlooks the city. We often looked at the hotel when we took the occasional car ride around town. We choose this weekend because the hotel is next to a park where they will be having a harvest moon festival tomorrow night.

We’re just coming down for breakfast on our first day when I notice the strawberries. There are pancakes, pastries, cold cuts, lots of fresh fruit…strawberries.

I don’t want to look at them. An empty plate dangles in my hand as I stare down at the berries’ plump, ripe, red bodies. Each strawberry is dimpled throughout with tiny, minute indentations… each containing a small black seed. I touch my temple lightly and twist my lips. It takes some effort, but I finally turn away.

At breakfast my wife spends a lot of time talking about her upcoming meetings. She’s tremendously important, and her confident manner of speech makes it easy for me to drift lightly off of her words without worrying about whether I need to answer her specifically.

She asks me how I feel after the week’s-worth of new prescriptions. I haven’t especially noticed a difference, but I tell her I’m feeling much better. As I talk my mind slowly keeps returning to the strawberries. I don’t feel quite right. It won’t leave me alone.

We return to our room. I decide to take a jog. After pulling on my jogging gear I take the elevator to the ground floor. This hotel is nice enough to warrant hiring a man to open the door for the guests. I thank him for holding the door for me, but I purposefully avoid looking at the pattern on his tie.

I begin to jog down the sidewalk. In a moment I am across the street and making my way at a brisk pace through the park next door. I cross several thoroughfares and am just beginning to feel a degree of settled calm… when suddenly I come to a stop.

The path in front of me has been recently paved with fresh asphalt and the tar has gathered, while hardening, into a shallow collection of rippled waves near the edge of the sidewalk. I stare at the stippled surface of the black tar with a sensation reverberating through my mind. The asphalt ripples are regular but also unnatural and I can’t explain to myself why I should hate looking at them. There is a faint shudder of revulsion. I breathe deeply several times while looking up at the sky. Everything about this feels so vividly familiar.

I return to the hotel. My wife and I take a moment together on the balcony. I don’t remember much about what she says.

That evening, before bed, I kneel next to my suitcase and take out of a few of my things. When I stand I suddenly realize that the pattern of the carpet has imbedded itself semi-permanently into the taut, red skin of my knees from the pressure of my kneeling body. I wish fervently that I hadn’t kneeled for so long. The dimpled spots on my legs are bright and angry and no amount of rubbing seems to take them away. This won’t do. Now it is very difficult for me to not think about the strawberries since I am wearing a version of them on myself. I feel a definite and heavy stabbing enter my brain. It is like a deep, red scar. I feel sick, and I want to tear at my skin and claw at my eyes.

That night I sleep fitfully and repeatedly need to turn and readjust my body and tuck my head just so. This happens often enough that around 3AM I am positively wide awake and staring off into the middle darkness of the room. I hear my wife’s deep breaths next to me.

As I look into the darkness I feel, almost as though it were waiting for me… the strawberry pattern begins to creep inward from the peripheral parts of my vision. Although the room is completely dark, my mind creates the rhythmic, undulating, ceaseless hollows of the strawberry skin and each tiny, black dot at the shallow centers feels like it contains a black universe of unknown and unsleeping terror.

The dark blackness of each dimpled strawberry spot seethes with an unspeakable horror, and I suspect that there are wet places in there which contain eyes and clusters of things. Maybe I’m dreaming. Surely this won’t follow me into the next day.

Somehow, I sleep again. In the morning, while I look up at the ceiling, I am relieved that I both see and feel a sense that the pattern before my vision has smoothed itself out again. The soft, off-white of the ceiling is mercifully free of any horrid ripples.

I tell my wife that I’m not hungry this morning and I go instead to the gym. I use my room key to let myself into the gym and the door closes behind me with the satisfying click of a well-manufactured piece of 21st century architecture. I open and shut the door again twice more just for the pleasure that accompanies the crisp, snapping efficiency of latch and strike plate. The lock is firm and reliable. It is not organic and there is no part of its surface which is fleshy or fungal or horribly cellular.

I press the start button on the machine and settle into my run. For first 10 minutes I gradually work my way up into a rhythm that is fast enough to draw sweat. At long last something begins to feel right inside of me. My deep breaths feel cleansing and I can almost believe that my last month was the life of some other girl who had some other pains, none of which I have or have ever had.

Each step is firm. Every foot plant is sure. Every surface is solid. There are no strawberries.

I push the emergency stop button on the machine. The belt gradually slows enough to allow me to move into a walking pattern and I am almost unbearably grateful for the smooth rubber tread which crisply grips the soles of my running shoes.

I turn to the door to leave… and that’s when it strikes me. I smell something in the air… which I know is not really there… and I hear, yes, yes, I hear music although I know that that there are no sounds. I drop my towel to the floor and, sure enough, just like last month, the floor begins to tilt and sway, and the mirrored reflections of myself which I see in all corners of the gym are suddenly spinning. There is then a horrible rippling insect darkness which spreads inward, closing around my mind like a drain.

I am falling into a yawning chasm. I look up and I see the fitness room in the hotel flying far away from me above until nothing is left of it except a tiny bright star in the universe of blackness that surrounds me. But then I notice the pattern. It is all around me. It pulses.  

I feel like I am suffocating… yet, I cannot escape. There is a gravity somewhere that is pulling me down toward an awful sickness below. I hear a steady thrumming churn, like something being digested in acid. I see an eye opening below me. Its lids are of blistered, bulbous, leprous skin. I open my mouth to scream. I can’t. The eye below grows wider and wider. It wants to swallow me. It wants to sew me into itself.

I open my eyes. I am awake. I believe I am on the ground. I must be because there are so many faces peering down at me. I don’t recognize any of them. They are all the faces of people who must have found me…where? Oh, yes, here in the gym. On the floor.

The faces are encouraging and worried and one young woman presses her hand firmly against my shoulder as I try to rise. She tells me to lay still… the ambulance is on its way.

The next several images are difficult to clearly remember. There are medics in their crisp uniforms. There is the ambulance. There is the siren whirling and swirling again and again, calling out to the world as the vehicle, neatly and efficiently, whisks me to the waiting docking bay of whichever hospital they have chosen for me.

And then I’m in a spotless white room with dimmed light and the soothing voice of nurses and cups of cool water. I am so relieved. There is in my vision an absolutely endless tapestry of white hospital sheets stretching as far as the horizon of my mind and they are all completely and flawlessly sharp and smooth and absolutely unwrinkled.

They give me something for sleep. I sleep in total darkness with the solid weight of the earth pulling me down securely against my bed. The darkness is total and complete with no seams and with only the reassuring embrace of black comfort.

The next morning I awake. Refreshed. My wife comes into the room. Her look is one of careful, measured concern. She assures me that I can stay here as long as I need. She tells me that my mother is so worried that she has written me a card. She takes out the card to show me. I scream. I scream and scream. On the card there are strawberries.

Zary Fekete

Zary Fekete has worked as a teacher in Hungary, Moldova, Romania, China, and Cambodia. They currently live and work as a writer in Minnesota. Some places they have been published are Goats Milk Mag, Journal of Expressive Writing, SIC Journal, Reflex Fiction, and Zoetic Press. They enjoy reading, podcasts, and long, slow films. Twitter: @ZaryFekete