By Daniel Franklin
Little by little, Doug slowly became convinced that the world was shrinking.
It started when his mother died, and oh what his therapists would make of that.
On Tuesday morning, he climbed down the eleven stairs from his room, walked the eight paces to the kitchen and started breakfast. He walked a quick, twenty-six step perimeter of the house and then a second, just to be sure. He polished the sink until it gleamed, he scrubbed the counters until the laminate sparkled, he checked the dainty porcelain flour jar as it perched beside the toaster and peeked inside the pantry as the muddy soup bubbled on the stove. Everything was right in his world. He walked the eight strides back, climbed up the eleven steps and walked the twelve paces down the tiny hallway to her door and by Tuesday afternoon, she was dead.
Tuesdays were, in Doug’s opinion, such an inglorious day. The third day out of seven, uneven and imbalanced and simply awful. A good day for a death.
When she passed, her mouth was open. Her teeth were yellow, eyes dull, skin mottled with liver spots and wrinkled as a turkey’s waddle. The chest of her nightgown was stained with the watery foam of sour vomit and her fingers were strained in an accusatory claw that stabbed toward him. Which was understandable, as he’d been slipping rat poison into her Campbells for the last few weeks and her last act had been to point in wordless realization as her throat swelled closed.
Understandable or not, he felt a little slighted. It had been such a long time coming, and he’d hoped she would look peaceful and clean at long last. Much as she often claimed he had disappointed her in life, she now disappointed him in death. She looked like a strange, spoiled vegetable, and now he expected she would dwindle away and disappear. As she should.
When he climbed down the staircase on Tuesday night to check the jars in the fridge and see that they were still properly labeled and shelved, he found nothing out of place. The cans in the pantry were properly stacked, would hold well until the delivery next month. The table was spotless, the bag of rat poison he kept inside the flour jar was half full, and best of all the house was quiet. No voices, no beckoning bells, no demands for his help. He paced the house ten times, as usual, and counted twenty-six steps, from start to finish. The callouses on his feet were as thick and smooth as scales. He climbed the eleven steps back up and went to bed.
On Wednesday morning, he awoke in his right and normal bed, walked out of his right and normal bedroom and climbed down the right and normal eleven steps to make breakfast and bring his mother her daily soup. Just in case. Even in her state, it wouldn’t do to leave her hungry. He polished the sink, he scrubbed the counters, he wiped down the table and checked the pantry all without alarm but when he walked the perimeter he admonished himself for walking too fast because both times around he only counted twenty-five paces. When the soup was ready, he climbed the ten stairs back up.
Doug, in the deepest pits of his heart, had the sneaking suspicion that most people wouldn’t care to notice that a step had disappeared after they murdered their mother. That was, of course, because Doug suspected — in that same deep pit where secret devils danced — that most people were about as intelligent as mold. The thought of mold made him shiver and his hands ached from the desire to scrub even the thought from his mind. Perhaps, he admonished himself, he had unknowingly skipped a step. It was quite an unexpected occurrence, but it was possible. It beat the alternatives. A world without set steps, spaces and boundaries was madness, and Doug made a special point every morning to smile and reassure himself that he was quite sane.
All the therapists agreed that it was a proper way to start the day.
He walked the eleven steps down the hallway to her door. He knocked, entered, and set the soup on the nightstand. He turned the table lamp on. He fluffed her pillows. After some pause, he finally broached his unsettling observation. His mother, for once, had no opinions to offer him. When he told her about the missing step she simply pointed a waxy finger at him, mouth lolling wider open than ever before. The nail looked just a tiny bit longer than the day previous. Her face, while plump and now unwrinkled, had taken on a waxy, pale cast and so he decided it was probably not one of her good days. He hoped she wasn’t too angry. Beneath the puddled sheets, her body seemed to have risen ever so slightly upward.
Doug’s day had already set him ill at ease, so he did not linger. He climbed down the ten steps and wondered, for a moment, if he had always counted the landing. That was foolishness, though. No one counted landings.
Doug paced the breadth of the house, counting the steps through the living room with its velvet couch where they’d watched movies, the kitchen with its scoured table where he’d eaten every one of his thirty-four homemade birthday dinners, the curtained den where he’d played as a child. It wasn’t a big house but it was comforting and clean, the summary of her life’s pursuit. Those long and thankless days of toil in the office, middle class achieved by the sweat of her brow. The true American dream. She’d had him late in her life, when she was just shy of forty, and after the accident he took it upon himself to care for her until she had had given it all up, choking and puking on the rodenticidal concoction. It was all diminished.
