Rachel rang the doorbell and waited. She was standing in front of a white, unimpressive house, with rows of short hedges on either side of the door. Earlier that day she’s been called by her aunt, Nancy, asking to come by and keep an eye on Tim, her husband, while she was away ‘doing stuff’. Rachel didn’t inquire what would the stuff in question be, but having nothing better to do at the moment, she agreed to help, just like she did several times before. It was nothing unusual to her. For you see, poor Tim was one of the rare cases afflicted with the Matheson’s syndrome, a malicious disorder that caused the bodies of its victims to contract, to diminish in mass, to, putting it briefly, literally shrink. The news of his condition was a shock to the whole family, especially to aunt Nancy who would employ Rachel’s help when he eventually became too small to properly function on his own, while she was away working, now the sole breadwinner of their marriage. Fortunately for both of them, Rachel was always eager to lend her hand. She was a tall woman in her early twenties, with long brown hair and light grey eyes. She was of average beauty, with oval face dotted with freckles around her small, perky nose. That day she was wearing a blue top and short jeans, as well as a pair of thin sandals on her bare feet, it being a rather warm day.
She tugged on the strip of her brown leather purse, waiting for the door to open and when it finally did she saw her aunt, a middle-aged woman of dark hair and sharp face, standing in it. ‘About time,’ she said and smiled at her, letting her in. ‘Thanks for coming, sweetheart. I wouldn’t bother you with this, but today I just have to go downtown.’
‘Lots of things to do?’ Rachel asked, looking at her aunt. She noticed she wasn’t wearing her usual, every-day clothing, but a grey blazer suit complete with a white shirt. As if she dressed up for an important occasion. Or an important somebody. ‘Serious things?’
‘You could say that. I might be gone for a while and I need someone to keep Tim company in the meantime.’
‘How is he, by the way? Still grumpy about having to live in the dollhouse? Oh I still remember how he complained the first time. It was funny, his squeaky voice and all.’
Nancy sighed. ‘Yes, about that… I better show you. Come with me.’
She led her down the hallway and into the living room. Rachel glanced at the dollhouse in question, standing on the floor close to the wall and was surprised to see Nancy pass it by. ‘Um, we missed-‘
‘He’s not there,’ her aunt quipped without turning back and approached the table by the window, gesturing Rachel to come closer. In the middle of it was a petri dish made out of thick glass. ‘Look,’ Nancy said, pointing towards it. Rachel leaned down to look at its contents. It was empty, save for a very tiny, insignificant something sitting by the glass wall and it took her a moment to realize just what it was.
‘Oh. My. God,’ Rachel gasped, her eyes opening wide as she turned to Nancy. ‘No way.’
‘Yes way, honey. That’s your uncle Tim, alright.’
‘He is so tiny! He looks like an ant!’ She momentarily glanced at the tiny figure inside the petri dish before turning her attention back to her aunt. ‘He must be, what, a quarter of an inch tall now? A little less?’
Nancy nodded, solemnly. ‘I haven’t measured him yet, but you’re probably right. He had another shrink spurt last night. And I, in turn, had trouble finding him in the morning.’
‘I can see why,’ Rachel said, taking another look at the little man. She felt sad seeing him like this. Every shrink spurt made his life even more miserable than the one before, made him even more dependent on others. She still remembered how big and strong he seemed to her when she was still a little girl, way before the trouble started. Now he was too small to even live in a dollhouse. A bug in a glass. ‘Where will you keep him now, by the way? That petri dish seems a bit… I don’t know. Dehumanizing?’
‘I don’t think you can dehumanize him even more than that,’ Nancy said and Rachel gave her a concerned, almost insulted, look. ‘Oh don’t worry, I’ll think of something. So, now that you know what the situation is, I need you to keep an eye on him while I’m away. I know this might be harder than usual, given the circumstances, but I know I can count on you. Oh, and – try not to bring your face so close to him. You might blow him away with your breath. Or worse, inhale him.’
‘Sorry,’ Rachel mumbled, instantly moving her face away from the petri dish.
