“Don’t look at the ducks.”
“What do you mean, don’t look at the ducks? They’re cute. It’s a momma duck and three little baby ducks.”
“Don’t look directly at them. They assume you’re a predator. Look at them from the corner of your vision. Here, focus on me.”
Alexis looked down at the tiny man floating on his Styrofoam raft. Kian had carved it in the shape of a row of logs, then she painted it to more closely resemble logs and bound either end in twine for a real primitive look. They’d done a great job on it, though the illusion was dispelled by how it rested upon the water rather than in it, even with Kian’s weight: he couldn’t have been two ounces, perhaps. But seeing him stretch out shirtless upon the replica log raft made her feel she was gazing down upon him from the second or third floor of a house, rather than walking beside him down the stream.
“Now you can peek at them if you like.” Kian folded his arms behind his head and closed his eyes. The stream was low and still, with hardly a breeze to shove him down the current.
Keeping her head down, Alexis peered through her mop of curly brown hair to spy on the ducks. The ducklings were just developing their tree-bark coloration down their backs but hadn’t yet lost their golden chests and necks. They wove behind their mother—anxiously, Alexis thought, though maybe a little curious about the world around them—and the mother plowed upstream, as though striding hastily out of an area without wanting to appear panicked.
But Alexis’s eyes drifted back down to her little man on the fake raft. His face was peaceful like she rarely saw when he was outdoors. He rested on his shirt, and he never lounged around shirtless, and splayed over the sculpted Styrofoam as though he didn’t have a care in the world. Carefully she picked her way down the trodden, muddy path beside the stream, stepping over tree roots and around puddles, very tediously keeping pace with a voyager who hardly seemed to be going anywhere. Bolts of sunlight glistened through the canopy, an effect her mother called komorebi. Kian drifted through shadows, turning lazily with the water; when the odd beam of light struck his chest, he glowed like phosphorus for a moment, then wheeled back into the shade.
Kian drifted down the creek as though he didn’t have a care in the world.
She was aware her heart was pounding and her face was frozen in a wide, goofy smile. She tried to screw her expression back up into something thoughtful or distracted, but her heart stung with loving him too much. He was beautiful and fragile and they were outside and he was completely relaxed, and she wanted to gobble him up right there. Not the way he’d asked her too, either.
“Komorebi,” she blurted.
Kian lowered one arm to shade his eyes. “Yes, this is very much komorebi right now, isn’t it? Such a great word.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
The little raft rocked and turned Kian upside down so he had to raise his chin to look at her. “What did you mean?”
Alexis grimaced and looked down the lane. “Joggers,” she announced, raising the slender branch she’d picked up at the start of the walk. Crouching on the bank, she gingerly guided the raft to just in front of her shoes, sheltering him from the paved walking path that ran along her dirt trail.
The tiny man stared up at her, at the stick she held, at the hand holding it, up the length of her arm. She could feel his eyes crawl over her skin when Kian looked at her like this. She could sense his gaze running across her shin and up her skirt. She gave him a rumpled grin and turned her heels apart to slightly spread her thighs as she squatted. His eyes tickled her where they went.
“I don’t hear any joggers,” he said after a minute.
Alexis cursed inside her skull and made a show of looking up the path. “They must’ve turned off somewhere.” She started to get up, then said “oh, real joggers this time” and ignored Kian’s questions in favor of shoving him around with the stick. Two pairs of synchronized foam-and-rubber hooves clomped behind her with the hushed panting of adults. When they faded away, Alexis waggled her fingers at the tiny man and gently cast him back into the current. Her knees complained briefly as she rose.
“I can’t get over what a lovely day it is.” She glanced at a patch of bright azure through a break in the trees. “There should be more people out, I feel like.”
The tiny man said he was glad they weren’t. From anyone else this might have sounded churlish or misanthropic, but she understood Kian. She stepped around the trunk of a large tree, carefully picking her away around thick, roping roots. The bark had split into thick welts that invited her to wrap her hands around; when she did, she felt overwhelming oldness wash around her wrists. At the base, the roots had divided into an inky cavern, very much like a doorway. “Hey Kian,” she called, and she leaned on the tree to navigate around it and scoop her little man up. The Styrofoam dripped water against her skirt but she didn’t notice.
She squatted to place him in front of the portal of stout roots. “Look at that, Kian,” she said, “it’s your size.”
He’d snatched his shirt off the raft before she set him down and struggled to pull it over his chest: in snatching at him, Alexis had drenched him and his shirt in creek water. “Not this again,” he murmured.
“Come on, it’s cute.”
“We talked about this before.” Kian turned to face her and found himself framed in calves pressed flat beneath her thighs. Her underwear bulged gently before him; he sighed and stepped back, closer to the tree trunk, to crane his head and call up to her face. “Other animals live in these things sometimes. I don’t want to barge in and pick a fight with something faster and pointier than me.”
Alexis rolled her eyes. “There’s nothing living in there. See?” The tiny man exploded in protestations as she reached around him to shove the business end of the raft-guidance stick into the shadowy cavern. She rattled it around, approaching it from different angles. “See? Either there’s nothing in there or there’s something extremely patient in there. Go on, check it out.”
