You blink, wishing you could just close your eyes and descend safely into an untouchable abyss of your own fractured consciousness, but you can’t. Not now, and not ever.
She won’t let you.
You can feel your heart pounding savagely in your chest, your shins stinging sharply as you sprint as fast as your legs will propel you through space. Your lungs are on the verge of collapse, your fists growing clammy from clenching, your temple throbbing in agony, begging you to stop running, but you won’t. If you do, you’ll be as extinct as the last peaceful thought you enjoyed.
It feels like you’ve been throwing yourself through the air for hours, dragging your weary body down into the earth, and as you look around, your surroundings melt curiously into place. The kitchen. The living room. The dinner table, the countertop, the fridge. All there.
All normal. Like none of this had ever happened.
Like the past six years was just some fleeting nightmare you could awake from with a relieved smile and a serene sigh of relief.
The seismic roiling in the ground vibrates more potently with every pace, filling up your consciousness again and threatening to fling you from your feet, effectively extinguishing any remaining hope you have of survival.
You throw your arms over your head and slam through the front door, crashing outward down the patio and into the yard in one breathless leap. Your shoe snags on a dip in the ground and you’re nearly surrendered to gravity, but flailing wildly, you manage to keep your balance as the desperate momentum continues.
“WHERE’S MY LITTLE BRO?” resounds a voice from far overhead that threatens to blow out your eardrums. Birds scatter in a blind panic over the horizon. You cry out in shock, realizing how close the sound is now, the rumbling in the ground causing the pebbles to skyrocket from between the blades of grass as the footsteps get louder and louder, closer and closer, advancing on your very being.
Just as you make it to the street, you misstep wildly at the curb and topple over, your speed betraying you now as you trip headlong onto the concrete, smashing painfully onto your back. You try to push up from the street, but it’s too late: the thundering crashes of the ground are too much to allow you to get up now.
“I’m disappointed in you, Jackie-Poo,” rumbles the feminine voice again from behind you, not quite as earth-shattering as before but just as worthy of your terror. “Soooo disappointed…”
Summoning the resolve, you glance over your shoulder just in time to watch the house violently exploding, wooden confetti and brick shards spiraling out, a massive cloud of dust and smoke billowing like black fire. You shield your face as the rolling wave cleanses you in its destruction, bathing your body in dirt and clogging your throat with sawdust and powdered plaster. Loose stone clatters as it sprays outward across the block.
Hacking for air, you crawl to your feet and gape in awe at where your home stood moments before, a few defiant chunks of wall still clinging to the foundations.
Glass crunches. Wood buckles. Mortar crumbles.
A smooth, slender bare foot the size of an earthmover ascends regally from the wreckage as the smoke clears, debris raining from between the shapely toes as they writhe mightily in midair, cutting a path through the oppressive fog of filth.
You stare into the glaring sunlight, following the seemingly endless silhouette of the arching, athletic form rising into the air, so high that all you can see above is shrouded by darkness from the sun’s blinding power.
Suddenly, everything comes back into focus as you realize the raised foot is bearing down, casting an ominous shadow over you and your life.
Just as it always has.
“No matter where you run…” comes the proud battle cry of her voice far above. The foot arches proudly, the creamy, wrinkled sole hovering threateningly above you, tiny scraps of the house still clenched in the fleshy crevices. “No matter where you try to hide…”
The rounded toes wriggle, powdering the remaining bricks stuck between them as if they were clumps of dirt. The swollen pink heel smashes downward into the dirt, drilling a hole deep enough to be your grave. It might very well be.
The ceiling of omnipotent flesh hangs over your head. Close enough for you to reach out and touch as you cower helplessly on the ground underneath it where you’ve begun to understand is your prophetic calling. The toes inch closer and closer, parting expectantly. Waiting. Itching. Yearning to have your fragile head wedged between them, your face squeezed into the doughy skin, your body pinned easily under the ball of the colossal foot.
“…I will ALWAYS find you!” laughs the echoing voice of your sister Carly as she looms like a valkyrie over your hapless neighborhood. Nothing in sight capable of stopping her.
Least of all you.
Carly slams her foot down with a stomp that rips a genocidal earthquake for miles around, leveling the houses for blocks in a destructive display of godlike power, her girlish giggling echoing over the hillsides, her digits crunching downward into the malleable broken ground, sandwiching you between them.
Your body liquefies instantly into the soft crevice between your sister’s toes where you’ve always belonged.
Your eyes tear open, your body gasping meekly for oxygen and soaked in frigid sweat. It takes a minute just to catch your breath again, feeling the absolute exhaustion of the sprint you experienced in your dream still wracking your distressed body.
