Rachel Kelly followed the nurse through the hallways to a private section of the hospital, her fixed on the ground before her. She would've liked to wake up just now, but she knew this was no dream. It had been several hours since she'd received the phone call from the hospital, letting her know that her boyfriend, Sam, had asked for her. She would be taking him home - but she was afraid she wouldn't recognize him anymore.
For the last two months, ever since the accident, she had believed that Sam was in a coma, and she had been told she couldn't visit him. But, earlier today, she had found out the truth. Having recently graduated from college, Sam had been on an internship, training to become a chemical engineer. He and Rachel had been a couple for just over eight months and, despite the occasional arguments young couples usually have, their relationship had been strong, and Rachel had wondered if she was ready to take the next step and if Sam would propose to her soon. But then the accident had happened, and their relationship had been thrown into chaos. Sam, along with several other junior engineers, had been doing some routine inspection work at an experimental facility devoted to chemical research, whose scientific findings were kept under tight wraps. Rachel hadn't been told the details, but an apparent accident had caused several large chemical storage tanks to rupture, exposing Sam and the other men to a combination of experimental, newly synthesized chemicals, whose properties and effects on the human body were still largely unknown.
Far from sending him into a coma, the chemicals had had an entirely different effect on Sam and the others who were there - although only a very few knew the details. When she was telephoned earlier, Rachel had found herself sworn to secrecy. Apparently, each victim of the accident had been allowed to tell the truth to only one person outside the hospital where the patients were being kept. Sam had chosen her. She wasn't surprised, since he was an only child, and he hadn't been in close touch with his parents since they'd begun. He had several good friends, but none whom he trusted more than he trusted her.
Still, she half-wished he hadn't chosen her. When she found out the truth from the doctor at the other end of the line, her initial disbelief had given way to a feeling of horror. Right now, it took all her strength to follow along behind the nurse, leading her through the eerily empty hospital. They finally arrived at a small room at the end of the hallway, and the nurse asked Rachel to follow her inside.
"He's still feeling the effects of this morning's sedatives, so he should be drifting in and out of consciousness for another couple of hours," the nurse explained. "We wanted him to remain calm today, since he'd almost had a breakdown yesterday, after being told he'd be released. You must understand, he hasn't seen anyone besides his two doctors, myself and two other nurses for the last eight weeks. Nor has he been outside this room since he was brought here, the day of the accident."
"I understand," Rachel said, feeling slightly nauseous at the thought of what she might see behind the door. "I'm...I'm ready."
She followed the nurse into the room, closing the door behind her as instructed. Then she looked around for the bed, but there was no bed. Instead, the room contained only table, on which was piled all sorts of serious-looking medical equipment. In the centre of the table, she saw a small container filled with fabric, and, lying on top of the fabric, was Sam. Rachel stopped breathing for a moment and tried to keep herself calm. Her worst fears had been confirmed - she'd been told the truth. The chemicals, whatever they were, had caused Sam to shrink from his usual height of 5'10" down to a little over three inches.
She walked slowly closer, covering her mouth to conceal her shock. There was Sam, wearing a blue hospital gown and seemingly fast asleep. But he was now small enough to fit in the palm of her hand. She found it nearly impossible to believe that this was the man she loved, whom she wanted to marry someday.
"Is...is he okay? I mean, is he in pain?" she asked, her voice quivering.
"No, no pain at all," the nurse replied. "Neither Sam nor the other three men had been harmed. The only effect has been...well, you can see for yourself."
"But there must be something you can do!" she cried out. "Have you just been keeping him here for two months? Please tell me there's something..."
She began hyperventilating, but the nurse laid a steady hand on her arm.
"There, it's all right," the nurse said, her voice becoming softer and more soothing. "Why don't you take a seat over here? Just try to stay calm, and I'll explain."
She led the panicking Rachel to a chair by the side of the table.
"Of course we haven't just left him here by himself," the nurse explained. "We've tried dozens of tests and potential remedies, almost every day, but you must understand, we're dealing with a completely new effect on the human body here. We can't just throw everything we've got at him and hope something works. We'll continue searching for a cure, don't worry. That's why we've decided to let him go for now, so we can continue working on a potential cure, without having to keep him locked up in here. The doctors have gathered enough information and taken enough samples to work with, but if we kept him here, who knows what the effect on his emotional state would be? It's better if he spends the time from now on in the company of someone close to him, someone who can support him and look after him. If we need him back, we'll give you a call, that's all."
"Oh God, this is all so strange...it feels like a nightmare!" Rachel said, still in a very shocked state. "What am I supposed to do with him, once I've taken him home? What do I say to him? I don't know if we can even still be together..."
She began to cry softly, while the nurse looked on sympathetically. There was still the matter of Sam to be attended to, however, so she quietly guided Rachel from the chair to Sam's bedside.
"You'll need to take him now, I'm afraid," the nurse said. "I have to get going and attend to the other patients here. There aren't any personal effects of his to take home, since the chemicals that caused this to happen came into contact with everything he had on him, so it had to be disposed of to prevent further contamination from happening. As for his car, I believe that's still being kept at the chemical research facility, so you'll have to contact them if you want to get it back."
Rachel nodded silently, but made no move to pick up Sam. The nurse prodded her again:
"If you'd rather not take him back with you, I understand. We'll just arrange to..."
"No...no, I can do it. I'll take him home with me. If he feels he needs me right now, I'll be there for him. I still love him, of course I do! I'll just need to get used to...to...promise me you'll try and find a cure soon?"
The nurse simply nodded, then stepped forward and, using her gloved hand, gently scooped up the sleeping figure of Sam. She carried him over to a desk and placed him inside a small plastic container, no larger than her hand. It was filled with what looked like some kind of fabric, so Rachel could only assume that it was meant to be his bed from now on. The nurse handed her the box and gave her a lid to close it with. The lid was transparent and had several little holes in it to allow fresh air to enter. Rachel stared down in disbelief at her three-inch-tall boyfriend. Despite his change in size, Sam still looked perfectly healthy and in good shape. She also couldn't see any signs of injury, just as the nurse had said. Suddenly, she was overcome with the desire to take him home at once, before he woke up from his sedated sleep.
"I want him to see me first," she thought to herself. "I want him to know I still love him and care for him. God knows what he must've been feeling these last few weeks...but that's all over now. He's back with me, where he belongs."
She thanked the nurse for her help and said goodbye, then hurriedly walked back through the hallways and lobby, back to her car, keeping the box hidden under her coat. Her whole life had suddenly been overturned, but for some reason, she didn't feel completely afraid anymore. Perhaps it was the sight of him as she held him in her hands, so small and vulnerable, that made her desire to be with him stronger than any other emotion. She knew she had to find a way to keep their relationship intact, whatever it took. She loved him too much to abandon him now.