Listen To Me

Alison sat forward on the sectional couch. “Hey, look at these! Ranch veggie straws! These things are great, have you ever tried them?” She made yummy-noises and looked around at her friends. Gregg raised a sculpted eyebrow at her from behind his designer shades, then reclined into the pillows. Karena and Sheri glanced at each other and wordlessly rose as one unit to slip out the back of the garden-level living room for a smoke. Alison’s grin wilted and she turned back to the tasty snacks with the satisfying crunch.

Yuriko pursed her lips, watching the two women leave, then defiantly thrust her arm out to pluck some veggie straws. She met Alison’s glance with a bold smile. “So, how long have you known Stacy?”

“Ever since college!” Alison’s words spilled out eagerly. “We were in the same sorority! We just never left town and have always been friends, I guess. How about you?” Her eyes lit up as she munched spinach-colored rods of processed corn meal.

“I’ve been with Freeman & Fisher for three years,” Yuriko stated. “Stacy was part of the team that interviewed me, with Nick.” She nodded at her coworker, who was unable to relax on the couch and had pulled the ottoman aside to perch on it like a gargoyle. “And now I’m her supervisor. Isn’t that the funniest thing? I envy Stacy’s contentment with her position. I guess I’m too ambitious.” Her laughter was forced: she enunciated ha-ha-ha as though she were poorly reading a script.

Arnold laughed, sitting up beside Yuriko. “Contentment! That’s a generous way to put it! It’s like she doesn’t fucking care, you ask me.” He shrank from her icy glare. Finishing his can of beer, he asked Nick if he wanted anything on his way to the kitchen.

“I’ll have a beer,” said Garret, Stacy’s father. “Get some of the good ones in the back.” His wife, Geri, glared at him and he shrugged. “I keep them behind the yogurt and sourdough starters, where no one ever looks for them.” This time her unpleasant expression amused him and he leaned back into the sectional, letting his attention drift to the attractive young women lounging on the other side of the sliding glass door. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but their expressions were dark and their gestures were stabby.

Noise exploded upstairs, a slamming door and hoofbeats across the foyer and down the stairs. Renee never entered a room without announcing her presence and attracting everyone’s attention, for the wrong reasons. “She here yet?” she barked, throwing a loaded backpack to the ground and tossing herself bodily into a beanbag chair in the corner. Her perma-sulk discouraged any response from everyone but her mother.

“Of course she’s not here. You can see that she’s not here.” Geri glanced at the women outside and gritted through wanting a cigarette herself. “She’s building up some big, dramatic entrance for herself, I’m sure. She just doesn’t get enough attention, never did.” She sat up and patted the back of her swirling salt-and-pepper hairstyle, then eyed the snacks, then the people eating them.

“Is Aunt Nadine coming?” Renee’s wicked smile was audible in her tone. Geri scowled in her daughter’s direction and told her to watch her smart mouth. Yuriko traded eyebrows with Nick, who sat up straighter.

Arnold had just returned with the beers and looked about to crack a joke when, half a floor up, the front door closed and latched. Everyone sat up and checked their clothes. Alison wiped her fingers off on the inside cuff of her jeans and glanced at her friends outside; they caught her look and took one more drag before stubbing their cigarettes out in a planter—immune to Geri’s disapproval—and slouched inside.

And so it was that an anxious horseshoe of friends, family, and coworkers stared at the semi-staircase to their garden level room, waiting, holding their breaths, until Stacy Park padded down the carpeted steps. Her hair was mousy blonde, her eyes were a glowing glacial blue, and her hands were cupped to her chest. She didn’t even look up at the amassed group until she had nearly entered their midst: until then, she appeared to be in a blissful dream.

“Hey, everybody,” she said in a wavering voice. “I’m so happy to see you! Thank you for taking time out of your weekend to spend this time with me.” She grinned at her coworkers and her friends, then nodded at her parents.

Renee rolled her eyes and sighed, sinking deeper into the beanbag chair. Nick found the ottoman to be even more awkward for craning around on and motioned for Yuriko and Arnold to make room for him. Garret merely raised an interested eyebrow while Geri struck an intense, inquiring pose. Gregg glanced at Stacy’s mother and father, shuddered slightly, and hauled himself up out of his slouch. Karena licked her lips and Sheri cleaned her nails, while Alison snuck an extra handful of veggie straws to pick at discreetly.

“I guess you’re all wondering why I called you here,” Stacy continued, struggling against dropping her voice. She shrank from contact with anyone as she slipped into the center of the ring and gently moved the large bowl of veggie straws aside, failing to notice Alison offering to hold them.

“I think we know why we’re here,” said Renee. Sheri snorted and smirked; Karena stared a thousand yards beyond the decorative fireplace across from her.