Running a hand through your hair, your fingers still shaking, you curiously prod at your heaving chest.
The feelings were so authentic. The pain. The adrenaline. The fear. The acceptance.
You’re almost surprised to find your entire body still intact, rather than mulched into paste on the smooth sole of your sibling’s catastrophic foot, so tangible was everything you experienced.
Rising slowly, careful not to trip as you walk your way down the rolled-up washcloth you use as a pillow, you step onto the sanded plank inside the refurbished birdhouse. The looming expanse of the yard beyond the protective chicken wire stretches out to the sky-high fences seemingly miles away, pointing toward the massive glass door leading back into the house, where you so long ago stepped through and into your own personal hell.
It occurs to you that you should probably mention this tormented mid-slumber reverie to the psychologist later today when you go to see her for your therapy session. She’s been walking you through your nightmares recently as they grow more frequent and vivid, hoping to help you finally unwind the PTSD you have coiled so tightly around your nerves they may well be a part of your brain now.
Somehow, you doubt dream analysis is going to help you get over the five years of torture you endured at the hands of your sister, but Dr. Felton is the professional, the staggering distinction of your particularly fantastical case notwithstanding.
Approaching a bottle cap full of cool water, you dip your head and brush refreshing splashes over your cheeks and eyelids, trying to reinvigorate as best you can and put the murderous imagery aside for the time being. There will be plenty of time to chew into those kinds of sickening thoughts later on in the doctor’s office.
Next, moving carefully to the circular mouth of the birdhouse and into the honeyed light it yields, you clamber over and make your way down the plastic staircase your cousin Sophie fashioned for you. Letting your gaze drift toward the clouds, almost cosmic in their distance, your eyes adjust to the overwhelming glow of the sun again. Overhanging branches of the towering tree above partially blot out your view with its sashaying leaves. Sometimes when you stare at it for long enough, you can almost feel again the ghostly trickle of a shock shooting through your body as the final nail in your coffin was electrified through your body courtesy of a metal rake and Carly’s idea of a joke.
No time for that now. You’ve got to learn to stop associating your every sight, sound, and taste with your formerly giant sister. At least, that’s what the doctor’s told you.
Much easier said than done, though.
Instead your eyes lock to the wooden perch secured safely to the side of the birdhouse and, taking a deep breath, you latch on, pulling yourself higher so your chin just passes the bar before lowering yourself back down and repeating the process.
Rising and falling. You huff and puff, trying to maintain steady breathing and return your body to some kind of equilibrium after the rush you experienced in your sleep.
It might’ve once felt peculiar to exercise to slow your heartrate down after napping, but then again, there are a lot of things about you that are a peculiar, namely the fact that, at the age of twenty-three, you’re just shy of three inches tall, just like you have been for more than six years, only the final year of which was spent wearing clothes like a civilized person and dedicating yourself to a life beyond licking the bottom of your normal-sized totalitarian sister’s toes whenever she ordered you to.
Or, at least, your sister who used to be normal-sized before falling prey to the very same chemical cocktail and electrical catalyst that rendered you a naked, shrunken, enslaveable freak of nature more than half a decade ago. You have your cousin Sophie to thank for that. Despite how little you had in common with the now-eighteen-year-old before that fateful day that turned you into your little sister’s secret living toy for so long, Sophie has quite literally taken you under her wing, becoming the closest thing you have to a friend as you try to readjust to this brave new world where the threat of accidentally being smushed under the rubber heel of somebody’s sneaker is uncomfortably real.
Your lungs pump oxygen in rhythm with the controlled thrusts of your arms. You pick up the pace, daring to imagine you might pull yourself up beyond the tree and into the stratos with enough of these motions.
You can’t help but wonder how your dad is doing right now. With all the work he’s been doing in Washington, you know he’s probably not getting much more sleep than yourself. Still, you know you can rest easier once the world is a little safer from the evils that indescribably powerful chemical compound is capable of bringing onto a person, and this time, you’ve got people backing you up. There’s something undeniably inspiring about seeing a bunch of politicians come together on something for once. If the media is to be believed, there hasn’t been such a unanimous conciliation of opinion in several decades. With any luck, the danger of anyone else being put through a fraction of what you’ve survived will be quashed forever.
In and out. Burning in your biceps, but you press onward, clenching your teeth. You’re no stranger to soreness in your life, nor excruciating torture. This is a cakewalk.
Your mind reaches for more distractions. Something, anything.
