Today, we’re pleased to bring you a short story that appears in the Helen Marshall’s new collection from ChiZine, Gifts for the One Who Comes After . Helen’s work has been nominated for the Aurora Award from the Canadian Society of Science Fiction and Fantasy, the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association, and the Sydney J. Bounds Award from the British Fantasy Society, which she won in 2013. This is just one of the many stories in the collection, which is described thusly:
Ghost thumbs. Microscopic dogs. One very sad can of tomato soup. Helen Marshall’s second collection offers a series of twisted surrealities that explore the legacies we pass on to our children. A son seeks to reconnect with his father through a telescope that sees into the past. A young girl discovers what lies on the other side of her mother’s bellybutton. Death’s wife prepares for a very special funeral. In Gifts for the One Who Comes After, Marshall delivers eighteen tales of love and loss that cement her as a powerful voice in dark fantasy and the New Weird. Dazzling, disturbing, and deeply moving.
Here’s Helen’s marvelous story…
by Helen Marshall
First appearing in Gifts for the One Who Comes After (ChiZine Publications, September, 2014).
Because Larry said it would never work, we knew we had to try.
Because Larry said he didn’t want any part of it, we knew we had to try it out on him first.
That was the way it was with Larry. That’s how it had always been between us. The four of us knew it. No one questioned it. We could all see the slightly sick look come over Larry’s face as he realized. We could see him turning pale. Pushing at his taped-up glasses and starting to scramble.
He tried to say something.
Marvin grabbed the shrink ray.
Marvin pressed the button.
And the world popped and crackled around us.
That’s how it started.
Maybe it wouldn’t have been like that if Larry had never said anything. But when Larry had followed the instructions last time it had been a disaster.
“FRIENDS,” the ad had said. “HERE’S HOW TO GET at almost NO COST YOUR NEW, Real, Live MINIATURE DOG!”
“Supply Limited,” the ad said. “ACT NOW!!”
“Please let me come home with you,” the miniature dog begged in a giant speech bubble.
The dog was black, with long, floppy ears, cartoonishly wide eyes and a white-speckled snout. Larry, on the other hand, was skinny as a beanpole with a face full of acne. His elbows and knees were huge and knobbly. They stuck out like the knots in the ropes we had to climb for gym class. And if there was any boy who ever was in need of a dog it was him.
And so Larry sent in his coupons and waited at the door for the mailman every day.
He waited the way he had every day for the past year; while those other times it had been with terror, this time it was with stupid, fearless joy.
You see, the thing you need to know about Larry is that his brother Joe had joined the Air Force last September.
“GEE!! I WISH I WERE A MAN!” said the ad.
“Come to the UNITED STATES AIR FORCE Recruiting Station,” it said.
We all wished we could be men-of course we did!-but only Larry’s brother Joe was old enough. So he’d signed up just like it said to. They’d sent him to Honolulu for a while and then after that he had been moved to Seoul where he wrote back letters every once in a while about how hot it was and how many of the shovelheads he had killed and how much he missed his kid brother.
Those weren’t the letters that worried Larry. Of course, it wasn’t those letters. It was the official letter. The one signed by President Harry S. Truman himself. Larry knew exactly when the mailman came every day. His whole family did.
But after Larry sent away for his miniature dog? For a couple of weeks anyway things were different. This was about the only time in the whole last year that Larry waited for the doorbell to ring with something besides near dread.
And when the mailman arrived, Larry was over the moon!
We all cast an eyeball on the package when Larry brought it over to the clubhouse, half skipping, half stumbling, his glasses gone crooked and his hair plastered with sweat to his forehead in big, wet, wormy lines.
The package was small, but that was okay. The dog was a miniature dog. It wouldn’t need a large package.
The package was beat-up. The tape was scruffy and the glue had crusted and peeled off in parts. One corner of the package had split open.
