It was too noisy, the clamour of conversations filling the room with empty nonsense. The music that one could still hear in the background was not to her taste. The food was either too greasy, too salty or both. Even the wine she was drinking was of questionable quality, being too sour to enjoy. Heather wasn’t enjoying the party. She never did truly enjoy any, quickly reaching the point of wanting to go home of any social gathering. But today’s evening seemed to be getting on her nerves sooner than usual. Having exhausted all the possible conversation topics with other guests, she resigned herself to sitting on a couch in the corner of the room, sipping the sour, red liquor and trying her best to hide her irritation. Tonight she was wearing a plain black dress with a beige cardigan on top of it, neutral colours working well with her long and straight brown hair and brown eyes, as well as a pair of black sandals. She was of average, everyday beauty, if not for her defined, high cheekbones. Standing at a full six feet of height, she certainly stuck out. But that evening no one paid attention to those details, nor to her, much to her contentment. When she looked around the room she noticed the guests had already divided themselves into groups, some more numerous than the others, with two or more people standing in front of each other and talking, as was the usual at the parties she attended. She wasn’t surprised in the slightest to see this phenomenon, yet she couldn’t help but feel excluded, if only a bit. She wished she could go home already, change into something more comfortable and less showy, take those damn, tight sandals off and relax in the silent comfort of her apartment. Why did I even come here? she wondered, although she knew the answer already. She was here to meet with James.
The two had a history, a brief but passionate history which ended in a rather turbulent way, one that included many exchanged insults and a door being slammed. It has been over a year since Heather last saw him. Her attempts to contact him in the meantime would always end in unreturned calls and unanswered emails, until she eventually gave up. But when she heard about the party and about him being present, she knew she had to be there. Yet now, she was still sitting by herself in the corner and he was nowhere to be seen. Sure, the host assured her he will be there, but that was an hour or two ago and Heather was getting impatient. Maybe he knew I’d be here she thought. Maybe he’s not coming after all. But before she could even begin to sulk, a ring bell could be heard. She saw the host walk over to the front door, her heels clacking against the hardwood floor. While Heather couldn’t see through the people in the way, she heard the door open and the host exchanging a few words with another person. She knew the latter’s voice, she knew it well. She stood up and took a few steps in that direction and the person she was awaiting entered the room. He hadn’t changed at all, or so she thought at the moment. His hair was still blonde and cut short, his face still covered in a thin layer of scruff and his light-blue shirt and marine jeans complimented his blue eyes. She remembered those eyes and the way they looked at her before the things fell apart between the two. He smiled at her and she smiled back, an awkward, uneasy but polite smile for a person she hadn’t seen for so long. Something seemed different in him, something Heather noticed only when she got closer. He was shorter than her, he had been before. Visibly shorter, her having a few inches over him, which neither of them did mind. But not this much shorter, not close to a foot in difference. And he seemed thinner too. Maybe he just lost weight. Maybe her mind was playing tricks on her. Maybe it was just the wine.
‘Hey’ James said. ‘You’re looking good’
‘Thanks. You too’ Heather said, still feeling awkward.
‘How’s life been treating you?’
‘Alright, I guess. How about you?’
‘Could be better’ he said and shrugged, his smile momentarily leaving his face. ‘I’ll go say hi to everyone and get back to you, okay?’
She nodded and watched him walk away, approaching the nearest group of people, shaking hands, exchanging smiles. Everyone seemed to tower over him, even women, even the ones wearing flat shoes. Yet no one seemed to notice anything nor address the issue, give it a second thought, everyone being content with a quick greeting and returning to whatever stuff they were discussing a moment ago. She observed him closely, still wondering what was it that seemed out of place in him. It took a moment but she finally did find what she was looking for. He had a rash behind his ears, a few spots on the skin, pale red in colour. This wasn’t a common rash though; she had seen this kind before, a long, long time ago. Combined with his seemingly diminished stature, the sudden increase in the height difference between the two, it all seemed too familiar to Heather. Her heart sank when she realized just what it could be and she knew she had to ask him about it, confirm whether there was a reason to worry. She took another sip, trying to calm herself down as she noticed him approach her again.
‘What are you drinking?’ James asked, pointing to the glass she was holding.
‘Oh, that? Something bad, I’m afraid.’
‘Well I’ve got something better.’ He smiled and showed her a bottle of orange wine of respectable brand, already open. ‘Let’s go somewhere private and have a taste’
‘Let’s’ Heather said and, for the first time that evening, genuinely smiled.
They found a small and empty room consisting of a single bed and a nightstand attached to it. He turned on a small lamp standing on it, making the room only a bit lighter, as they took a seat on the bed. James poured two glasses and handed one to Heather. Finally, they could have some peace and quiet, the noises of the party being muted through the closed door, demoted to serving as the background noise.