For all his diminution, the tiny man glowered pretty well at her before cautiously approaching the entrance. “I have to let my eyes adjust,” he said just as she reached one slender index finger down to nudge him in the back; she withdrew. She watched him square his little shoulders and step across the thick mud that wouldn’t suck him down, not a millimeter, and resisted the urge to clap when he finally went inside, and then he disappeared within. It really was dark in there and her own eyes had not adjusted. She grinned, slightly, imagining what it must be like to be small enough to walk into the shelter of ancient tree roots, like something out of The Hobbit. Kian could be an elf… no, too big. He’d have to be a pixie or a nixie or a brownie. Why did the American supernatural creatures get such dumb names? A brownie? She only knew the term from reading old, old children’s books from her grandmother (on her father’s side). Original copies of Lassie and Zorro and The Bobsey Twins, smelling of perfumed candles, plus a lavishly illustrated tome of fairy tales. The stories were kind of lame but the illustrations took her to another world, with those strange fairies with antennae, for some reason, and long wings of stained glass, like what grasshoppers hide, and iridescent jade skin, and Kian was taking too long.
“Kian? Kian!” Alexis grabbed at the doorway, then pulled her hand back. She couldn’t see her tiny man: she didn’t want to mangle him, and she didn’t want to get attacked by whatever could be hiding in there. She knew nothing was, but he’d planted that idea in her head and now she could almost see the bundle of black-and-brown fur and shiny claws in leather fingers and glistening, yellowing teeth. Everything was quiet but for the sough of the trees and the gentle lapping of a lazy creek against the bank, but maybe sounds could be muffled inside a heavy, damp tree trunk? She reached again for the doorway, withdrew again. What should she do? “Kian, goddamn it, say something!” Footsteps on the path reminded her there could be anyone around her at any moment.
“Are you okay?” said an old man. He was wearing a blue-and-pink check shirt and stiff, immaculate khakis with white walking shoes, big and puffy like a pair of muffins. He sounded concerned but his smile suggested he wasn’t taking her seriously or had other things on her mind. “Fuck off,” she said, and he did when she repeated it. She was nearly resolved to muddy her knees by getting down to see inside better and just start groping madly, when a little man in blue jeans and a red t-shirt stepped into the daylight.
“You little shit. Are you okay?”
He folded his arms, looking quite natural and proportional by the split in the roots. “Admit that it’s a stupid idea to tell me to crawl into any random fantasy-setting nook you think you’ve found.”
“Okay, yes, I’m sorry.”
“No, say it.”
Alexis glared down at him. She very nearly muddied her knees to rescue him, and he was being a bossy little punk. She chased off an elderly molester! He had no idea what she’d gone through while he hid in there to teach her a lesson. It would’ve been so easy to grab him in her small fist, shake him for a minute, and then chuck him into the stream, without the raft. Maybe throw him at an angry momma duck, see what happens then. Did he realize how easy it would be for her to do that? If he did, he shouldn’t cop such an attitude.
But he was incredibly cute in his miniature clothes. The jeans were already dark but the red shirt was damp and plastered to his frail little body, and she wanted nothing more than to cuddle him in her chest. “All right. It’s a dumb idea to make you crawl into these unknown, scary spaces where monsters lurk. All right?”
He stared at her a moment longer before nodding and raising his arms, the signal for her to pick him up. Rafting was over, Alexis surmised: she shoved the Styrofoam model into the thankfully large pocket of her skirt and wrapped her thumb and forefinger around Kian’s chest. He hugged her thumb and she slowly lifted him from the ground, stood, and cupped her palm for him to rest in, bringing him to one boob. She felt the little body shiver against her flesh, then subside and relax once more, and she went all gooshy. It would also be so easy to pop him in her mouth, or stuff him down her underwear, yes, right here in the middle of the woods, in front of joggers and dog-walkers and whatever voyeur deity there was.
But she didn’t. Alexis crossed the paved walking path, climbed the embankment up to the sidewalk proper, scanned for street signs, and then headed up a long, gentle hill in the residential area south of their neighborhood. She could hardly complain about doing all the walking for two people when he weighed only slightly more than his raft, but it was an awful lot of walking for their little adventures.
She folded her arms tightly, to disguise the fact she was groping her own boob. “So, how was it, though?” she whispered at her chest.
“How was what? The creek? I loved it, you know that. I always love that.” His tiny body nestled against her, and her knees threatened to give out.
“No, dummy, the tree trunk, the fantasy hideaway. Was it scary?”
“No, it was fucking awesome! It’s a huge space on the inside, nice flat floor. The water stains on the roots outside look like the creek doesn’t often get that high, so anything I stored in there would stay nice and dry. I wonder how it does in heavy rain? Seriously, we’ve got to come back with a flashlight and a camera. That was cool as shit.”
Alexis’s grin tightened to a thin, hard line and she stifled the confused cries against her boob.