We were all there. Marv, Todd, Mel and me-this was back when Mel still came around. But Larry opened the package with glee. We all saw him do it.
And inside the package? Nothing but a little ball of fur and a tiny collar with the word “Rufus” inscribed into a metal disc that jingled when it fell into his hand.
We all clapped Larry on the back. We all made apologetic noises.
“Ain’t that a bite?” Todd said mournfully before he offered him one of the Cokes he had brought over to the clubhouse. The Coke was beautifully cold. You could see the Coke almost melting in his hand. It was June by then and the fresh summer heat had made us all a bit stupid and giddy at the same time. Stupid enough to believe an ad for a miniature dog for only twenty coupons.
That wasn’t enough for Larry though. Larry was relentless. Larry wrote back to the address the package was stamped with.
“Please sir or madam,” he wrote. “I have sent the twenty coupons as requested, but my miniature dog did not arrive.”
And three weeks later there was an envelope.
And inside the envelope there was a note.
Dear Valued Customer,
It appears as if you were the intended recipient of “Rufus,” one of our finest miniature fidos. We’re sorry to hear the news, and can only presume that he has escaped in transit, the little scamp!
Unfortunately, we cannot offer refunds for missing pets, but we guarantee that Rufus is a loyal dog. We recommend you leave out some Boyer Smoothie Peanut Butter Cups (those are his absolutely favourite!) and, perhaps, Rufus will find his way home to you, his expectant new owner.
Because of his size, it may take some time. We advise patience.Sincerely,
President of Norwood Enterprises, Incorporated.
Des Moines, Iowa
We told Larry not to bother. We told Larry that Rufus was gone. We told Larry that’s how life was sometimes. No, it wasn’t fair, and no, it wasn’t right, but that’s how it was.
But Larry didn’t listen. Larry didn’t want to live in a world of “it’s not fair” and “it’s not right.” Who could blame him? We all knew someone who had never made it home. We all had uncles and cousins and big brothers, fathers and grandfathers who never came back from North Africa or Okinawa. We all had prayers we said for the lost ones. And we were all waiting for something.
Larry was like that.
If it was possible to love a thing before you had ever seen it and Pastor Davis said that it was, that was how we were all supposed to love God, then that was the way Larry loved that dog. Larry loved Rufus more than God but even that wasn’t saying enough. After all, we could all remember the day when Pastor Davis said, “Let us give thanks,” and Larry spazzed out, shouting, “I don’t wanna give thanks! Thanks for what? Why the hell would God make a world like this one, huh? Thanks for nothing, God!” Larry looked embarrassed after, but he didn’t go back to church and he didn’t say sorry to Pastor Davis neither.
No. Larry waited for Rufus the Miniature Dog to find his way home. Larry left out the Boyer Smoothie Peanut Butter Cups (just in case). Larry kept the collar in his pocket (just in case). And sometimes, when Larry didn’t think any of us would notice, he would trail behind a little ways as we dragged our skinny asses back from the baseball diamond in Glenn Park. And then we would hear him whistle and call very softly, “Rufus, Rufus, c’mere, boy, c’mere, Rufus. Willya come on home?”
Finally, it was Melanie who had to say to him, “Let him go, Larry. He’s not coming home. There was never any stinking miniature dog.”
And because it was Melanie who said it he listened.
We were all a bit in love with Melanie.
And so Larry said it would never work. Especially when he saw the shrink ray, nine inches of moulded plastic with these big brass bands looping around the barrel. It coulda been a toy. It looked about as good as anything you got out of a Cracker Jack box.
Larry said he didn’t want any part of it.
And maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was the way it made us stupid and giddy, just not to be doing anything of real consequence. To lay in the shade of the clubhouse where the air smelled of stale cedar and it didn’t move except when one of us got up to fetch sandwiches and moon pies from the pack. We traded comic books back and forth. We marvelled at the possibilities of cardboard submarines and x-ray glasses. Shoes that would make you two inches taller. And the shrink ray. Of course, the shrink ray.