Before he retired for the night he paused by her door and called out to her.
She must be angry, he decided, because there was no response aside from a slight buzzing from inside.
The day had left Doug feeling quite fatigued, so he went back to his room. As he drifted off to sleep, he imagined he could hear the quiet creak of a door swinging open.
On Thursday, he climbed down only nine steps to get her soup. Friday, he counted eight coming back up to her room. By Saturday, when the number skipped seven and went straight to six, Doug was in a full panic.
He had not slept much. He spent his days pacing until his feet were sore and red and raw. The pantry continued to deplete, the poison continued to reduce, and he became steadily more frightened. He was hearing things too; drippings and buzzings and the moanings of a house squeezing in under pressure. On one occasion the telephone rang, and he heard the voice of some man from the cable company asking to speak with his mother. He counted the coils on the telephone cord as the man droned and the count seemed unfairly low. He hung up.
He huddled in the kitchen and across the battlements of pristine countertops he surveyed his decreasing domain.
At first he thought it was only his house that was shrinking, but when he risked lifting the corner of the blackout curtains that shrouded each of the windows, he could see the neighbors’ houses had crept closer in the night while he had slept, were now ominously close and terrifyingly hostile. The road, the yard, the boundaries that kept them at bay had all but vanished. The neighbors themselves, those filthy voyeurs, they wavered in the thin divide, touched their noses in quiet signal to each other and glanced curiously up toward Doug’s house. They must have noticed it too, but they offered no help.
The only one who could help was her, and she was still angry. Possibly even furious. He stood outside her door and eyed it nervously. The wooden frame had twisted and bent subtly inward. He wondered if he could fit through.
When he finally mustered the courage to slip inside, he found a darker secret still. His mother’s body had, against all odds, continued to swell. Her belly was taut and bloated beneath the sheets and her face, once frozen into a mask, now looked as if it was beginning to thaw. Her tongue was the size of an avocado and similarly dark and pebbled, poking out from ever widening, slack lips. There was no doubt the sockets of her eyes had grown too, and yet the eyeballs bulged out from their depths. He thought he could see the sheets shift, stirred by tiny movements. Doug let out a quiet whimper, squeaked a greeting, and set the soup on her nightstand.
Aging terrified Doug. It was the ultimate reduction, the closing, the running out, and no amount of therapy could change that. When the time was up, it was simply up. Seventy years. The average person lived seventy years. If every decade was a day, that would make him a Tuesday. He trembled.
That her aging now included an avocado tongue and a strange, muffled buzzing did little to alleviate his anxiety. He wiped her face with paper towels and alcohol wipes, but it did not shrink back to its normal proportions. He had begun to detect a smell too, and it was neither subtle nor floral like the perfume she used to spritz on herself. He wondered whether he should help her into the bath, but even a cursory glance into her bathroom assured him that the tub could now not hold one person, let alone them both.
Sunday morning brought no rest.
He went down to make her soup as usual and was making his usual circuit — Eighteen paces! Eighteen! — and it was then that he noticed the wet patch on the ceiling. Not mere water, either, but the sallow brown of old mustard. It smelled powerful, and ripe. The entire house did. He wondered if, during some scant lapse in his vigilance, she had spilled the soup and it had started eating through the floor. He climbed up on the carefully cleaned kitchen table, reached above his head and scrubbed at the stain, but it yielded nothing.
When he checked the cupboard he could see there were fewer cans than the day before and the rat poison was certainly in need of restocking. He put a can of soup on the stove. As he climbed the steps, he began to sweat. The ripe, sweetish smell followed him up the stairs and flung itself down his throat so furiously that he could taste it. She had not only spilled the soup, he realized, but she must have had an accident again. She was very unhappy indeed. When he walked that short walk to her room, he found it even worse inside. No longer just her own curious and messy growth, now a flurry of bugs hovered around her stained sheets.
His fears confirmed.
“You mustn’t spill your soup, mother. You simply mustn’t,” he chided her. “The bugs will come in to eat it, and I have to clean it all up.”
She bared her teeth at him in silent defiance.
He cleaned the house, he made her soup every day, and she dared to make that face at him. Sometimes she could be so unreasonable. He tugged back the sheets and within them she had bloated to an impossibly massive size, even in the shrinking world. Beneath the nightgown, her stomach looked blotchy and a little green. He was sure he could see it moving now. Flies had come for the soup in droves and their emerald hued backs glinted as they buzzed angry figure eights in the air above her. Doug set to work, hoping that cleaning up a bit would appease her and end her foul-smelling, soup-spilling ire.