Stacy laughed awkwardly and knelt beside the coffee table in the center of her company. “All right, fair enough. I know we’ve had some misunderstandings in the past.” She glanced at her coworkers. Yuriko nodded slowly, Nick’s lips swam as though he were holding something back. “And some of us have had some heated emotions, and maybe we’ve said things we didn’t really mean.” She turned to her friends: Alison bore a confused smile and Gregg hid all of his expression behind his sunglasses. Sheri sneered and Karena continued to ignore everything. “I know this is hard for some of you to accept,” Stacy continued, meeting her kid sister’s eyes. “But I know you don’t want me to suffer through life and be miserable. I know this is true, ultimately. I know you have my best intentions at heart, but I really think that when this is done, you’re going to agree with me that this is right, I’m not making a mistake, or whatever you said.” She tried to smile warmly at her mother, who resembled nothing so much as a wall of ice. Her father simply tilted his head and waited for her to continue.

“Well, thanks anyway, like I said−”

“Get on with it!” yelled Renee. Sheri laughed.

Stacy’s cheeks reddened as she bowed her head, but then she nodded and forced a smile. Placing her cupped hands upon the coffee table, she spread her palms. Her fingers unfurled as though she were focused on performing a miracle. Her smile broadened and gained real warmth as those around her leaned in, peering, staring, judging.

Standing alone on the glass table surface was a tiny man. His forearms and shins stuck out, bare and scrawny, from a crudely sewn tunic and pair of pants in dark linen. His face was long, bearing an expression of surprise and a little fear. His hair was a dark, moppy thatch that piled to one side, unruly and robust. Tiny, round eyes stared up at the huge faces ringing him, faces that structurally resembled his but were a dozen times larger. In fact, any one of those slack jaws and gaping maws could have descended upon this little being and taken him inside, with one or two bites, and swallowed him down. He seemed to be acutely conscious of this as he stood, tense, watching, ready to spring back into the embrace of the bland and pale woman who brought him here.

“Everyone, this is Reko,” Stacy said in a voice as thick and warm as honey. “Please say hello to him.”

The tiny person collapsed to his knees, palms clasped over his ears, as the giants’ voices roared and gabbled over each other. “Outrageous! Unacceptable!” “I can’t believe you brought that, that, that thing into my home!” “Holy shit! Look at that freak! I’ve never seen one so close!” “That’s disgusting. You should wash your hands right this second.” “It’s remarkable, how much they look like us. I mean, stupid as insects, but still.” “What kind of God…” “Someone get a paper towel and throw this thing in the trash!”

“Look at that little fucker. I just wanna−” Sheri reached one slim hand out, her index finger and thumb extended like an itchy claw. Her tendons raised down her fingers and up her arm, but her reach was stayed by Stacy’s shocked expression. Finally, Karena’s eyes drifted from the distant void to train tightly upon the little man on the glass plane. He ducked and flinched, instinctively, and backed into Stacy’s sweater over her flat chest.

Stacy looked at everyone in shock. She fenced her scrawny fingers loosely around the shivering little being. “What are you saying? This is a living, feeling human being!” She took a deep breath. “And this is my boyfriend!”

There was a long silence in the room, Stacy thought, and then an explosion of noise. Voices, yelling, emotions, a garble of words and competing roars of laughter and outrage. Stacy winced and hugged the tiny man to her chest, sitting back on her heels and shielding him from the torrent.

“Someone get that thing away from her!” Geri wailed. “Those things carry diseases, I saw it on Fox News! We could all be infected right now!” Arnold glanced uncertainly between Stacy and her mother, slowly covering his mouth with one hand. Gregg, composure thrown to the wind, attempted to crawl backward over the sectional but only sprawled and bumped into Alison and Garret.

“They’re not diseased,” stated Yuriko calmly, “but they are not clean. Stacy, this joke is in very poor taste.”

“It’s not a joke.”

“Please carry that little… creature… outside. There’s no need to be cruel, but it doesn’t belong in here.” Yuriko turned to Stacy’s parents for confirmation.

Geri wheeled upon her husband, her face beet red. “Garret, do something! Get that thing away from her before it bites her!” Garret’s lips slowly unglued from each other as he leaned forward and reached toward his daughter.

“It’s not a joke!” Stacy shrieked, leaping to her feet. “He’s a he, not an it, and his name is Reko! He told me!” She glared at her parents, then her coworkers. “He’s my boyfriend, and I’ll ask you to respect that!”

Arnold laughed and swore, and while Nick didn’t share his hilarity, he tugged on the lapels of his blazer and looked away with a thoughtful scowl. Alison, freshly out of veggie straws, gnawed at the skin around her fingernail, eyes huge and transfixed on Stacy’s clasped hands.

