My friend Terry bought this new tape measure. We were both out of work, so he asked me to come over and measure stuff with him. He had some beer.
It was a nice tape measure, a roll-up cloth fifty-footer. It was a steal, he said. Then after a few beers, he admitted to stealing it. He was ashamed. He didn’t know what had gotten into him.
“Let’s measure,” he said, perking up.
He measured and I wrote in his little notebook.
Sofa. Six feet, 3 3/4.
Cat, when sleeping stretched out, two feet, 6 3/8.
Kitchen table, six even. You get the picture.
His wife came home for lunch. She brought a pizza from her restaurant, and Terry measured it.
“Rip-off. Getting smaller.”
She looked over the notes. ”Just what are you planning?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Just an experiment,” I said.
She snorted off, and we checked a few more dimensions and called it a day.
Terry called me at 2 a.m. in a panic. We both had insomnia.
“You have to come see this,” he said.
He met me at the door. “There’s a dark force at work.”
He showed me how the table measured a half-inch less. The cat, too, stretched out next to the Italian loaf, intact, yet an inch shorter. The stove and fridge: two inches lost in three dimensions. The floor tiles were down to 10 inches from a foot. “Twilight Zone,” I said.
We crept upstairs and found similar results. We took Mary’s sheet off and straightened her legs. She moaned. Five–two, an inch gone somewhere in the night.
We opened a couple beers.
“Who should we report this to?” he said, trembling a bit.
“No one. They’d think we were crazy.”
“We are sleep deprived.”
“Stand up,” he told me.
He measured me. I was exactly the same. He, however, had shrunk two inches.
We went to my house and took measurements.
The next day he came to my place, comparing night numbers to the day. My measurements stayed exactly the same.
“The curse is on me,” he said.
“Let me return the tape measure. I’ll tell Gupta I found it on the street, and it’s defective.”
I rang the little tinkling bell on the door. It was a silver elephant, some god. Gupta stood like a statue behind the register. His eyes narrowed when he saw the tape measure. He did not smile as I approached. I thought I saw a hand slip under his robe thingy.
I cleared my throat. “I found this near my house. It has your logo, yes?”
He lifted his chin and regarded me through tiny spectacles. He sipped his tea. His brown eyes were magnified and swirled like the muddy whirlpools of hell. I saw my quivering reflection, a double-headed, two-faced liar.
“The article was stolen, yes.”
I shrugged and placed it gently on the counter. “I believe it’s defective, also.”
“And in what way would that be?
“Well, measurements are way off. Ridiculous.”
He stepped from behind the counter. A tiny baseball bat hung from his belt of rope. “Look, your friend stole it, so now he must pay the consequences.”
“You can have it back. Here, how much for your trouble?”
“Don’t want it back. Take to him. He must pay. By keeping it.”
“Whatever.” I flicked the back of my hand at him, and he snarled. He touched his bat.
I kept Terry company. After Mary went to bed we’d check everything, but we used one of my tape measures instead. The results were the same. Everything was shrinking. By our estimates, Terry and his wife and everything in their house would be gone in a couple of weeks.
“It seems to be this house,” I said. “What if you stayed with us for a while?” It took some explaining and coaxing to get Mary to understand and agree.
They stayed in our spare room, and at night I measured them. It wasn’t good. When they got up to pee, they sounded like children. When they stopped at their house they felt normal, in proportion, because the house was shrinking at the same rate. I stood and watched them go in and get their stuff. I thought of a playhouse.
Soon Mary had to work from our home, sitting in a kid’s chair and desk my wife found. On the bright side, their fridge and bed took up hardly any space. Their room was like a nursery. I thought of that movie where Brad Pitt was born old and grew younger, but my friends were still adult-minded. They were scared. We went to some doctors, but no one had an explanation. We just had to watch it happen. Soon they were a foot tall, and we had to buy doll clothes. I dressed Terry in a cop uniform with a little hat and nightstick. He beat my fingers with his stick. We had to bring our dog to my mother’s, so he wouldn’t eat them.
Finally, we couldn’t see them at all without a big magnifying glass. I went to their old house and found it dollhouse size. There was a city truck there, a man looking and taking some notes. For a distraction, I torched some oily rags in the back. Then I ran across the street and yanked Terry’s house, foundation and all. It was heavy, all I could handle getting into my trunk.
We picked them from the carpet with tweezers. We could make them out kissing, crying. We put them in their house. My wife tweezed microscopic portions of food onto their kitchen table. They wouldn’t eat. The last time we saw them, they were side by side on their bed. There was a teeny-weeny cross on their wall.
I put their house in a shoebox, then a matchbox. My wife brought home a microscope and I focused them, just barely, the size of bacteria. And the strange and cool thing was that Mary looked pregnant, her abdomen bursting with rapidly splitting cells. I was excited. My wife and I kept them warm, waiting and watching. When there were thousands of the bacteria, just before they started to sprout limbs and form features, I scraped some up and went to Gupta to make up. “My friend,” I said. “I’m sorry. Terry did wrong, and you were right. Besides, now he is better.”
He arched his brows. “He is okay?”
“He lives with me.”
As he gazed out the window, I dropped my invisible scrapings into his tea. I bid him farewell.
Under the microscope, Terry and Mary and their many offspring were fully formed humans now. I imagined soon they would be visible to the naked eye. And then what?
I drove by Gupta’s the next morning and saw an ambulance taking him. The sheet was over his head, his purple arm hung over the side. I felt sick.
I didn’t tell my wife. I just sat with my feet up, a cool rag on my head. I could hear Terry’s tiny house expanding ever so slightly, the wood creaking. I thought I heard the many tiny voices crying for food.
Gary Moshimer has stories in Frigg, Wigleaf, Smokelong Quarterly, and other places.
Lead image: “Folding rule” (via Flickr user Pascal)