‘I’m a bit surprised to see you here’ he said. ‘I thought you don’t like parties’
‘I don’t. I only came because… Well, never mind.’
‘Because of me?’
‘Maybe.’ She smiled and took a sip, watching him follow suit. ‘How about you, what are you doing here?’
‘Just dropped by to say a few hellos and a few goodbyes.’
‘Goodbyes? You’re going somewhere?’
‘You could say that.’ His smile vanished once again and again only for a moment, returning to his face as soon as it left.
‘How cryptic of you.’ She had the question on the tip of her tongue. She knew what she wanted to ask him about. And still she couldn’t force herself to do it.
‘I like your shoes’ he said after a while and she saw him looking down. She did so as well. Her feet were bigger than his. Were they always like this? She couldn’t remember.
‘My shoes or my feet?’ she asked in a teasing tone.
‘Since when do you wear red?’ he ignored her question, instead referring to her current nail polish.
‘Not your favourite colour I take it?’
‘Not really.’ Another sip on his part, another momentary tension in his face. They went silent for a moment before Heather spoke up again.
‘Are you mad at me? For all the things I’ve said then?’
‘No. Are you?’
‘No. I thought you were. You didn’t return my messages.’
‘I mean, I was mad at the time. Then, when I calmed down a bit, I thought some distance was in order. And when that passed I thought you moved on and there wasn’t a point anymore, so…’
She sighed. ‘I didn’t. I never really moved on.’
‘Neither did I.’
They finished their drinks. She took the empty glass from his hand and placed it with the one she was drinking from on the nightstand. They sat for a moment without saying anything, looking in each other’s eyes in the dim light of the lamp. In the end, she was the one to make the move. She leaned in, put her hand on the nape of his neck and brought his face closer as she kissed him. At first they were timid, careful, barely pecking each other with their lips but their passion arose in no time. Soon their tongues were wrestling in their mouths, soon his hands was taking a dive beneath her dress while hers fumbled around his belt. A year and more of longing was overwhelming them with each kiss, each touch they exchanged. But the deed never came to pass as James suddenly retreated his lips, his hands and himself, leaning back from her.
‘No’ he whispered nervously ‘No, we- We can’t. We shouldn’t.’
‘What? Why not?’ Heather asked in disbelief.
‘I’m sick. I can’t expose you to the risk of contracting-‘
‘You can’t contract it’ she interrupted him, her face suddenly growing stern and serious. ‘I know you have it.’
‘The Matheson’s Syndrome. You can’t infect other people with it.’
He said nothing to it for a moment, any positive mood having disappeared from his face, leaving behind a sullen expression. ‘How could you tell?’ he finally asked in a coarse voice.
‘The rash. It’s the initial symptom, isn’t it? My father had the same one before…’ She made a brief pause. ‘Before he passed away.’
‘I’ve been to the doctors today. They gave me twenty four hours, give or take.’ He poured himself another glass. He pointed the bottle at Heather, but she shook her head.
‘So that’s why you came here? You didn’t want to be alone?’
‘I guess. I think I wanted to say goodbye before the effects really kick in. Then go home and just… poof.’ He made a waving motion with his hand, as if shaking a magic wand. ‘Just disappear.’
She didn’t comment on that. Instead, she put her hand on his shoulder. He shrugged it off.
‘I don’t want your pity’ he quietly groaned.
‘This isn’t pity’ she told him, but she knew she was lying. ‘Okay, it is. I’m sorry for you, really sorry. It shouldn’t have happened to you. I wish there was something I could do, if only to make you feel better.’
Another pause from his part, another brief and awkward silence before he addressed her. ‘There is something. I don’t think you’re going to like it, though.’
‘Now that I remember, you’ve never told me about what happened to your father. Every time I tried asking you about it you would cut the conversation short.’
Cut it short. Bad choice of words. ‘You want to know what happened to him?’ she asked. ‘I can tell you. But I have to warn you, it’s a sad story and there’s no happy ending.’
‘There’s no happy ending waiting for me either’ he said, lowering his head. ‘Please, tell me.’
She was fourteen at the time and, like all teenagers, she had her share of problems and worries. Mainly regarding school and boys. Being almost six feet tall at that age meant certain issues with being accepted within the former and being popular with the latter. But aside from this, the life at the time was good. She lived with her parents in a cosy house located in a quiet suburb near the city. Both her parents held well-paying jobs that allowed all three to go on vacation each summer. She was friends with all the other neighbourhood kids. And as it happens when life gets too good, it all came to an end. Not an abrupt one – the deterioration was gradual. One day Heather and her mother noticed a rash behind dad’s ears. Since no cream or ointment seemed to help get rid of it, he made an appointment with a doctor, a good one at that. But instead of prescribing him any medication, the doctor set him up for a series of examinations. In hindsight, Heather thought, she should’ve noticed then and there something was wrong. When that was over she would often find her parents discussing something in hushed voices, stopping whenever she was nearby and telling her not to worry when she finally decided to address them about the matter. Everything is fine, they would always say until the situation got to the point when they could no longer hide anything from her. When one morning she walked, barefoot, into the kitchen while her dad was getting up from the table and she realized she was now seeing eye to eye with him, despite him being more than a head taller than her the previous evening.