Homework won’t be too bad today. Hell, you’re looking forward to it, like you have been for most days that don’t involve tests. The five years you spent in captivity put you a little academically behind, where you would’ve graduated from college at this point if not for the treacherous hands of fate and science, but thanks to your own fiery intellect and an unrelenting thirst to make up for the knowledge drought of the past years, your tutor’s assured you you’ll be ready to start graduate-level work within two years, a fact that made you positively elated: a feeling you haven’t experienced in so long, you almost forgot what it felt like.
Your fingers are starting to go numb now, so you grip the bar tighter as you continue. Your arms are quivering. Your stomach is tightening in on itself.
This is nothing.
You reach your goal with an arduous grunt and let go, slamming down between the foliage of grass, just as you hear the creaking seal of the back porch door being slid open.
Panting quietly, trying to catch your breath as you clutch your hand to your chest, you peer up between the wispy blades and witness a pair of lithe legs tiptoeing toward your birdhouse, obviously being careful not to stomp. You watch the tanned feet slapping against the familiar pink flip-flops, the toes scrunching down into the rubbery base. Sophie’s benevolent shadow falls over you, toned arms arched, hands on her hips, and her dark blonde hair tied back in a tight ponytail.
“Hey there, Jack,” she muses cheerfully down at you, slowly kneeling down into the grass with an inviting smile on her soft lips.
After the terrifying rush you experienced in your dream, for a moment, as you gaze up at the pretty, grinning face and laughing blue eyes of your cousin and now, thanks to the bizarre set of circumstances that led to your rescue, your closest ally, you feel the urge to scurry away through the greenery and find an anthill for refuge, but you halt yourself before you have a chance to move.
Sophie has always looked and even sounded remarkably similar to Carly minus two and a half years, which is why it’s so unsettling, but even so, with how often your cousin worries about you, there’s no sense in ever explaining such a thing to her, especially not when she’s so unrelentingly kind to you.
“Hey,” you pant sheepishly, still catching your breath.
“Geez, did you just take a lap around the yard?” she giggles. “I thought you were trying to sleep out here!”
“Well, I was…”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t be comfier letting me hold you instead of laying on that rag in there?” she suggests earnestly as she scratches the back of her neck, non-too-subtly showing her affinity for carrying you around. Which you’re not one to fault her for, considering how gently your cousin knows how to wrap her fingers around your body, allowing you to drift off against the plush creases of her palm before you’ve gotten the first yawn out. Still, she dotes on you plenty already, and from time to time, it’s nice to have some solitude.
“Maybe next time,” you promise. “Anyway, I didn’t run around the yard. It was just a few pull-ups. I felt some extra energy.”
“Oh yeah?” she says, raising an eyebrow playfully. “Well, you’re gonna have even more once you see this!”
Smirking with the effort to avoid blurting out the answer, Sophie lowers her hand into the grass, laying it flat, palm-up, on the dirt in front of you. After five years of being scooped up without permission, it’s still taking you time to get used to having a choice in the matter. Like your opinion is worth a damn to someone. Wordlessly, you hop aboard, and she skillfully raises you up, bringing you into the sunlight and holding you at chest level.
“Seriously, what?” you ask again as you take a seat on the cushy heel of her hand, but the only answer you get is another eager snicker as Sophie saunters back through the sliding glass door and into the house.
Your cousin passes through the kitchen, cupping her fingers protectively around you as she bounds into the brightly lit hearth. Every time you’re forced to cross that spot on the hardwood where you were first discovered by a skyscraper-sized Carly in a puddle of piss and rain, your spine tightens as though a vertebrae might jerk out of place, but you’re steadily learning to relax about it. Of course, there’s not long to dwell on that nice little shred of emotional upheaval, because suddenly Sophie is by the marble countertop where you once were forced to scarf down your sister’s masticated bites of spit-slogged peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Your stomach seems to swell at the mere memory of it with equal measure of revulsion and hunger pang. Keeping your eyes ahead and your hands atop Sophie’s comforting digits, you don’t allow it to consume your thoughts.
Sophie moves next into the living room and takes a seat on the couch that once served as the altar of your first worship service to Carly’s feet, where you were continually ground into the cushions, bathed in her grass-stained musk and beaten under powerful toes until the muscle memory of their doughy heft was ingrained in your skin.
This too you force out of mind. You’ll be damned if you’re going to let traumatic recollections impede the good mood your cousin is trying to impart to you. The television affixed to the living room wall proudly bellows an advertisement for some unpronounceable mouth wash.
“It’ll be back on in a minute. It’s been running for like an hour,” your cousin squeals, hardly able to hold in the excitement. Her hand trembles beneath you.
Clambering overtop Sophie’s fingers, you give your attention to the TV just as the commercial break returns to the morning talk show. Your heart swells before a word is even out of the anchor’s mouth as the breaking news banner rolls triumphantly across the bottom half of the screen.