Maybe it was because Melanie didn’t come by so much anymore. Not since she had become Melanie, that is. Not since she’d stopped being Mel or Melly. Mel had been one of us. Mel could throw knuckle balls and cheat at rummy. Melanie didn’t do any of those things.
And Marvin was just being a cauliflower-eared twit anyway. He hadn’t expected it to work.
And when the shrink ray had worked, well, we all just stared in stupefied wonder. Like we were all waiting for God to take it back.
“What happened?” Larry said. It sounded like he’d been sucking on the tail of a balloon. It made me giggle. It made us all giggle.
“Ya got shrunk,” Marvin told him.
“I did?” Larry asked.
“Sure as shit,” he said.
And he had.
There was Larry, holding half a PB ‘n’ J sandwich in his hand, but now it was quarter-sized because Larry was just half a Larry. He was hardly three feet if he was anything.
“Huh,” said Marvin.
And none of the rest of us had anything better to add to the conversation so we just let it lie until Todd grabbed the shrink ray out of Marvin’s hand and aimed it at a can of Coke.
“Be careful,” Marvin said. “The box said to use caution at all times!”
“Baby!” shrieked Todd with a jazzed grin on his face.
“What?” said Larry who was still looking around in confusion.
And then Todd yelled, “Gotcha!” and he cranked up the dial and pressed the button.
There was a feeling like thunder when there’s no thunder. It made me think of tornado weather. The air got hot and sticky. And it crackled. But there was no noise. And then the Coke bottle was gone. It was tiny. It was no more than a thimble.
“Boss,” said Todd. His blond hair was sticking up like a fluffed duck’s.
“Shit,” I said. “I was gonna drink that.”
“Nothing to do for it,” said Todd. “Larry’ll have to drink it now.”
“No way. It’s too small for Larry,” I pointed out. Todd just shrugged and then he pointed the shrink ray at Larry.
“Wait!” yelled Larry. But Todd didn’t wait. The gun went zap. The world went fuzzy and there was Larry, five inches high.
“Eff you!” Larry shrieked in a near falsetto.
“Stop spazzing out,” said Todd.
And maybe that’s where it all should have stopped. Marvin was reading the instructions on the box. He was trying to read them anyway. But then Todd zapped the box and when it was done shrinking they were too small for Marvin to read anymore.
“Be careful!” Marvin said. “Ya almost got me! Now how are we gonna figure out how it works?”
“I know how it works!” Todd said.
“C’mon, man,” said Marvin. “I paid for the thing.”
“Just ice it, willya? Possession,” said Todd with infinite patience and condescension, “is nine-tenths of the law.”
“Candyass!” said Marvin.
“Spazz!” said Todd.
“Jerk off!” shrieked Marvin.
“Just listen, willya?” said Todd. “Listen.”
And we stopped. And we listened.
But Todd didn’t say anything. He didn’t say anything at all. And neither did the rest of us.
Because Todd was starting to grin. It was a big grin. It was like some sort of primo super grin. And his eyes, his eyes had this crazed and gleeful look. They were wide as saucers like the kid was on cloud nine. Like this was the living end.
“This is it,” said Todd.
And no one said anything.
“Ya see it, right?” said Todd.
“Right,” said Marvin.
He was the first to speak. And he had that grin too. It was crazy. It was infectious. It looked like it was going to split the top off his head. But then I was grinning too. I was grinning right along with them. It was like there were bottle rockets going off in all our brains.
“Sure,” I said.
“I dig,” said Larry and his voice was tinny and high but didn’t matter because he was grinning too and it was like that grin made him nine feet tall anyway. It was the first time anyone had seen him smile properly since Rufus had chewed his way out of the post.
Marvin scooped up Larry and tucked him away safely into the front pocket of his checked, flannel shirt.
“Let’s go,” said Todd.