‘Also, it would be best if he stayed inside his container. Don’t take him out. You might lose track of him or drop him to the floor and step on him by accident. And keep the windows closed, can’t risk a fly or any other insect sneaking in to eat him. Sorry if I’m getting paranoid.'
‘I’ll be very careful with him, I promise.’
‘I know you will,’ Nancy said and looked at her wrist watch. ‘Alright, I should be going. There’s food in the fridge if you get hungry. And you can reach me by phone if something happens. But I’m sure nothing will. Now, give your aunt a hug.’
They embraced and Nancy was gone soon after, her heels clacking against the floor as she left Rachel alone with her minuscule charge. The young woman glanced down at the petri dish and its tenant, still sitting by the wall, and she quietly sighed. ‘Poor thing,’ she thought. ‘Poor, poor thing.’
She started her shift by making herself comfortable. She went back to the front door and took her sandals off, leaving them there. Her feet were burning from walking all the way here so she welcomed the chill of the wooden floor. She swung by the kitchen and took a sip from the bottle of orange juice. Returning to the living room, she put her purse on the table, taking a few things out. Her cell phone, a bottle of red nail polish, a pack of tissues, an unfinished sandwich which still seemed fresh. She pulled up a chair and sat down with her phone in hand, checking messages and browsing web for a while. Her attention soon turned towards her little uncle trapped within the petri dish. She put the phone down and pulled the glass container closer, dragging it across the table with just one finger. ‘Sorry if I startled you,’ she said, leaning in to get a better look at Tim. He was too small to read his facial features, but she knew he was looking up at her. ‘How are you feeling?’
At first she thought he was ignoring her question, but then she noticed his mouth was moving, repeatedly. There was no sound coming from it, though. ‘I’m sorry, uncle, but I can’t hear you. Maybe if I brought you closer? I know aunt Nancy was against it, but… We’ll keep it a secret.’ She smiled at him and put her index finger inside, her nail against the glass bottom of the container. ‘It’s okay, you can trust me,’ she added, seeing the tiny figure hesitate. A moment later she watched Tim stand up and slowly approach her fingertip. There was something weird in the way he walked. Rachel was quick to notice he was holding his hands against his crotch and even quicker to figure out why. Of course, she thought, his clothes haven’t shrunk with him. But he needs both hands to get on my fingertip. ‘Oh, it’s okay, uncle Tim,’ she told him in a reassuring tone. ‘You’re too small for me to see anything down there, you don’t have to be ashamed.’ She smiled at him as he stopped covering himself and began to clumsily climb on her fingertip. She waited patiently until he was lying safely in the middle of it before slowly lifting him up until he was directly under her eyes.
‘Try saying something now,’ she instructed him, watching his tiny body sprawled on her fingertip. He raised his head and his mouth moved again, and again she couldn’t hear a thing. ‘Hold on, I’ll bring you closer to my ear… Try now.’ Nothing. She deemed, with a bit of a sadness, that Tim was now too small to be heard by humans. She brought him back and placed the fingertip he was on in the middle of the palm of her free hand, letting him get down. ‘I guess we’ll have to stick to non-verbal communication, huh? Nods and all that. In fact, let’s try some now. Tell me, am I the greatest niece in the world?’
He nodded, reluctantly and Rachel smiled. ‘Aw. And you’re the sweetest uncle in the world.’ And the smallest, she thought. But then again, this has been a case for a while now. ‘Would you like me to put you back in the petri dish?’ He shook his head, much less reluctant to answer that question. ‘No, I thought not. My hand is a much better place to keep you, isn’t it? It’s definitely warmer than that thing,’ she followed, giving him a reassuring look. ‘Don’t worry, I’m sure it’s just temporary. Aunt Nancy will find a better place for you to live.’ She couldn’t help but wonder what it could possibly be. At his current size, Tim could be stored virtually anywhere and he’d still have plenty of room. A matchbox. A thimble. A shoe. No, that would be just too cruel. But still, she briefly imagined herself putting Tim inside one of her sneakers and giggling at his frustration, before perishing that thought and turning her attention back to the tiny figure in her palm. ‘So, back to my initial question. How are you feeling? I mean, are you okay, despite… You know?’
