Smaller by Eric Raglin


Dr. Hollis is the first to notice the change in your body. You’re a full inch shorter than your last checkup. Strange for a 26-year-old but not unheard of. You joke that you’re not in the NBA anymore, so it shouldn’t be a problem. Hollis laughs, and so do you. Yours sounds raspy—aged like your shrinking frame. Or maybe that’s just how it sounds in your head.

Hollis says to mind your blood pressure. Exercise, eat a healthy diet, avoid stress. “Are you stressed? Things all right at work? Home? Anyway, take this pamphlet. Come back in a year, okay?”

When you get home, Oren is sitting at his computer playing League of Legends. You kiss him on the cheek, and he pulls his head away. He can’t see the screen, damnit. Insults spill from his mouth like a dam breaking— “fucking idiot,” “dumbass,” and “stupid little bitch.” A constant stream. None directed at you, thankfully, but rather some acne-riddled preteen from Milwaukee.

You tell Oren about your doctor visit, all while he attacks the enemy Nexus and shouts commands at his team like a fascist dictator. High blood pressure sounds like something he might have too, you suggest. At this, he says of course he has high blood pressure—these fucking cretins are to blame.

Match over. They’ve lost. Oren drops the r-word, and you cringe. He’s just angry—he doesn’t mean it. At least, that’s what you’ve told yourself the last ten or twenty times he’s used the word.

You snap out of your rationalizations, and Oren is in matchmaking once more. This cycle will continue all night. You ask if he wants to do something else—maybe go to the bar or watch a movie together. He grunts—a digital caveman. The match starts, and it’s like you never even said anything at all. He’s back to screaming at the screen, his blood pressure well on its way to becoming a Guinness World Record.

You think back three years to the Grindr profile that first reeled you in— “you better like ‘em fiery, ‘cause I don’t cum any other way.” After dating the dullest accountant pillow prince imaginable, fiery was what you wanted and what you got.

Too bad fire burns everything in its path. You wake up each morning denying your burns: the bubbling scar tissue, the acrid fumes of ashen hair. Perhaps it felt nice at first—like a sauna in the middle of winter. Weren’t those the days?

You load up a movie you know Oren can’t resist—The Fellowship of the Ring—and wait for him to notice. Maybe it’s enough to pull him away from his computer, to get him to cuddle with you on the couch—how long has it been since you two did that? Oren doesn’t budge, even as you watch the opening scene and turn up the volume. The movie is cheesy and hasn’t aged well, but if it draws him in, the overextended runtime will have been worth it.

You jump when Oren lets out a “fuck” that’s sure to wake the upstairs neighbors. The League of Legends servers are down apparently, and you try your best to feign sympathy. You ask if he wants to watch the movie instead, but he’s already plugged his headphones into his computer and opened up an internet browser. It’s not long before porn pops up on the screen featuring dudes lighter skinned and more muscular than you’ll ever be. You get up from the couch and walk over to Oren, sliding your hand down to his waist. He brushes it away—says he’ll be done soon.

In no time, the movie is off, you’re out of the apartment, and Oren is cleaning himself up, happy to see the League of Legends servers are working again.

You walk to the bar even though it’s barely 5 o’clock. A drink will calm you down and douse the fire. At least for now. There are no conscious thoughts as you navigate; you could get to Stubby’s blindfolded. Of course, that’s nothing to brag about. Perhaps even something you should have mentioned to Dr. Hollis? Maybe at next year’s checkup.

Something disrupts your unconscious navigation, and suddenly, you’re face down on the sidewalk. You tripped. On what? Your pant leg, it looks like. Got caught under your shoe and sent you tumbling like you were already drunk. It doesn’t make much sense, though. You’re still wearing a belt, and a tailor had these jeans altered just for you. So how do four inches of fabric catch on your heel? No time to think on it—just roll the legs up into fashionable folds and keep walking. The bar’s close by now.

The bartender preps your drink before you even say a word. It makes you hate yourself, so you walk right back out the bar and go. Steve Franklin Wosnick—you know the bartender’s full name—calls out to you as you leave: something about your tab. You ignore him and head toward a different bar; one much further away but hopefully humiliation free.

Hours later, you stagger home in the dark, stumbling in the path of honking cars and cursing bicyclists. None of them hit you, and you’re not sure whether to be grateful or bummed. You trip on your pants again. The legs are still rolled up from earlier, and the belt still grips your waist, but somehow the fabric finds its way under you. You stare at your feet and vomit, acid and vodka soaking into your shoes. God, what a night. What a fucking night.

When you get home, Oren’s not there. The clock reads 1:33 AM. Oren works at 8 in the morning. Where the hell could he be?

But you know already.