Renee slipped up behind her older sister and dug her fingers into her ribs. Stacy pealed with laughter, and Karena abruptly took notice. Renee shouted “Get it!” at Karena and Sheri and seized Stacy’s bony wrists, tugging them apart. Sheri began to giggle, but Karena shot forward like a serpent, spreading fingers and long nails to seize the offending prize.

Crying out, Stacy twisted sharply to the side and rolled out of her sister’s grasp, turning her back toward her friend. Karena’s hands balled into fists in mid-flight, and she drove one into Stacy’s kidney. The pale woman wailed and collapsed in a protective shell around the tiny man. Snarling, Karena clawed at her arm and stabbed her slender hands into the knot of Stacy’s limbs until Garret stepped up and wrapped strong arms around her, dragging the assailant off his shrieking daughter. Karena spat very dark curses at him until she noticed the surprised expressions she’d attracted away from the tiny man. She stalked to the sliding glass doors and folded her arms, glaring at the back yard.

Stacy, sobbing, rolled to her knees and rose slowly. “I don’t believe you! You’re my friends and family, you’re supposed to support me! Karena!” She turned to lock eyes with the sultry, furious woman at the edge of the room. “You’re supposed to be my best friend! What are you doing?”

“Fuck you,” her best friend muttered.

Sheri giggled. “You called it your boyfriend.” She sounded half-drunk, but she always did.

Stacy stood up, holding the tiny man against her left breast, against her heartbeat, and her mother cried out in a demonstration of anguish when she saw this. “Oh, stop it, Mother!” Stacy yelled. The outburst was uncharacteristic and Geri sat back on the couch, looking stricken. “Knock it off, all of you! I love Reko, and he loves me! And you know what? You all just have to get used to that, because that’s how it is from now on!”

She turned around and confronted every surprised face, one after the other. “They’re real people! They’re small, it’s difficult to hear them, and they speak a different language, but they’re real people! They think, they feel!” Her voice choked as she opened her hands to expose the tiny man curled up in her palms, against her flat breast. “And this one loves me. And I love him.” A tear staggered down her long, thin nose, falling free to paste upon her thumb. The little man watched it form and run and fall, and he reached up to rub his tiny palm where it landed. She smiled miserably upon him, laughing and crying.

“Look, sweetie,” began her father’s modulated tones. “I’ve worked with these little guys before, you know I have. I know some of them can be pretty bright, under the right circumstances.”

“Don’t encourage her!” Geri hissed at him.

“But they are definitely not people like you and me, or anyone in this room.” He nodded at Nick and Arnold; they grunted in agreement. “There is no evidence whatsoever that they think like we do. Hell, they’re not even as smart as dogs. No one, in any lab−”

“Oh, to hell with your labs, Father!” Stacy’s eyes had narrowed into dark, savage slits. “I know all about those sadistic experiments you run in your garage! Those mazes you put them through, starving them, urging them on with your soldering iron! I can’t believe I’m related to you!”

“I’m starting to question that myself!” spat Geri. Garret rested his arm upon her shoulder and pulled her back into the couch.

Glancing at the empty bowl, Alison readjusted her round hips upon her seat. “Okay, well, look, Stace. How do you know he even understands you?”

“He told me his name!” Stacy’s expression softened slightly and she took the chair beside her friend. “We practiced, we pointed at ourselves and said our names over and over. He understood me! I had to lean in close to hear him, and he had to shout, but he told me who he is. See, watch,” she said, and she flattened her palms into a platform for the tiny man. “Reko! Hi, Reko!”

The little man knelt upon the pale, thin fingers and looked up into the mousy woman’s countenance, smiling. He shouted and raised one scrawny arm to point at her nose.

“Oh, my God,” Alison said, covering her mouth. “I heard it! I heard it say her name!”

“Fuck you,” said Karena.

Renee sidled around Stacy, who retreated from her younger sister. “What did it say?” Renee asked, collapsing in her beanbag chair once more.

Geri snorted, sneering with much exaggeration. “Yes, Alison, tell us what it is you think the disgusting little bug said. Tell us all, if you please.” She swept her arm around the gathered acquaintances.

The sarcasm was entirely lost upon Stacy’s friend. “Well, it said her name weird. But I could hear it say Su-Tay-See.” She looked at Gregg, then Sheri. “Like an Asian would, you know?”

Gregg scoffed like the mother. “Oh, that’s just great. Japanese beetles, and now Japanese…” He floundered. “Little whatever-the-fucks-they-are.” Arnold informed him that was a good one.

Stacy grinned at her friend. “You heard him, though, right?” Alison thought she did, though she fell silent under the twin laser beams of Karena’s and Sheri’s glares. “Come on, Alison. I need you right now. Just tell everyone the truth.” Stacy nodded at her hopefully, but Alison seemed to shrink into herself.