He slowly shook his head. Guess I can’t be surprised, Rachel thought, aware of the toll his condition was taking on his mood. She recalled his previous shrink spurts, starting from the very first one. The first time he shrank, he dropped from his usual six feet to five-foot-ten, making him exactly the height of Rachel and just two inches taller than Nancy. The difference was barely noticeable, but it was there. Further spurts weren’t so subtle. From that height he dwindled to just five feet, then three and a half, then just one. And if being one-sixth of his original height wasn’t humiliating enough, he shrank further to just four inches. Rachel still remembered how light he felt when she held him in her hand, how she couldn’t believe this was a human being and not some toy which came to life. She thought he was small then; seeing the tiny speck he was now, barely visible even though she held him so close to her face, made her realize just how wrong she was.
Suddenly, her phone buzzed. She picked it up and saw a message from Anne, one of her friends. It said: ‘heywyd’. Anne, a master of communicating through abbreviations, was also not very keen on using spacing. Whether it was a fault of her device, or simply her style, Rachel did not know. But she was quite used to it after a few years of their friendship. ‘I’m with my uncle’ she replied, typing her response with her thumb. The phone buzzed an instant afterwards: ‘thetinyone?showme’. She sighed. Anne was one of the few people outside the family who knew about her uncle’s condition, and the only one among Rachel’s acquaintances she revealed it to. I really shouldn’t, she thought, looking at Tim in her other hand. But then again, where was the harm in that? Even his nudity wouldn’t be an issue, since, as she noticed earlier, he was too small for anything to show, even less so in a photo taken by her low-budget phone camera. She turned it on and moved the phone towards Tim, taking a shot. She then sent the photo to Anne, who was once again quick to reply: ‘lolthatsanantbye’. Alright then, Rachel thought, rolling her eyes. Don’t believe me? Fine. She put the phone down and looked at Tim, and for a moment she wondered why she didn’t ask for his permission to take a photo of him. Was it a spur of the moment? Was she not thinking clearly? Or was she beginning to take him less seriously than she should’ve? She wasn’t sure. What she was sure of, however, was that she was getting hungry.
She took him to the kitchen, not wanting to eat around her aunt’s living room’s furniture, being careful not to drop him as she walked. She also grabbed her sandwich along the way, which she began to bite into when Tim was safely deposited on the small table in there. Even though she offered him a few crumbs of her sandwich, as well as tiny pieces of tomato and lettuce she chipped away with her fingernails, he didn’t seem to be hungry. ‘You don’t eat much now, do you, uncle Tim?’ she asked between taking bites, not really expecting a reply. ‘Well, if there’s anything good about it, you and aunt Nancy will at least save up on food,’ she added with a giggle. She finished eating and stood up to pour herself a glass of orange juice. Her attention back on the tiny man, she asked: ‘If you’re not hungry, then maybe you’re thirsty, uncle Tim?’ She leaned in and saw him nod. Poor thing, when was the last time he had something to drink, she wondered. She glanced at the glass she was holding and an idea popped up in her head. Once again she offered him her fingertip and waited until he climbed onboard, then moved him towards the glass. ‘It’s okay, uncle,’ she said, seeing him panic, ‘I’ll just lower you inside so you can have a drink, don’t worry.’ She dipped her finger in the juice ever so slightly allowing Tim to reach down and grab a handful of the liquid, which he did. She smiled as he watched him clench his thirst, something so simple turned so bizarre. A teeny tiny man drinking from a glass as if it was a tank, on a platform of her fingertip. But then, as he was finished, his foot slipped and he fell into the juice. ‘Oh God,’ Rachel gasped, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll save you!’ She lifted the glass to her eyes, but couldn’t see his form through all the pulp swimming in the juice. Thinking quickly, she dipped her index and second finger in the liquid, hoping to feel his shape and grab him. She knew she had to be careful in doing so; too much pressure and she could easily crush him between her fingers. After a few seconds she felt something and acted upon her instinct, gently pinching and taking her hand out of the glass. She was lucky. There, in the narrow space between her fingertips the minuscule form of Tim was safely tucked in. He was coughing, having drunk a more than significant volume of juice. ‘Are you okay?’ Rachel asked, deeply concerned and she was relieved to see him nod. ‘Good. That’s good.’ She smiled at him. And then she noticed, or rather felt, how sticky his body was from his dive. ‘Well, well. Someone could use a bath.’