You know about the one person on League of Legends Oren doesn’t scream at, doesn’t call “shit for brains.” The one person he whispers to through his headset, glancing around to make sure that you aren’t listening. But you are listening. You have been for months. Yet, he has never said anything explicitly incriminating. You’ve heard snippets like “I’ll come up with something” and “make it out there sometime,” though. Apparently “sometime” meant tonight, just six hours before work.

You flop into bed, which feels bigger than usual. Not just because Oren is gone but, well, because of what’s been happening today. The doctor’s measurements? Tripping on your tailored pants? Yeah, there’s something to that. Normally, your legs poke off the edge of the bed, and you have to fold them in, afraid some monster will nibble at them (it’s childish, but we all have that child in us sometimes, don’t we?). But tonight, you fit perfectly in the bed and don’t have to fold up like an accordion. In fact, there’s an extra foot of stretch space, something you’ve wanted for years but now couldn’t want less. What is happening here?

Sobbing wears you out after an hour or two—your tear ducts dry, and your face muscles are sore. Alcohol sloshes through your aching body, burning and sedating in equal measure. Oren doesn’t come home. You fall asleep thinking about death. Oren’s, your own. Whoever’s.

When you wake up, the change is undeniable. Your blanket—which normally only covers either your head or your toes but never both at once—now envelops your whole body with extra fabric to spare on all sides. You thrash to get the blanket off thinking you might still be dreaming, but as soon as you escape, you understand this to be reality. The sun pierces your thin curtains and floods your vision like a hangover death ray. But the pain isn’t confined to your head: It’s spread to all extremities. You’ve never had a hangover like this one, not even in the college semester you failed because, as you told your mom, you’d spent too much time with your “Buds.” Though, you didn’t tell her it was “Buds” with a capital B.

You contemplate pulling the blanket back over your head, but by this point, you see how much you’ve shrunk. The size of a Chucky doll, and perhaps just as murderous with your hangover from hell. No. You must be asleep. None of this is possible, right? You pinch yourself. Slap yourself. Bite your hand as hard as you can. Definitely awake. A crescent of blood blooms on your palm.

You scoot to the edge of the bed, and the drop down seems precipitous. Landing on the ground nearly topples you. You head to the bathroom, noting how long it takes to get there with your shortened strides. The bathroom mirror is up too high to reach, so you climb onto the toilet first, then the sink. From there, you can at least see your face—shrunken, puffy, and ringed around the eyes. The tears come once more, and along with them, pain from the alcohol’s resistance as your body tries to break it down. Seconds later, your chest is covered in vomit, and you practically pass out, only to stabilize yourself with one tiny hand against the mirror.

You jump into the bath because what else is there to do but take the longest shower of your life? Maybe you’re like one of those dinosaur toys that grow in water—the old kids’ toy you and your brother got such a kick out of. You’ll soak up the water and return to your normal size, just like that. Problem solved. The hot water washes away the vomit, and since you’re having trouble standing, you sit instead. The only way to measure time is by how quickly the water cools.

The water makes its way to the drain, and after a while, your body begins to move with it. Minutes ago, you were large enough to avoid being carried away, but not anymore. The drain approaches, and though you’re still too big to go down it, that might not last for long. You scramble to get up, straining for a handhold to pull you out of the shower, but it’s out of reach. The room is thick with moisture, and it feels like you’re barely getting any air. A panic attack is imminent.

And then you hear it—the clack of a key turning and the creak of the apartment door. Oren’s back, the cheating bastard. Scratch that—your loving savior is back. You scream for him, but even then, your voice comes out small, no louder than the shower itself. If you know anything about his routine, it’s that he’ll be at his computer, headphones on, within minutes. From the kitchen comes the beep and hum of the microwave. Soon, you smell burning Hot Pocket. Oren shouts “god damnit,” and you shout right back at him from the shower: It’s the shout of a mouse about to be scooped up by a hawk.

The water feels more like a strong undertow than a stream now. You have a minute, maybe less, to catch Oren’s attention.

At the back of the shower is Oren’s razor, clogged with pubes. Of course, it is. He used to shave for you when you first started dating, but that was only to make a sexy first impression. Come to think of it, in the past three years, he hasn’t shaved once since that first date. If he’s doing it again, he’s definitely cheating. You make your way to the razor, bracing yourself through the current and the water pelting you from above—much more intense now, given your diminutive size. You cling to the razor as if it were a life raft, still screaming for Oren.

You scream for hours—your vocal cords shredded to useless, vibrating meat—but Oren never comes. Eventually, you lose consciousness.