Things had only gotten worse from there. Her mom sat her down with tears in her eyes and told her, in no uncertain terms, how daddy was sick, how there will be less and less of him each day and how the doctors (despite them doing their best, as she assured her) were helpless. And so her father began to get smaller and both the family’s quality of life and Heather’s relations with him began to fall apart. Her and her family’s friends would vanish from their lives, one after another. Bills went unpaid as he became too small for his job and only her mother made any income. Kids at school caught the whiff of his condition and not a day would pass without them making sure she won’t forget it. The whole neighbourhood cut ties with them, deeming their house as cursed, even if no one called it as such out loud. She remembered being angry. At the people she thought her friends and the ones who would take pot shots at her expense, at the world for allowing this to happen to her, but most of all at her own father. For being unable to overcome his condition, for turning them into pariahs to be made fun of, not realizing at the time he couldn’t stop it even if he tried. Soon he stopped being a father in her eyes and became something else, something lesser, a stranger living in the same house as her. She found herself unable to accept him as a parent, not when he dwindled to the size of a dwarf and from there to the size of a doll, upon which he had to relocate to her old dollhouse. She would continuously refuse to associate with him, to even stop by to say hi, despite her mother pleading with her to maintain the relations.
One day Heather and her mother were away shopping for cheap food and when they returned home they were met with a terrible scene. One of the windows was open, her mother having forgotten to properly close it and now there was a cat in the house, despite them never owning any pets. The dollhouse was a shredded ruin. And worst of all, her father was missing. After finding a piece of torn cloth lying on the floor next to a drop of some red liquid, things became all too clear. Her mother cried then, a lot. But Heather didn’t. She was angry again, furious at her father for dying such a humiliating death and leaving them alone and forcing them to spend whatever money they had at his funeral, even if it would be only symbolic. Not long after, Heather’s mother acknowledged she could no longer afford for them to live in the house nor bear staying in the place her husband perished and so they began to organize moving out. They spent the next several days packing their stuff and getting ready to leave forever. When everything was prepared and placed on the lorry, her mother sent her to the basement to check whether they turned all the taps off, as the final errand. She descended into the dark and dusty room and looked over everything, making sure no water was flowing from any pipe. When she was about to leave something grabbed her attention – a motion on the worktable by the stairs. She noticed a spider, roughly an inch long, chasing after another creature of similar size. A two-legged creature covered in scraps of dirty cloth, the creature being none other than her own father. Thinking quickly, Heather brought her thumb down and squished the spider, then placed her palm on the table for her tiny dad to get on. When he did, she carried him upstairs to show him to her mother, but the reunion was short-lived. He only managed to squeak out a few words in which he apologized and thanked them for everything and finally made Heather promise to take care of her mom. The moment she agreed they watched him dwindle away, shrinking into nothing into the surface of Heather’s palm, leaving behind only the scraps of material that served as his clothes.
‘And that’s the last time I saw him’ Heather finished, staring ahead. She poured herself a glass while she was telling James everything and when she was done talking she took a big sip from it.
‘How awful. I’m sorry for you’ he said, shuddering from hearing about her father’s final moments.
‘Told you this wasn’t going to end well. Now.’ She finished the drink and set the glass aside once more. ‘What will you do?’
‘I don’t know. Go home, I guess. Prepare for the inevitable.’
‘Come with me. To my place.’ She placed a hand on his shoulder once more, this time deciding she won’t let him shrug it off.
‘Why?’ James asked, looking at her in disbelief. ‘Why would you want to see that… thing happen again? You got some morbid curiosity or something?’
‘First of all – fuck you.’ There was anger in her voice and even more so in her expression. ‘This has nothing to do with curiosity, I’ve seen it all before and I’ve seen it well enough to never be curious about it so don’t give me this shit.’ Now her hand was gripping his arm and it took her a second to realize she was actually hurting him. She loosened the grip and the tone. ‘Sorry. I got angry. Point is, I don’t want you to be alone in that moment. And I think you don’t want that either.’
He nodded, but said nothing and remained silent for a moment. Then he grabbed the wine bottle and took a swill directly from it, finishing what was left. ‘You’re right, I’m sorry. I’m getting overwhelmed by all this’ he said, placing the empty bottle on the nightstand. ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’