She put him on a small, white saucer to unwind after his experience, as she boiled some water, which she then poured into a bottlecap she found nearby. Should’ve poured the juice in one, she thought in hindsight. She added a drop of detergent to the water, thus drawing a bath, and she helped him get inside. She watched with a smile how he scrubbed his skin and washed himself. ‘You know, uncle Tim, it seems hot water is another thing you guys can save up on,’ she commented and let out a small giggle. She couldn’t help but find the scene below adorable – a grown man using a bottlecap like one would use a bathtub. And even something so small seemed like a spacious, massive object compared to him. When he was done, she helped him get out by offering her fingernail and lifting him up when she was sure he firmly grabbed it, sincerely hoping he didn’t cut his hands on its edge. ‘Oh yeah, we should get you dry. And I have just an idea how,’ she told him with a glee that surprised even herself, as she cupped her hands around him. Tim was now trapped in an enormous cavern of flesh that was nothing more than his niece’s hands. She leaned it, slightly opened her mouth and started to blow, making sure her breath was not strong enough to send little Tim flying on the gust of warm air exiting her mouth. Even though she was very careful, she could tell he had some trouble staying on his feet. But in the end, he endured, and a few seconds later Rachel was happy with the results. ‘There. You look positively dry, little uncle,’ she told him with a smile and laid her hand on the table, her palm facing out. ‘Climb on, we’re going back to the living room.’ And once again she waited as the tiny man walked the length of her hand towards her fingers, then climbed on the smallest one and marched on it towards the centre of her palm, his microscopic feet barely registering on her skin. She slowly stood up and left the kitchen.
‘Aunt Nancy must be having a really busy day,’ Rachel said, carefully applying the red polish on her big toe’s nail, ‘She’s been gone for, what, three hours by now? Four? What do you think, uncle?’ She was now sitting on the plush, green carpet covering the floor of the living room. She was looking down, partly because she was painting her toenails and partly to keep an eye on Tim, whom she placed on her left foot. He seemed to be ignoring her. ‘Aw, don’t sulk. I know this isn’t the best place to put you in, but I can’t lose sight of you. And I can’t let you down or else I’d lose you in the carpet. And finally, I doubt you’d want to get back inside the petri dish.’ Having finished with the big toe, she moved on to the next one. ‘Okay, the smell of the polish might be overwhelming for you, but I’ll be done in a few minutes tops. Just bear with me, okay, uncle Tim?’ She continued, every once in a while glancing on his tiny form sitting on his skin. ‘You know,’ she spoke up when she was done with one foot and moved on to the other one, ‘I just had an idea. If you lied down on one of my nails and stuck to it, I could carry you around on me the whole day! And then I’d just, uh, unstick you! Wouldn’t that be fun?’ She saw him finally turn his head towards her, looking up and even though he was too small for her to see, she was sure there was a shock painted all over his face. ‘Just kidding. I’d never do something like that to you, Tim. Speaking of, can I call you Tim? I mean, you’re still my uncle, of course, it’s just that… It suits you, the name without the title, you know?. It’s short just like- I mean, can I?’