We started with trashcans and mailboxes because that was the sort of thing we always started with. They were easy. The McCallisters’. Mr. Kane from around the block who had painted “Remember Our Boys” in big red and blue letters on the outside. WHOOOOSH!
“See ya later, alligator!” Larry shouted in that high, squeaky voice of his.
But then it was Todd who got bolder. He was a January baby and so he already had inches on the rest of us. Todd was always the first of us to get bold. Todd was always pushing us a little further down Damnation Alley, saying, “C’mon, can ya dig it? Can ya dig it?” And we could dig it. Hoo-boy, could we ever dig it! We were whooping and hollering, tearing through the neighbourhood.
There were lamp posts and shopping carts and we shrunk the hell out of them.
There was the old dumpster behind the Milk Mart and we shrunk the hell out of it.
There was Todd’s stepfather’s Buick Super Rivera and we shrunk the hell out of it.
There was the baseball diamond in Glenn Park and we shrunk the hell out of it.
We stopped to pick up moon pies and Boyer Smoothie Peanut Butter Cups at the 7-Eleven and the attendant shortchanged us a nickel.
“Whaddya think you’re doing?” said Marvin and his forehead was sweaty and red like he was getting a sunburn. His hair was an electrified bird’s nest. “I want my nickel!”
“Go screw,” said the attendant. His nametag read Jimmy. “Clear out, wouldya?”
And in that moment Jimmy was everything we hated about the world. He was everyone who was always telling us to go screw. Who was screwing us. Who was gypping us. So Todd shrunk the hell out of him, and when the air had finally settled, Marvin gave him the finger.
“Whaddya think of that?” he asked. “Whaddya think of that now, huh?”
“Marv,” said Larry. He sounded worried. Like real worried. “Marv.”
He was staring at Jimmy the attendant. Jimmy the inchworm. He was even smaller than Larry, flailing his arms around and trying to shout something that none of us could make out. Small enough that Todd could squish him between his fingers like a mosquito if he wanted to.
“Shit,” said Marv. “We can’t just leave him, can we? Not like that?”
“Sure we can,” said Todd uncertainly. “I mean, he’ll get better, right? Just on his own?” And Todd had a look on his face like he wished he could take it back. Like he thought maybe this was all going a bit further than he really wanted it to. And maybe it was. Maybe it was.
It was the middle of August. School was right around the corner. We knew the last of the sunlight was going to slip away before we’d hardly had a chance to do anything at all. And here was something. Here was something that was ours. The one bright and shiny thing the universe had dropped into our laps. Would we give it up? Maybe eventually. Maybe someday. But right now?
No effing way.
“Let’s split!” I yelled, and we did.
Sometimes something happens when you’re stupid. If you’re lucky enough not to get caught then there’s such a feeling of relief you swear off whatever badness you were up to forever, and then it’s as good as if you did get caught in the first place. Sometimes. But there are those other times when getting away with something is just the beginning. Sometimes getting away with it can make you wilder and crazier than you ever thought possible.
And that’s how it was with us.
The four of us wailed out of there, Todd with the shrink ray, Marvin with Larry, and Larry munching away happily on a Boyer Smoothie Peanut Butter Cup twice the size of his head.
There was Sinclair Pumps and we shrunk the hell out of it.
There was the Route 9 City Bus to Port Hope and we shrunk the hell out of it.
There was Washington Memorial School and we sure as hell shrunk the hell out of that.
We shrunk the hell out of the cop car that chased us out by Highway 29.
We even shrunk the hell out of Grace Presbyterian where Pastor Davis liked to preach, and then Pastor Davis himself and the whole Saturday Night congregation that was gathered with him.
Pretty soon it was starting to look like we were living in Shrinky Dink, USA and that’s when the feeling of it all going sideways on us started to get worse. We were getting scared again. Real scared.
And maybe then it’s no surprise that we ended up at Melanie’s doorstep a little bit after nine. After all, she was the one always knew best. And what was the whole point of this if it wasn’t her?
