Hi, how do you do? My name’s Shaun, he thought. I’m right in… yeah, that house. That apartment. It used to be a guesthouse for the wealthier families who ran the town, but in the early 1900s it got broken up into four−
He winced, cradled in Janine’s mittens. Too technical, too much. No one wants that much information right away. He stared up at his girlfriend’s nose, poking out over her scarf, turning pink in the crisp, dry air. Hi, I’m Shaun, this is my girlfriend, Janine. Oh, you noticed? Yes, well, I saw her while I was grocery shopping and I couldn’t let her go. His face darkened with a frown. Don’t lead with humor. You’re not as funny as you think you are.
Far below, her boots crunched through fresh, fluffy snow as she navigated the driveway. Their landlord plowed the sidewalk the next day after a snowfall, but cars pulled out from behind the apartment and compacted the driveway long before he got to it. Shaun’s chest seized with tension as he sensed his girlfriend’s body go rigid, heard her footfalls come slower: the packed ground was treacherous. If her leg shot out from under her, she could accidentally collapse on top of him, crushing him with the hand she meant to catch herself with. Or she could easily fling him to the side, send him sailing through the frigid air, tossing him into the deep meter of snowfall in the yard. If she didn’t find him in time, his body would go into torpor to protect itself. When the snows receded in spring, she could find him in perfectly healthy condition except for his memories completely wiped.
Shaun drew a deep breath and wrapped his arms tightly around his girlfriend’s woolly thumb.
“Hey, neighbors! Cold enough for ya?” Her voice rang out cheerily, and he heard adults return the call in muffled tones. Shaun could sense their wariness, being pulled away from whatever they were doing to greet someone they didn’t know well. Would she give them trouble? Was she here to judge? Was this the pervert who liked shoving tiny men inside her?
Shaun grunted to himself. Easy, now. Give them a break. Benefit of the doubt, and all that. Slowly he raised his head and sat up as best he could within the nest of his girlfriend’s hands.
There was a group of men and women standing around on the sidewalk, gathered before the catwalk leading to the apartment building kitty-corner from their own house. Shaun rolled to his knees and grasped Janine’s mittened fingertips to look at them better. They seemed in good spirits, all things considered: it was a frigid goddamned day, but someone had set up a card table with a couple Thermoses ringed with mugs. It looked like a small party, men and women in heavy coats, chatting and smiling, warming their hands with steaming mugs. It was the most people Shaun had seen out at one time. Not that the neighborhood wasn’t social, they had cookouts and birthday parties, but those were usually shielded affairs in backyards. He couldn’t see them from his second-floor window, only hear the music drift by with the aroma of cooking meat.
Janine carried him to an older man dressed in shades of brown and green, wearing thick, purely functional spectacles. He had a fleshy, sad face but he smiled at them as she approached. “Janine, very glad you could make it! Good to see you.” Shaun noticed a dense accent he couldn’t immediately place.
“So glad to see you too, Rizvan! This is my boyfriend, Shaun Chastain.” She lifted him away from her warm chest and proffered him to the old man like a bowl of party nuts. “Shaun, this is Rizvan Yaser, he’s two houses to the left of us. Annalise couldn’t make it?”
Yaser shook his head. “So busy with college. She study so hard, very good girl.” He leaned in and grinned at Shaun, yellowing teeth showing through three-day-old stubble. “Very nice to meet you, young man. What do you do?”
Shaun was taken aback: he assumed most Normies assumed that Tinies laid around all day waiting to be fed. He realized that was an awful lot of assumption. “I’m a fact-checker for Software Dance magazine, local publication. I also do some freelancing.”
When the old man chuckled, his heavy overcoat trembled gently. “Amazing, amazing. This, eh… telecommuting? Eh… Janine tell me. It’s very good. You like this work?” Shaun felt something ease up in his chest as he explained his natural curiosity and all the topics that came his way, the research he had access to. Yaser smiled and shook his head admiringly. “So wonderful, this world. So much information we have. When I was young? Eh… we don’t dream of it.” He smiled at Shaun, nodded at Janine, then went for a mug of whatever people were enjoying: the breeze came from the north and the table was downwind of Shaun so he couldn’t get a reading of it.
“Hey, Janine,” he hollered up.
“For future reference: Rizvan is his surname. They switch the names around where he comes from.” He grinned at her blush and assured her that it was okay. She covered her face in her hands, reflexively hiding her embarrassment, then apologized for mashing him against her face. He promised her he didn’t mind at all.
There was an Asian couple standing nearby, the woman holding the hand of a skinny girl in puffy pink and purple gear featuring some cartoon character he didn’t recognize. The girl was staring at a woman crouching on the catwalk, between the immense, sheer drifts of snow. “This is what I wanted to show you,” Janine whispered to Shaun, and the snowy environment slowly rose up around them as she knelt on the catwalk as well. “Hi, Linda! This is Shaun.”
The tiny boyfriend nearly plunged into a pit of introspection, struck by how well-socialized his lover was with the neighborhood and how insular he’d become, when the latest introduction slammed into him like a heavy book. A mane of flame-red hair whirled to present glowing green-yellow eyes and sharp, mischievous eyebrows. Shiny pink lips spread into a wide grin as this woman focused on him, and Shaun could feel something growing warm within his new Veksten coat under her gaze. At the same time, he’d seen this look before: she looked hungry. He fell back into Janine’s palms, momentarily stunned.
“This is the legendary Shaun!” Linda’s voice stretched out the vowels musically. “I’ve heard so much about you! Hi, Linda Wright, so nice to meet you!” In one swift move she whipped off her fuzzy white mitten and expertly extended her forefinger to him, not so close as to be threatening.