He shrugged and Rachel decided to take it as a yes. ‘Then it’s settled, Tim. Tim Tim. Timmy,’ she giggled. ‘Sorry, I can be silly sometimes.’ For a moment, she stopped painting her nails and instead focused on his tiny form against the canvas of her skin. ‘Jeez. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: damn, that girl has some really big feet. And you’re right, I do. Not because you’re, well, tiny. Size ten is no joke, and neither is finding shoes that fit. But to you my foot must look like, I don’t know, an island!’ She resumed her work before picking up. ‘Yeah, an island. And the carpet even kinda looks like an ocean, doesn’t it? Well, at least in colour. And you’re like a castaway or a… Or a conquistador! That’s Spanish, by the way, for, uh… Well, it’s Spanish for something. Just imagine…’ Suddenly, her tone changed. She now spoke slower, deeper, as if recounting a tale. ‘Captain Tim, the only survivor of the storm that sank his ship, miraculously makes it to the cliffs of the Rachel’s Foot island. What adventures does fate have in store for the intrepid wanderer? Can he survive the hostile environment and vicious natives? Find out next on-‘
‘What are you doing?’ a voice was heard and Rachel jerked at being surprised this way, almost dropping the brush and shaking Tim from her foot.
‘Aunt Nancy! I didn’t hear you come in’
‘Apparently so. Took me longer than expected.’ She took her jacket off as she stood over Rachel. ‘By the way – where’s your uncle?’
‘He’s, um. He’s right here,’ Rachel pointed to the spot Tim was in.
Nancy shook her head, still staring at the tiny speck on her niece’s foot. ‘Kid, you know I love you like one of my own, but you can be such an airhead sometimes. Pick him up and bring him to the table, we have something to discuss.’
Rachel wasted no time in picking her stuff (and Tim) up and taking a seat by the table. She was holding him in her hand as she watched Nancy take out a bunch of papers from her bag and place it before them. ‘What’s this?’ she eventually asked.
‘Divorce papers,’ her aunt replied without skipping a beat. ‘Well, sort of. He’s not really in a condition to sign something like that and he can’t really consent, or not, to it either. I’m the only decisive party here. I had my lawyer draw them up for me today.’
‘You’re divorcing Tim- I mean, uncle Tim? But why?’
‘Look, I need a man, not a,’ she waved her hand in Tim’s direction. ‘A trained insect or whatever he is now. Those things happen, don’t concern your young head with it. You’ll go through enough heartbreaks in your time.’
‘That’s your reason? A heartbreak?’ She gave her an outraged look. ‘Sounds more like you can’t handle the responsibility to me.’
‘Don’t you get uppity with me, young lady,’ Nancy’s tone momentarily turned vicious, ‘I’ve been responsible long enough.’ She sighed, heavily, before continuing. ‘It’s better this way, for me and for him.’
‘Yeah, especially for him,’ Rachel quipped. ‘But who’s gonna take care of him now?’
‘Yes, about that...’ She gave her niece a resigned look. ‘That’s the last thing I wanted to ask of you.’
Rachel blinked in surprise. ‘You mean it?’
‘I’ve seen how well you cared for him back when he was still a few inches tall. I’m sure you can handle him now as well. And besides, I think he’d enjoy it better than if I let him stay with me.’
They stayed silent for a moment and eventually Rachel spoke up. ‘Fine. I need something to carry him in. And no, I am not keeping him in a petri dish like some sort of a bacteria.’
Nancy gave her an almost amused look. ‘You could use it, you know. You know he won’t last. You know that, with time, he will-‘
‘I don’t care. A matchbox. You have a matchbox?’
‘It’s a vile thing aunt Nancy did,’ Rachel spoke as she lied in her bed in the evening. She was now wearing a black nightdress and a pair of underwear the same colour, her usual sleeping attire. It was already dark outside and crickets could be heard in the still, summer night. In the faint light of the desk lamp illuminating the room, she was watching a minuscule figure descending the hill of her right knee. She could barely discern him; he was so little, so far away from her eyes. And she couldn’t feel him, at all. ‘Oh well. At least there is someone who cares. Ain’t that right, Tim?’ she added with a smile, as she watched the little man march across her thigh. ‘Look. I even prepared a room for you to sleep in. Go for it.’ She pulled her nightdress up, revealing her abdomen, and pointed to her navel. Her smile only grew wider as he obediently crossed her stomach, his insignificant form rising with each breath of hers, and finally crawled inside her navel, a pit large and wide enough for him to fit in whole. ‘Sweet dreams, little man. I’ll see you in the morning,’ she concluded and turned off the light.