When you wake, the world is moving upward at a gut-wrenching pace. You’re still on the razor, and the razor is in Oren’s hand, heading toward his face. How small are you now? Small enough to fit between the rubber grooves on the razor’s handle. You’re an ant, sticking to surfaces without even trying. But you’re not immune to motion sickness, and the razor rocks back and forth against Oren’s cheek. The sound of shaving from so close is deafening, like sandpaper scraping against gristle. This is the end, isn’t it? He’ll wash off the razor, flush you down the sink, and won’t give a second thought to what became of you. For all he knows, you went back to your parents’ house in Indiana and decided to stay. Good riddance, he probably thinks. Makes the whole ignore-you-‘til-you-break-up-with-me thing a lot easier and less drawn out. Is that what he’s been shooting for?

You scream again because as hard and impossible as life might be right now, dying has never been your plan. Not seriously anyway. Oren holds his razor out to examine it, not because he heard you but because he cut himself. His blood drips from the blade toward the handle, and in seconds, you’re awash in it, barely keeping your head above the crimson ocean of the bead.

Oren turns on the sink. This is it. He holds the razor out toward the water and then ... and then he stops. He squints, looks closer, sees you. Stares. His face, pale, half-shaven, drizzling blood.

After what feels like an hour of staring, he turns off the sink and carries you away on the razor, holding it like an overfull cup of tea, tiptoeing through the living room and into the bedroom. He sets you down on the bed, leaves the room, and comes back a few minutes later with a plate full of toast and a bowl full of water. You’re crying the tiniest teardrops now, no bigger than grains of silt.

Oren sits on the edge of the bed, and the shift would feel like an earthquake had he not done it so softly. He looks you in the eyes, holding your gaze for longer than he has in the past couple of years combined.

“Listen,” he says, his voice soft. “I didn’t mean for this to happen again.”

Again?

“Forget about me, okay?” he continues. “The quicker you do, the quicker you’ll be, uh ... you know, back to normal.”

He sits in silence for a moment, wringing his hands.

“I’m moving in with Jeremy. And before you say anything—if you even can—yeah, I know. I’m an asshole. But that’s good news too, isn’t it? You don’t have to live with an asshole anymore.”

Oren stands abruptly, and you lose your footing. Some water from the bowl spills out onto the sheets.

“I’m gonna leave now,” he says. “It might be a few days before you turn back, so that’s, uh . . . that’s what the water and toast are for. It took a few days the first time this happened, and the guy almost . . . never mind. Anyway, should be enough to, uh, well—”

Oren’s cheeks are bright red and not just from the shaving accident.

“Jesus,” he says. “I just wish I knew why this keeps happening.”

He grabs the razor off the bed to finish shaving, then heads to the bedroom door. Before leaving, he turns around.

“Hey, when you’re full sized again, can you text me? Just give me a heads up. We can delete each other’s numbers after that. I’d just really hate to, uh, not know … you know?”

He lingers in the doorway for a moment, glancing away from you, then nods. Minutes later, he’s gone, and you wonder if you'll ever see him again.

Days pass, and you survive on crumbs of toast and droplets of water. There’s little else to do but weep and try to forget, like Oren suggested. Your phone rings, but you can’t answer it. Probably your job calling to fire you or mom calling to see why you’ve been so distant lately.

Your body is still the same when you wake up the second morning, the third, and the fourth. It is so small and so full of pain—so much pain, you fear that it’ll kill you.

Cruelly enough, it doesn’t.

The fifth morning is different, though. The toast has gone moldy, and the water bowl filmy. But you’ve changed, too. You’re bigger. Maybe just by an inch or so, but you’re bigger. And the day after that, a few more inches. Then a few more. Sometimes you worry your bones are growing faster than your skin and will pierce the surface, but it never happens. Still, your limbs itch and tingle as if you slept on them weirdly, a feeling that lasts for days.

By the time two weeks have passed, you’re almost full size. You’ll never quite be back to normal, but you’re functioning—at least kind of.

When you’re big enough to reach the computer, you pull up Facebook and look up the name you’ve been obsessed with the past few days: Ben Matheson, Oren’s boyfriend before you. The message you send is simple:

Oren just broke up with me. It’s hard to explain, but I need to talk to you.

Ben’s reply is immediate:

I know what you want to talk about. When can you meet? I’m already in contact with the others. We’ll make sure he can never do this again.

You meet the next afternoon. You, Ben, and the dozen others. All of you are shorter than most men, some of you especially so. And yet, by the time you all part ways—with a plan set, and strategies devised—each of you stands just a little taller.

Oren has no clue what’s coming.

ERIC RAGLIN (he/him) is a speculative fiction writer and horror educator from Nebraska. He frequently writes about queer issues, the terrors of capitalism, and body horror. His work has been published in Sirens Call, Fever Dream, and Shiver. Find him at ericraglin.com or on Twitter @ericraglin1992

Artwork by the Novel Noctule team.

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