Marvin was going to try the bell, but Todd shushed him down.
“Whaddya mean be quiet?”
“Don’t be such a spazz!”
“Don’t be such a jerkoff!”
“Hey, be careful with that, willya?” I cut in, slapping down the shrink ray before Todd could get off a shot. “Let’s be cool for once in our lives now, dig it? Her old man’s not gonna let her out this late.”
There were rules for Melanie now. It was like her parents had gone to bed and woken up thinking the world had turned dangerous for a girl like her overnight. There was curfew. There were long shouting matches about what kind of clothes she could wear, what kind of friends she could have. And boys? We were suddenly finks and fakes to them. Space cadets. Shucksters, one and all. Were we good enough for their daughter? Hoo-boy! Not a chance!
So I took a handful of gravel and I chucked it at her window. This was how we used to do it back when Melanie was Mel and she’d come out with us to play ball or drink the brewskis that Joe would sometimes buy for us.
Eventually there she was at the window and she was beautiful as ever with her hair done up in these big pin curls that just made my heart melt. Her eyes were green as a chemist’s bottle, luminous, I could see them perfectly even though the sun had mostly cut out at this point.
“Hey, Mel!” Todd called softly, forgetting for a moment that she was Melanie now and she was not one of us. I could have kicked him for that. It was an unspoken rule between us that we wouldn’t call her that anymore.
“Hey, yourself,” she said. “What’s the story?”
A moment later, she was wedging the window open and climbing her way down the drainpipe the way she used to. She shimmied her way to the bottom, her pedal pushers hugging her thighs, and then she was standing in front of us panting and pink in the soft, filmy glow of the evening.
“You boys raising some Cain?” she asked.
“Maybe,” said Todd.
“You too?” she asked looking at me. I felt that look travel like electricity right through me and give my balls a good jolt. I blushed. I blinked. Wiped at dirt on my face and hoped my hair didn’t look as nuts as Todd’s and Marv’s did.
Marv took Larry out of his pocket, and the kid was curled up there like a kitten in his palms.
“What’s that supposed to be?” said Melanie.
“Larry’s gone looking for his dog,” Todd burst in. “Ya know, Rufus the Miniature Pooch? Heeeeeeeeeeere, puppy puppy puppy!” I punched him in the arm. “Aw man,” he said. “Whaddya do that for?”
“Can it, willya?” I said.
And just then Larry started to stir. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. Said in that high voice of his, “What’s up, Doc?”
Marv giggled, but Melanie just stared.
“Cool,” she said. The tiniest of grins was starting to tug at her lips.
“Come out with us tonight,” I said. I didn’t look at her. I couldn’t. She was too pretty in the evening light just then.
“I can’t, boys,” she said. She shook her head very gently and those big pin curls of hers did a lazy bob around her shoulders.
We could all feel something drain out of us then, like piss down a pant leg. I don’t know what it was. Craziness? Courage? Whatever it was that Larry’s brother had joined the Air Force to find?
“Course you can,” I tried. It was important. She had to come with us. That was the whole point, wasn’t it? “Nights like tonight? They’re limited supply only. Act now.”
She looked at me funny then. Like she was sad. Like she knew I was righter than I meant to be.
But she also looked at me like she knew I wasn’t being straight with her. And maybe I wasn’t but maybe that was because we were never straight with her anymore. We didn’t ever tell her we loved her. We didn’t ever tell her that’s why we had showed up at her place on a Saturday night with a shrunken boy in our pocket and the kind of ray gun that only ever works in comic books.
We didn’t tell her that maybe we’d gone a bit too far.
We didn’t tell her that maybe we were thinking of going a bit further but we only wanted to do it if she was there. We woulda laid the whole stinking world at her feet if we coulda.
“Peachy,” she said.
So that was how it happened.
We took Melanie into town and we showed her just what kinda Cain we’d been raising.