Stacy turned to the others. “He’s still a person, a human being. I don’t know why you hate him just because he’s so small.”

Before his wife could blow up at his daughter again, Garret loudly stepped in. “It’s only an evolutionary accident that they resemble us, sweetie. Like chimpanzees and other primates, except further removed. They don’t think like we do, they’re not capable of it. What you think is love is only a sequence of responses designed to help him survive.”

Stacy glared at him in disbelief. “You can’t seriously believe that. When you poke at the tiny people in your garage laboratory, you really think that those bright red drops of blood are some kind of conscious action? You really think that when they cower to the back of their cages when you come in the room, that was just a conditioned response?” She lifted Reko to her cheek, brushing it over him. “When I came in, they never fled me. They never ran away shrieking to the limits of their cage. They never curled up into little balls and wept, like they always did for you. What was the survivability of that, Dad? Why wouldn’t they recoil in terror when any large person came into the room?”

“Well, obviously they’d learned to associate me with pain, but−”

“You said they couldn’t feel pain!”

Arnold and Gregg slowly turned toward Garret. Behind Stacy, Renee sat up and looked at her father. “Daddy?”

“No, they can’t. What I mean by ‘pain’ in this case is the sequence of behaviors they, as organisms, lapse into when their viability is being threatened…”

“And what’s the difference between what they go through and what we do?” Stacy frowned darkly at her father. “What is the difference between how we respond to injury and how they do? Why isn’t it in their biological imperative to also feel love like we do?”

Garret laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous, sweetie. Insects don’t feel love, paramecium don’t feel love. They don’t need to. They simply have inherent behavioral instincts that drive them to mate with each other.”

This proved too much even for Arnold. “Wait a second. If these tiny guys are just mating, why would they try to mate with an animal a hundred times larger than themselves? Wouldn’t that be suicide? Why would they be attracted to something outside of their species?”

Garret stared at him in surprise. “There are hundreds of documented cases of animals violating the boundaries of their species and family and order to attempt sexual intercourse with other animals. Sometimes, like the liger and the mule, an offspring is possible but is born sterile, but most of the time it’s a futile gesture that results in nothing. Just like a small dog humping your leg won’t get you pregnant, to answer your other question.” He chortled and settled back into the couch, receiving a disapproving glare from Geri.

“No, that ain’t right either,” said Gregg, leaning forward. “We domesticated dogs, they know we’re not a threat. These little tiny guys ain’t domesticated, they’re like rats or mice. They kinda creep around to get at our scraps, but we’re still a threat to them.”

“It’s not impossible,” murmured Nick, startling everyone, “for a person to tame and earn the trust of a rodent. My little sister used to entice house mice with food in the center of her palm, and eventually they would crawl into her hand and let her pet them.” His voice was deep, with a slight tone of tension. Gregg shrugged and sank back into his seat.

“Reko’s not a rat, okay?” Stacy looked at her father, Gregg, Arnold, and then Nick in sequence. “He’s just a tiny person like us. He does feel pain, no matter what you tell yourself, Dad, and he feels love. If his brain chemicals sequence in such a way as to make him form a bond with another person, then that’s what happens with us too. There’s no such thing as love, there’s only neurochemistry to support clan bonding for survival and procreation. It’s just your crazy-making semantics, Dad.”

“She’s your daughter, all right,” Geri muttered.

“They’re fucking vermin,” said Karena abruptly. She spoke with such vehemence that people couldn’t help but turn to her, if for no other reason than to make sure she wasn’t coming at them. “They’re goddamned disgusting, and they should be wiped out. Just looking at them makes me sick: looking like little people like that, it’s a crime against nature. They’re a, what you call it, a mockery. They’re a disgusting mockery against humanity. Like your father said, it’s only an accident they look like us. It doesn’t mean anything, and they don’t fucking think or feel like we do.” Throughout her speech, she peeled away from the glass doors and slowly crept toward her former best friend. Stacy was stunned by the waves of hatred coming off of someone she thought she was close to, so when Karena grabbed her, it was too late to dodge.

Karena’s bony fists squeezed Stacy’s wrists with surprising strength. Snarling, Karena forced the pale blonde’s arms apart, exposing Reko upon her chest, clinging to her sweater. “That’s fucking disgusting, him hanging on your boob like that!” But she couldn’t grab the tiny man without letting go of Stacy, so she peeled her lips back and exposed long, white teeth, smiling hideously as he leaned in toward Stacy’s chest. The tiny man froze in place, staring into the pink, glistening cavern lowering upon him.

Stacy’s blonde head darted forward and there was a sickening crunch of wet bone. Karena screamed and released her wrists, crumpling to the ground and holding her face. At once, Sheri was upon her, cradling her friend and glaring up at Stacy. “What did you do, you stupid cunt?” She shouted at Renee to get a towel with ice cubes.