Shaun clamped his lips shut and glanced up at the underside of his girlfriend’s jaw. Goddamn it, Janine, watch this one, he mentally transmitted to her, but nonetheless he reached out and grabbed the tip of the new woman’s finger and shook it politely. She cooed about his firm grip, and her intense, clear eyes flashed at him. “Really, Janine talks about you all the time, and I’ve been begging her to bring you over and meet the crew. Would you like to see what we’ve got going on here?” She nodded at the snowbank next to her. Fluffy green earmuffs pulled her hair back into a fetching fringe around her face, and from Shaun’s perspective she was aging quite gracefully. His heart pounded as he tried to guess how old she could be, and then Linda said, “Well?” and he realized he was being rude. He glanced up at Janine, shadowed by the glaring winter sky, who nodded encouragingly, and so he made his way to the ends of her fingers once more.
“Holy fuck,” he whispered. Major excavation had gone into the side of the snowbank, where the snowblower had sheared away a nearly perfectly flat façade. Into this had been dug several compartments in more or less a grid pattern—for all the world, it resembled the rooms in Shaun’s Victorian dollhouse, when Janine undid the latches and pulled it open. All the rooms were connected with doorways or linked with staircases carved into the snow, and the occupants were far too light to cave these in as they traversed them.
It looked like a business complex full of Anthropoles, all bundled up in bulky cold-weather clothing. Shaun gaped at it, taking it all in: right in front of him was a large snow-lounge with a horseshoe of couches carved out of snow. One little man worked on these, refining the textures and shapes, replicating the furniture as realistically as possible but for the hue. Another was stationed behind a quarter-circle bar, before a row of mini-bottles of booze mounted into the ice, fixed with silicone nozzles that dispensed into carved ice tumblers. The lounge connected to a rec room with a sculpted pool table, where two Anthropoles struggled to knock unevenly shaped ice balls around in a parody of billiards. In the back of this room, some Normie had donated their smartphone to play a video of a hockey game like widescreen TV that took up the entire back wall. Below these, little men were working on carving out what looked like a library and then a bedroom next to that.
Without tearing his eyes from the spectacle, Shaun called out to Linda, who was similarly transfixed by the action. “What exactly am I looking at, here?”
“These are my tenants!” The red-haired woman licked her lips, watching the tiny bodies bustle back and forth. Her glowing eyes flickered over each one as she introduced them: “Ralph, working the bar, Ted and Chris playing pool. That’s Duane, Marvin, and Derek downstairs. Derek’s our newest tenant. How’s it going, Mr. Goulbourne?”
Derek turned from his work, scraping out the form of draping bedsheets, and waved at the enormous women’s faces hovering outside his room. His dark skin stood out boldly from the nearly glowing white room. “He’s a quiet one,” Linda said quietly, “but he’ll warm up to us sooner or later. They all do.” Derek looked at her for a moment too long, then turned back to carving out the bed. “Hey, would you like to take a little tour, Shaun? I mean, as long as you’re here.”
Shaun only stared at the way the snow glinted off of Linda’s long, strong teeth, but Janine giggled delightedly and escorted him up to the barroom straightaway. “That’s really not necessary,” he started to say, but his girlfriend warned him not to be a poop, so to preclude further indignity he crawled off of her mittened fingertips and found his footing in the sculpted room of ice and snow.
“Oh, my Goddess, just look at him!” Linda pressed her fingertips to her mouth, grinning wolfishly behind them. Her powder-pink nails glistened in a row. “What a handsome little man you have there, Janine! What a charmer! And those clothes, where did you find them?”
While they talked shop, Shaun decided to make the best of it and block them out. The bar wasn’t a bad job, really, and there were so many glasses sitting on it… “You mind?” he asked amiably.
Ralph nodded. “It’s what they’re here for.” He shook Shaun’s hand. “Ralph Oballe. I’m a writer.”
“Anything I’ve heard of?”
“Mostly correspondence for The Atlantic, a guest post on Politico once. Still looking. You?” He listened as Shaun rattled off his rote; he asked if it was interesting, Shaun said it was. “I don’t suppose you know any editors? Like, for manuscripts?”
“I probably know a couple people at the office, or I know people who know people. What’s up?”
Ralph held a dense ice mug beneath a silicone nozzle and topped it off with a couple drops of schnapps. “Just a little thing I’m working on, local political angle.” He nodded his head very slightly toward the missing wall of the room and finished his drink in one go. “Something about housing issues.”
Shaun held his gaze and nodded very slightly as well. “I wondered. Look, I don’t want to pry, but can I guess?” The bartender seemed amenable to this. “There’s six of you, and I’m guessing Linda’s the landlord, so… §220.4?”
Duane looked up from the couch, where he’d been carving a blanket hanging over the back. “Is it that obvious? Not that the city gives a shit.” The Anthropole kept his voice expressionless and low, not trusting the giddy babble of the women just outside to drown him out.
“It’s not as bad as hoarding,” said Ralph, “but it’s something. Just gathering information for now. Hey, heads up!” From behind his post he shouted at the rec room. Shaun saw Ted and Chris glance at him through the doorway, then flinch at the missing wall and scramble backward. A mist of sweet bubblegum overwhelmed the chilly air as an enormous Asian girl’s face filled the empty space. Her huge brown eyes glistened and her mouth hung open as she stared at the occupants and their business.
“Can you see? Can you see them in there? What are they doing?” Janine’s voice gently coaxed the little girl to examine them, but Shaun couldn’t see his girlfriend behind the dense waterfall of stark black hair.