He sprayed her down first with Raid for the flies, then with Windex, Lysol, and even that bathroom cleaner that always made his skin crack and bleed. He scrubbed at her waxy skin until it split and peeled apart but try as he might, the smell would not go and the swelling would not reduce so he spritzed her with perfume, closed the door, and let her rest.
He climbed that shortening climb downstairs to dump her soup and prepare a can for himself and as he passed, he noticed that the kitchen table had a small brownish puddle in the center of it. He wondered if she had ventured downstairs at some hidden moment and tried to make herself lunch. It seemed unlikely. She had been bedridden for many years now and he had wiped it just hours before, but in a shrinking world where she alone grew, who was to say? It would explain why she no longer wanted to eat. Certainly no sane man could deny that the carpet was scuffed and beaten thin from foot-steps.
Doug assured himself once more that he was sane as he paced the perimeter.
He was a grown man. She had no right to treat him this way. No right at all. No right to make him clean her mess up off the table, to chase the bugs out of her room. He might just walk out that door and never return, he told himself, but even the thought made him feel a little faint.
He had tried the world out there, living on his own, but it was so dirty and crushing and terribly loud. And after that incident with his neighbor’s dog, his apartment complex had kicked him out and the courts had sent him back home with a bracelet on his ankle. As if that was fair. The average life expectancy of a dog was twelve years. Two meals a day meant 8,760 meals per life. If a meal somewhere past its allotted 9,000th had a little something extra, was it Doug’s fault?
He walked and walked and walked until his feet were stinging in pain, until the callouses were hanging from his bleeding feet like hole-punched paper half punched. At last, thoroughly exhausted, he limped five steps up the stairs and returned to his room.
Monday came and a week had not yet passed since she had, but the house had grown impossibly smaller still in the night. It would only take a small hop to get down to the landing, he thought, but he did not dare go down. The carpet along the way was kicked up and streaked in bloody footprints that he could only assume were hers.
He paced and paced, his bare feet stinging with each agonizing step. He yearned to polish the sink, to scrub the countertops, to wash the table. Maybe if he performed the rituals, the world would right itself. Hungry as he was, desiring as he was to complete those tasks, he did not dare go back downstairs. Certainly not. The thought of getting caught in the contracting stairwell made his skin clammy and crawling, as if brushed by clawing, pointing fingers.
That night, he attempted to neglect sleep entirely, walking the perimeter of his room and counting, hoping to catch that pivotal moment of reduction. He only paused once, a momentary break as he pressed his ear to the wall between their rooms. He could hear her prowling about the in her room. He was sure of it. He opened his eyes some hours later, now laying on the floor, and when he resumed his walking, the room was smaller still. He crawled over to his bed and squeezed his eyes shut to keep from crying.
Tuesday morning came and he woke to a wet thump of something striking the kitchen table down below. Perhaps he should have risked going down there the day before, because sound down there meant she was moving again and was probably hungry. He could hear the quiet creaks of the house and the sensation of movement just beyond the haven of the door he no longer dared open.
The creak of the floorboard, the rustle of the carpet, that could too easily be the quiet pad of her withered feet shuffling in rigid steps. To and from, from and to, creeping toward his bedroom door and back away again, waiting to catch him loitering in the open space. It was fair game out there. She must be very hungry and very, very angry.
It was safe inside his room, he assured himself. It always was. Ever since the accident, she could not walk two paces, let alone the seven steps that separated their rooms. But that was in the world of before, not the Tuesday world of now.
Was she on the stairs? In her room? He pressed his ear against the wall the floor, the door, but the sounds seemed to come from everywhere and though he listened with as much diligence as he could muster, he could not be sure. He was, however, quite sure that each padding, creaking step she took could bring her closer.
And she was coming closer.
He tried to count her steps, but they seemed to come from all directions, all creeping toward him, without order or pattern. How many would it take her to reach the bedroom door? Surely not many, by now. How long until she needed no steps at all, until she could burrow through the wall without rising from her bed and snatch ahold of him? Would she even wait that long?
He stared at the door handle, his eyes stinging and blurred from lack of sleep, from sweat, from tears. How long until it began to turn under rotting fingers?
Not long. Not long.
Quite sane, he assured himself, and wept.