Stacy backed away from the hateful women and put the group in front of her, with her back to the rest of the house. “What is wrong with you people? Just because something’s weaker and smaller than you, that doesn’t give you the right to abuse it! Where is your kindness? Where is your mercy? Mom, you are hereby forbidden from ever trying to get me to church or talking to me about Jesus ever again.”

The blood drained from Geri’s face, and all the tendons stood in her neck. “This has nothing to do with our lord and savior!”

“His lessons were all about defending the helpless. Selling off all your property to help the poor. The meek shall inherit the earth.”

They… aren’t… people!

“Even if they aren’t, Mom, where in the Bible did Jesus tell His followers it was okay to kick a dog? Where did He say you should go out and snap a bird’s neck? Show me the passage where He suggested you were a better person for going out and tormenting ants.”

Mother and daughter glared at each other for a long while, until Yuriko quietly cleared her throat. “I have to question the wisdom of inviting your coworkers to witness this dramatic spectacle, Stacy,” she said. Her expression attempted to blend compassion with matriarchal power. “I’m sure we’re sympathetic toward your domestic strife, but it was questionable judgment to drag your professional colleagues into the middle of it.”

Stacy seemed to lose inches of height as she averted her gaze, hunching her shoulders around the tiny man. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think of it that way.”

“How did you think of it, then?”

Stacy shrugged haplessly. “You’ve always told me that I’m too distant, too reserved. At my last review, you were very clear about opening myself up to my coworkers and letting them get to know the real me, in order to form a better team.”

Yuriko opened her mouth and closed it. “This is hardly what I had in mind, Stacy. This… coming-out party for your romance with an animal, which is rapidly turning into an intervention.”

Stacy’s thin, wiry body shuddered once, like a building into which a truck has driven. “Reko is not an animal. If you want to refer to him, you will use his name.” Slowly she turned to face her prim, imperious boss. “You will use him and not it, and you will treat him with more respect than you ever showed me.”

“Stacy! I have always−”

“You can lie to yourself, but you can’t lie to the other person involved, Yuriko. I know how you falsify the data I built reports on, to hold me back. I’m not stupid. I’m very good with numbers, and I have documents in my desk that indicate exactly where and when you altered the data. I’m saving them, like the used condom from your trash that you told me to take out.”

Hijo de puta,” said Arnold.

“You looked in my−”

“You thought you were so clever, with these little dominance mind games. You were so threatened by my competence, but if you had two clues to rub together, you’d know I’m perfectly happy where I am. I don’t want to rise through the ranks, I don’t want to be in charge of anyone. I just want to crunch numbers and watch them dance. I love making sense of the world through them.” Stacy closed her eyes and inhaled, long and deep, through flared nostrils. “But you were threatened by me, because that’s how you see the world. I met your former coworkers for lunch, when we were vetting you for Freeman & Fisher, because I love data, and they had so much data about you.”

Yuriko’s eyes were huge and her jaw wouldn’t close. Nick reached out to touch her shoulder, then changed his mind.

“So before you even dare to judge me for loving this beautiful little man, I suggest you look up this website.” Cradling Reko defensively, Stacy leaned into her boss’ ear and whispered a truncated URL. Yuriko’s fingers trembled as entered it into her smartphone, blanching at the online photo album that came up. “You really think you’re the cleverest person in the room. You flaunt your petty ego in everyone’s faces, because they’re just too stupid to pick up on what you’re doing, aren’t they? Every single one of those pictures was taken in public, so don’t even think about invasion of privacy or stalking or whatever else your twisted little mind can come up with. Because as you can see, the biggest difference between my boyfriend and the men in those photos is that our relationship is consensual.”

Yuriko stared at her phone in horror. When Nick asked her what was wrong, she emitted a tiny squeak and ran out of the room, her heels clacking out the front door. Nick looked a question at Stacy before getting up to follow his coworker. Arnold apologized, explaining that they were his ride, and excused himself as well.

Stacy composed herself and asked, “Anyone else?” She looked at her father, who was staring at her as though he’d never seen her before. She looked at Karena, sitting up and struggling not to cry, clutching an ice pack to her face. She and Sheri only regarded Stacy with venom.

“I don’t get why you want to have sexy with a tiny man,” called out Renee. She stretched out in her beanbag chair and folded her arms behind her head. “Even if you wanna pretend he’s a kind of human, whatever, I don’t get why you need that.”

Alison gawked at Renee, then slowly turned toward Stacy. “Are you… what? Wait, what?” She squinted her eyes as though trying to perceive her friend over great distance. “How would that even work? Wait! No! I don’t want to know!” She clapped her hands over her ears and squirmed in her seat.