We walked like giants through what was left of Main Street, tiny cars motoring around our feet and honking at our knees. Tiny parents clutching at their tiny babies, holding them tightly behind their tiny bedroom windows.
It was like we were kings.
It was like we were on top of the effing world!
And Melanie? Her eyes were wide as saucers and pretty soon she was laughing with strange delight at Jefferson’s clock tower which we’d shrunk to the size of a putt-putt club, and she was putting her hand on my arm, and her touch was soft and warm, and her laugh was beautiful, and she was whispering to me, “Oh, you boys, you boys, just look what you’ve done, you crazy things!”
And Todd poked me in the shoulder, and, God, could I have told him to scram just then!
We walked up to the lookout where all the lovers go to play backseat bingo. None of us had ever dared go there before far as I knew. Except Melanie knew the way. She knew things now that our Mel wouldn’t have known.
The evening sky had darkened until there was just a hazy glow of light and the moon was big and sitting heavy and yellow on the horizon. Todd pointed the shrink ray at it but this time it was Melanie who shook her head, batted down the gun.
“Oh no, boys,” she said. “You can’t go shrinking the moon!”
“I bet I could,” Todd said with a grin.
“But,” Melanie replied, “whatcha gonna do without a moon in June?”
And Todd stared at her. And Melanie grinned. And then we all burst into giggles like a bunch of stupid kids.
The lookout was empty. Not a car in sight. Made me wonder where all the lovers had ended up, or if maybe we’d shrunk the hell out of them already. Maybe there were tiny little boys and girls somewhere sharing tiny little kisses under a moon that was now big enough to swallow them.
We settled in the grass together, the five of us. Shared out the last of the moon pies and the Boyer Smoothie Peanut Butter Cups. The night was beautiful. Melanie was beautiful. And I felt happy. Buoyant. I felt grown up, nine feet tall, like I coulda done anything. Like I coulda even kissed Melanie up here at the lookout where the boys and girls went for that sort of thing. If I wanted to. Which I did. Of course I did.
And then we heard a noise. It was so soft it coulda been drowned in the crickets but I strained my ears.
It was crying.
It was this weird, breathless, tinny crying sound.
And I looked down and there was Larry, tucked into Marv’s shirt pocket, holding onto his Boyer Smoothie Peanut Butter Cup and sobbing away like it was the end of the world.
“What’s wrong, Larry?” I asked.
And he didn’t say anything.
“Larry?” Melanie said. And Marv fished him out of the pocket and Marv held him up in the palm of his hands so we could all get a look at him, his tiny shrunken glasses sitting crooked on his face. His tiny shrunken mouth smeared with chocolate.
“I dunno, guys,” he said. “It’s just. Well. We got a shrink ray, didn’t we?”
We all nodded.
“We got a shrink ray and it worked. It worked. It really really worked! And that’s just boss, ya know? It might be the bossest thing of all.”
“Then why’re you weeping?” Todd asked him.
“Because. It’s just. Well. What about Rufus? What about the little guy? How come we got the shrink ray and I ain’t got my miniature dog? I mean, what if he really did escape? What if he’s lost out there?”
Oh god,” cried Larry, “What if he’s dead?”
And Larry’s voice had turned into a wail. We all looked at one another, but no one had a thing to say. Todd coughed. Marv scratched at his nose.
“What if he’s dead?” Larry went on, his voice hiccoughing and broken. We all had to lean in to hear him properly. “I mean it’s funny, isn’t it? I mean, I think I can see Port Hope from here. Do ya think we could shrink Port Hope?” he asked. “I mean, do ya think we could just . . . shrink all of it? We could just shrink the hell out of it! And then all of Michigan, ya know, just ker-blammo! Shrinksville!” His voice had taken on a desperate quality that made me feel weak and scared to hear it. “And then maybe, I mean maybe, maybe we could just shrink our way to Korea, ya know? Just shrink the hell out of it, just shrink the hell out of all those fucking shovelheads, just shrink ’em down and step on them until they’re dead! Whaddya think, boys? Whaddya think? Do ya think we could? Huh?”