Glancing at her parents, Stacy turned toward her little sister. “You can’t help who you fall in love with. It wasn’t even love at first, it was more like curiosity.” She carefully pulled her hands away, leaving Reko sitting in her palms. He recovered himself quickly, rolling into a sitting position. He looked up at her and she smiled upon him, and he smiled back. “I knew they were living around my neighborhood somewhere, I could hear them fighting with the crows in the morning. I didn’t know we had any in the building.

“But then one day there he was on my writing desk. I was just playing around online after work, and he stepped out from behind the laptop.”

“What, he didn’t know you were there?”

“No, he did, he could hear me working. But I guess he just decided the time was right, and that he could trust me.”

“What did that look like? I mean, what happened?” Alison’s eyes were huge.

Stacy smiled at her. “Well, he wasn’t wearing clothes, for one thing. So it’s clear that he’s very human.” She half-glanced over her shoulder at her father. “But he stood at the back of the desk, far enough that I couldn’t grab him easily, and he just kinda walked out sideways and presented himself. I mean, he kept his hands folded in front of his sensitive bits, but he walked right out and stood there, staring at me.

“And I stared at him. I slowly pulled my hands away from the keyboard and rested them on my lap, and I sat up straight. I tried to keep all the expression out of my face, so I didn’t look scared or angry or anything. But really, I was just fascinated with him: this perfect, elegant little man, suddenly standing there in the darkness like a slim flame.” She rocked slightly on her feet, then bent her head down and kissed Reko’s head. He reached up to stroke her lip and said something to her. “I just stared at Reko and he just stared at me. Then I smiled, and then he smiled and took a step forward. I slowly, very slowly lifted one of my hands to show him I wasn’t holding anything, and then I made a fist and stuck out my index finger, and I slowly brought it up to him. He watched me, a little tense, ready to run, but he let me get closer and closer until I stopped, and then he walked up the rest of the way and touched my finger.”

“Touched it how?” Alison asked.

“He reached up with both hands and stroked the sides of my fingertip.” She nodded at Reko, who turned and crawled on all fours to look at the soft-spoken brunette on the couch. Alison gasped delicately, studying the tiny person in her friend’s hands. “I don’t know if that means something to his people or what. We just smiled and touched each other that first day.”

“Stacy!” Geri spat out the word.

Stacy ignored her. “Then he had to go, and honestly I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again. I hoped I would, so I set out some cheese on a cracker for him. It turned out Reko’s a vegetarian, so he only chipped away at the cracker, but he put a serious dent in the mandarin slice I set out.”

“They don’t have preferences,” said Garret, waggling the last gulp of beer in his bottle. “They’ll eat whatever you give them. They’re omnivorous foragers.”

“They’re vegetarians, Dad,” she said coldly, “who will eat whatever’s there when you starve and torture them for weeks on end. Just like any human would, in inhuman conditions.” Her father snorted and went to the kitchen, asking Gregg if he wanted anything; he didn’t. “Reko visited me every other day.”

“Why every other day?” Alison asked.

“I don’t know. There’s so much I don’t know about him.”

“Like what diseases he’s carrying,” Geri grumbled.

“Your lord and savior went out of his way to associate with prostitutes and lepers, Mother.” Stacy’s voice was loud and strong, causing Alison and Renee to do double-takes. “Reko kept me company, especially when I was having a bad day. He could sense that, somehow. He’d stroke my hand, and I couldn’t understand what he said to me but it was soothing, like a song. He’d just sit between my thumb and finger and rub the meat there and sing to me. It meant the world to me. It was the only thing that got me through some evenings, like when my boss sabotaged yet another report or,” her voice dropped, “my friends bailed on me for the evening.”

Alison raised a hand to her face and sat back, shocked. “Good thing we did, you freak,” Karena growled. “We didn’t know you were fucking some goddamn parasite piece of shit.” Sheri snickered.

Stacy gently stroked Reko’s hair as she turned to the pair. “You two are excused. Get out of this house right now. Delete my number from your phones. I never want to see you again.”

Karena struggled to her feet, shoving Sheri away when she tried to help. “Don’t worry about that, you sick fuck. You’re fucking dead to me. You hear that? You better not show your face at the club anymore, or I’ll−”

“I’ll go—we’ll go wherever we like, you substandard cum-dumpster.” There was no emotion on Stacy’s face, and her voice was clear and cool. “If you come near me for any reason, I will remove one of your eyes.”

Karena balked and glowered at her former friend, but Stacy only stared back peacefully. Karena muttered something foul, and she and Sheri started to leave the way they came in. “Uh-uh,” said Stacy. “Trash goes out the back.”