His tiny face was red and heartbroken. But his eyes, man, even at only five inches tall we could all see that there was something real and alive in his eyes, something crazy, but a different sorta crazy than the crazy the rest of us had caught.
And whaddya say to that? Whaddya say to a thing like that?
Pastor Davis would know, but we sure as shit didn’t.
“We could do all that,” Todd said slowly. “Course we could. Right, boys? We could? We got a shrink ray, don’t we? We could shrink it all down?”
And then he took out the shrink ray. He pointed it out over the edge of the lookout.
And Larry nodded miserably.
And we all knew Todd woulda done it. His hands were shaking. Right then the shrink ray didn’t look like a dumb plastic toy in his hands, like it coulda come out of a Cracker Jack box. It looked like something else. Like something real dangerous. We had all heard that thunder that wasn’t thunder, after all. We’d all seen what it could do.
And Todd gulped. I could see his Adam’s apple bob up and down like a yo-yo, and I could see the way his hands were starting to shake now, like he knew it was dangerous. Like he hated the thought of pressing down on that button but he was going to do it anyway.
And I know he woulda.
He woulda shrunk Port Hope.
He woulda shrunk all of Michigan.
He woulda shrunk the whole world down if Larry had asked him to. Just shrunk the hell out of it.
Because that’s the way it was with us. That’s how it had always been between us. We all knew it. No one questioned it.
Except for Melanie. Except, of course, for Melanie. And that’s why we’d gone for her, wasn’t it? Because some part of us knew. Some part of us knew that she had to be here. That we needed her. It wasn’t just that we loved her, though we did, of course, sure as shit, but there was something else too.
“No,” she said, and at first it was a soft thing, just a little exclamation. And then she said it again. Louder. “No!”
Todd looked at her.
“Christ, no! For eff sakes, no!” And now we could see that she was shaking. She was grabbing Todd’s arm and she was wrenching the shrink ray out of his hands. “No, you stupid kid! No!” And she was pounding on his chest. Todd had a stunned, slightly surprised look on his face. He was bigger than her. She still hadn’t hit her full height yet, and Todd had already shot up six inches in the last couple of months, and his arms were big and bulky even if he didn’t quite know what to do with them yet, but she was just wailing on him anyway. She was punching his shoulder. She was tearing at his shirt.
“Mel?” I asked, feeling scared. Unsure what to do.
“Oh god,” she said. “Why ya always gotta go doing that? Why ya always gotta go making things small just so that you can grow up? It doesn’t have to be like that, you know? Why do ya wanna go on being the kids that just wreck everything because ya don’t know better?”
And she wiped the tears from her eyes, leaving big black stains like the grease quarterbacks use to keep the glare from the sun down.
“We could do all that. We could do it just like you said, and we could scoop Joe outta Korea, maybe, bring him home safe and sound. But then what? Do you want to live in a world that’s only three inches tall? You want to tower over it and crush the hell out of it every time you take a step?”
And then she wasn’t wailing on him anymore. She was just crying. Crying like we’d never seen our Mel cry before. Her pin curls were wilting like old party streamers and her pedal pushers had grass stains and dirt from where she’d been sitting.
“I dunno why I go around with you boys. You’re just stupid kids, ain’t ya? You’re just kids!”
And Todd was holding her in his arms, first to stop her wailing on him, and now like he just didn’t know what to do with her. The look on his face woulda been priceless if it didn’t make some sort of anger boil up in me just to see the two of them like that, even if it wasn’t on purpose.
And so because of that anger I almost missed what Larry said next. Larry who still had that strange, crazy look in his eyes, even if he was only five inches tall.
“Why’s that?” he said softly. Dangerously, even. “You tell me why it’s gotta be like that?”