Karena started for Stacy but Sheri wasn’t quick enough to make a show of holding her back, so the angry, bloody-faced woman only lurched awkwardly in the middle of the living room, her feint exposed anticlimactically. Renee snickered as they tugged open the sliding glass door, slipped out, and attempted to slam it. Garret, having raised two rambunctious daughters, had long ago installed shocks to prevent just such an event, so the door merely slowed rapidly before closing itself, further infuriating the two women.

Alison stared at the floor where they were crouching, until Stacy stepped in front of her with a smile. “Would you like to hold him?” Stacy asked. Alison’s eyebrows went up and she babbled. “Come on, hold your hands out. He likes you, see?” Alison looked up to see the tiny man kneeling on Stacy’s pink fingertips, smiling at her. His eyes were tiny brown dots, and his teeth were too fine to be easily discerned. As though in a trance, she held her palms up to accept the offering. “Careful, now,” Stacy said, “he’s very light. It’s hard to get used to at first.” And she lowered her hands upon Alison’s and slowly spread them apart, as Reko picked his way into the new woman’s palms.

“Oh, my God, he’s light,” Alison said, then giggled, embarrassed. She held Reko slightly below her own face, a foot away from her chest. She watched the tiny man glance back at his owner, or girlfriend, then up at herself. “My heart’s pounding,” she commented, her face frozen in a huge grin.

Gregg slowly rose from his seat and edged closer. “Is it all right if I check this out? I won’t touch him, I swear.”

“Oh, don’t encourage her!” said Geri. Garret seemed to have disappeared.

Stacy nodded at Gregg, who took a seat not too close to Alison and leaned in. “Whoa, holy shit,” he whispered. “Look at the detail on him. It’s like I can see all his tiny hairs on his head, I think.”

Stacy smiled, resting her hand on her heart. “His voice is really hard to hear, it’s so thin and high, but he… I taught him a couple dumb tricks, I guess. Hold your finger up, Gregg. Reko: high-five!” She altered her voice to a falsetto, speaking quickly.

The tiny man in Alison’s palms rose to his knees and raised up one arm. Gregg brought in his index finger, and Reko slapped the tip of it. Gregg looked up at Stacy, delight glowing around his sunglasses. “No fucking way!” He laughed, backing away to protect the tiny ears.

Renee was kneeling like Reko, by coincidence, peering into Alison’s hands. “Now I feel bad,” she said.

Stacy looked at her in surprise. “Why?”

“Because me and my friends,” she started, then looked away. “Sometimes we go into the woods by the college. There’s a bunch of them out there, a big network. They fight with the squirrels, so when you’re walking around and there aren’t any more squirrels, you know there’s these guys around.”

Stacy knelt by her sister and nodded for her to continue.

“And we… do things to them.” Renee sat back on her heels. “Sometimes we dig them up and chase them around. They’re not fast, but they’ve got, like, holes everywhere. They’re good climbers, too. But one of my friends, she just grabs ’em and does things to them. With a lighter. They scream and kick and she just laughs about it, squeezing them until… well, until they stop moving.” She rubbed her palms on her jeans, still not looking up. “Another one chases them around. They run under things, they hide behind things, but she usually gets one or two of them out in the open, and she tries to kick them. Or she stomps them. It’s funny when she kicks them, because they just go spinning off into the distance, you know, but when she steps on them, it’s more like when the other girl burns them up. Sometimes she can get them in one shot, but if they ground’s uneven or it’s muddy, she only gets them a little bit. She has to work at them, trying to get a clean stomp. They start screaming when they’re injured, they have this really−”

“You don’t have to talk about that,” said Stacy. She turned toward her mother. “Are you proud of this, Mom? You raised a little torturer, like one of those sick politicians who grew up shooting arrows at cats or something. Are those the values your lord and savior gave you?”

Geri looked shaken but insisted Renee had given them no better than they deserved.

“Those were my friends,” the young woman insisted. “I never set them on fire, and I only stepped on one by accident. I didn’t kill it.”

Stacy reached out and stroked her sister’s arm. “I’m listening, Renee. I’m just listening to you now. What do you do with them?”

Renee looked out the sliding glass doors and bit her lip. She was blushing deeply. After a moment she departed the room, and Stacy recognized the bathroom door closing, then opening, and Renee returned holding something in her closed hands. She froze, seeing Alison and Gregg staring at her, but she gulped and returned to her older sister, opening her hands.

In her slim, sweaty palms lay a tiny man with long, matted blond hair. He sprawled limp in the bowl of her hands, motionless but for his little chest heaving rapidly as he gulped down air. Stacy stared at him, holding herself back from snatching him away from her sister. “He doesn’t look well.”

“I give him lots of rest,” she said hastily. “I feed him, but I didn’t know he was vegetarian. I’ll do better.”