And I wanted to say something back to him because right then he didn’t look like Larry at all. He looked more like his brother Joe, even if he was small. Even if he was tiny. But I was still too scared, and that’s when it struck me that Melanie was right. She was so right. We were just kids. We were just kids playing at something stupid, and why didn’t we see that before? Why couldn’t we have been better for her? More like men? Why was it that whenever we tried something that’d make us a bit closer to her it just kept pushing us farther and farther away?
I could tell the other boys were thinking it too. Marv with the little guy cupped between his hands. Todd with his bruised shoulder, holding the girl we all wanted to be holding and still not a clue about what to do next.
And finally it was Marv who just shrugged.
“I don’t know, Larry,” he said, “but she’s right. That’s how it is. Maybe ya got a miniature dog out there. Maybe ya don’t. But the world’s a big place. And I. I don’t think I wanna be one of those folks who’s always trying to burn it all down. I don’t wanna grow up just so’s I can make everything around me like it’s nothing. Like it doesn’t matter for shit.”
“But what about me?” Larry yelled. “What about me? You shrunk me! What about me, huh? What the eff about me?”
And we all looked at each other. There was a sick feeling in my guts. Like I had the cramps. Like I wanted to throw up.
Like he was right.
“I don’t know,” said Mel. She pushed herself away from Todd, wiped at her eyes again with the pale underside of her wrist. “I don’t know what to tell you, Larry. We wait, I guess. We wait and see.”
And that moment stretched on. And on. Larry was shaking. Like he was finally scared now too. Scared by what he’d just said. And it was only then that it had started to dawn on us that the little guy was only five inches tall. I mean, really dawn on us. He was shrunk. I mean, really shrunk. And maybe, just maybe, there might not be any way to make it right again. There might be no growing up for Larry like there would be for the rest of us.
And none of us could think of a better thing to say than that.
It was like the world our parents had always been telling us about, the world of mistakes matter, the world of no more freebies, the world of ain’t just kids anymore was the world we were gonna be living in for the rest of our lives.
God. Whaddya say to that? Just whaddya say?
Finally it was Melanie who found the words first.
“Here,” she said. “We got one Boyer Smoothie Peanut Butter Cup left, don’t we? We’ll help you look for Rufus. Okay, Larry? You dig it?”
And, reluctantly, Todd nodded. You could see he had that same look on his face. Like he was feeling the same thing I was feeling. Like we were looking at Larry and we were wondering what the hell it was we had all gone and done together.
And then Marvin nodded.
And then I nodded.
And the moon was hanging low and fat on the horizon, and it was starting to sink beneath the hills. And the air was starting to cool, just a bit, just the tiniest bit. Outside there was a city three feet tall. Out there was Shrinksville, USA, where our fathers and stepfathers and mothers and sisters were trapped in their tiny houses. Locking their tiny doors. Scared to death of the thing that we had done to them, even though we hadn’t meant anything by it. Even though it’d just been crazy kid stuff we were up to.
And then Larry spoke at last in a voice that sounded as tired as it was scared. “I dig,” said Larry. “I dig, Mel.”
And so Marv slid him back into his pocket. And Todd helped Melanie get to her feet. And then we set off. The five of us. Together.
And maybe there’d be a miniature dog to find, with a white-speckled nose and a tongue made for licking up peanut butter. And maybe there wouldn’t be.
And maybe tomorrow we’d wake up to find Todd’s stepfather’s Buick Super Rivera parked outside the garage, large as life, with its headlights like torpedoes and its hubcaps gleaming in the July sun. And maybe we wouldn’t.
And maybe there was a letter already winging its way home with the signature of President Harry S. Truman inked at the bottom. And maybe not.
But we set off together.
With all our tiny loves.
Our tiny hopes. Our tiny maybes. Our tiny tomorrows.
Gifts for the One Who Comes After is available now from ChiZine, wherever fine books are sold.