“What do you have there…” Geri’s voice sounded haunted, but she refused to get up and walk over and see. “Don’t tell me…”

“They’re very fragile,” said Stacy. Renee nodded and said she’d be more careful. “Is he your boyfriend?”

“Honestly, I don’t even think of it like that. He’s just… useful.” Renee’s smile was sickly and temporary.

Gregg said, “Hold on a second. Are you telling me you… with him?” He smoothed back his hair. His sunglasses hid all expression but his mouth went wide as the wheels spun in his head. “You girls are freaks. But I like it.”

Geri sprang out of the couch, finally. “This is a nightmare,” she said. “You two are nightmares. I want you both out of here as soon as possible.” Awkwardly she worked her way around the coffee table, giving her daughters wide berth.

Stacy smiled at Renee. “I guess we get it from Aunt Nadine.”

“Don’t say that name in this house, ever again!” Geri’s voice rattled the windows. She stomped into the kitchen, grabbed a bottle of wine from the fridge, and disappeared with less stealth than her husband.

Alison looked between the blonde sisters. “Who’s Aunt Nadine?”

Renee gaped at her, unsure how to start, and turned to her older sister. Stacy smiled and said, “That’s Mom’s older sister. We haven’t seen her since we were small children.”

“I wasn’t born yet,” said Renee.

“Oh, crap, that’s right. Mom hates her for, well, exactly what’s going on here.” Stacy reached up to stroke Reko’s back, leaving him in Alison’s possession for now. She admired how gentle her friend was being, how protective and careful. “Aunt Nadine also had a boyfriend of one of these tiny guys. Well, I guess a few of them, depending on which story you hear. She always had one with her, but there were rumors that she kept a bunch of them for… purposes.”

“Kept?” asked Gregg.

“Or they liked her.” Stacy’s smile was lopsided. “Anyway, she had relationships with them when absolutely nobody was doing this, and Mom basically cut her off and tried to kick her out of the family. But I called her recently.”

Renee yelped. “You didn’t! Mom’ll be so pissed!”

“Mom’s pissed no matter what. Call me up when she’s not pissed. Anyway, Aunt Nadine was really excited to hear about this. Well, no, she was excited just to hear from me.” She gripped Renee’s shoulder. “She said to tell you she’s never stopped thinking about us and loving us. She misses us badly. She taught herself social media so she could follow up on us online.”

“That’s sad,” said Alison, hardly able to take her eyes off of Reko.

“But we talked about my boyfriend, and of course she was supportive. She’s not angry at Mom, just hurt, but she said not to pay attention to anything Mom says. Love is love, she said. The heart wants what it wants. Lots of stuff like that, and about how little time we have. A lot of truisms and crap, but I could hear the passion in her voice.”

“Does she still keep little men?” Renee asked.

“Never stopped.” Stacy peeked into her sister’s hands again. “How’s he doing?”

Renee saw him sitting up and looking at her, making no move to flee. “That’s the thing, I don’t think he minds. I even think he likes it.”

“Well, damn,” said Gregg, “what red-blooded, American man wouldn’t mind being surrounded by−” He glanced at the sisters, thinking hard. “That is, I guess I gotta asked, does he go in the…” All three women stared pointedly at him until he agreed to shut up and settle back into the cushions.

Renee looked from her tiny man to Reko. “Do you, uh, think they know each other?”

“Huh. Probably not, but,” Stacy said. She held up her hands for Reko, who nodded and turned to face her.

“Aw, you’re not taking him away,” whined Alison.

Stacy smiled and gently plucked Reko up, just long enough to couch him in her palm. She brought him down to Renee’s level and they opened their hands.

Reko flinched, upon spotting the other tiny man and called out to him. The other one looked just as surprised, pointing at Reko’s clothing and chittering. Reko chittered back, pointing at the other’s gummy hair and streaks of fluid along his limbs. The other one pointed back at Renee, but pointed down low, far below where she held him. Reko appeared to laugh at this and looked up at Stacy, grinning.

“Can you find out his name?” Renee asked quietly.

Stacy raised her eyebrows, then pulled one hand away to point at herself. “Stacy,” she said, then touched her boyfriend’s head. “Reko.”

The man in her sister’s hands looked around, not getting it. Reko chittered at him and the man chittered back. Reko sighed and chittered at the man, and the tiny man made a clear effort to drop the tone of his voice, speak slowly, and yell as loud as he could. “Onni,” he said.

Renee’s eyes went huge. “Onni? Your name is Onni?” Stacy told her to say it faster and in a higher pitch, which she did, getting a delighted reaction from her tiny man, and then he pointed up at her. “Renee!” she said.

“Ray-Nay,” he repeated, as did Reko.

“This is the cutest thing in the entire world,” said Alison.

[By special request of my good friend Undersquid.]

Speculative fiction author within size fantasy, artist, musician.

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