While removing the old green wallpaper in the master bedroom, Gil discovered a window. The glass surface, flush with the surrounding plaster, had been perfectly concealed. If not for the renovation–specifically Vickie’s desire to spruce up their room with an attractive floral print–he might never have found it.
Perplexed, Gil scraped away the remaining wallpaper with a putty knife, revealing the oddly-sized pane: maybe three feet wide, eight inches high.
On the other side of the glass, obscured by a smear of wallpaper paste, a warm light glowed. Retrieving a sponge, Gil scrubbed the glass clean and looked inside.
Beyond was a tiny lighted room. An open-plan apartment, furnished with a doll-sized dinette set, a sofa the length of his hand, a kitchen and refrigerator and a marble island with stools. Bright paisley wallpaper.
Squinting, he could make out spines of books on the shelf, a saucepan on the stove. Off the kitchen, next to a coat rack, an exterior door with a bolt lock, a box for buzzing in visitors. The floor plan of the apartment seemed to extend farther back. A hall stretched off the living room. At the end, a door opened onto a bathroom in blue tile.
That didn’t make sense. On the other side of the wall was Gil and Vickie’s laundry room. There was no tiny bathroom in there.
He was puzzling over this when the apartment’s door opened and a tiny woman walked in.
The old green wallpaper was just the latest eyesore in a renovation that had dragged on with no end in sight.
A year ago, when Gil and Vickie bought it, the house glittered with possibility. A single-story rancher outside town on a two-acre lot surrounded by fields of hay. Two bedrooms, one bath, attached garage. Vickie had imagined a kid playing in the yard, a rope swing, barbecues and birthday parties. But now the house resembled the shit hole it was. Shingles curled up like picked scabs. The floors, perforated with rot, sometimes gave way underfoot. When they ran the kitchen faucet, water backed up in the tub.
Last night, while Vickie was reading in bed and Gil deleted junk mail from his phone, the wallpaper–up in the corner, along the ceiling’s edge–came unstuck, drooping down like a big leaf.
Vickie, looking at it, wondered aloud, “Why did I ever agree to buy this dump?”
Gil glanced up, distracted. “No worries. I’ll add it to the list.”
“The list?” She laughed a little. “You’re kidding, right?”
Gil’s to-do list was a sore point. After he lost his job with the county, he and Vickie made a deal: they could get by–just–on her teacher’s salary, and he would fix up the house.
But renovating an old house is a big job. Gil, it turned out, simply wasn’t up to it. He’d start projects–the kitchen cabinets, lighting fixtures, a new floor in the den–and they’d languish, half-done.
Vickie wanted to know where his days went. He didn’t know what to say. The truth was, he mostly just watched TV. Talk shows, the Shopping Network, this program where contestants guessed the weight of farm animals. His favorites were the soaps. The TV’s glowing surface became a portal into worlds in which beautiful and privileged people routinely faked their deaths, staged miraculous returns, plotted byzantine schemes–usually to gain revenge or acquire a fabulous inheritance. Sometimes to win love.
“I’ll get to it,” Gil insisted.
“This isn’t how things were supposed to go,” she said wearily. “We had a deal.”
“Come on. Let’s not fight.”
“Fight?” She looked at him–not angrily, not exactly, but with a kind of sorrow. This look frightened Gil more than if she’d shouted, thrown a lamp. “I haven’t had the energy to fight in—” she lifted her eyes, thinking “–in I don’t know how long.”
“I’ll replace the wallpaper tomorrow,” he said. “I promise.”
“Okay,” she said, but really she meant we’ll see. Setting her book on the bedside table, she clicked off the lamp and rolled onto her side, her back to him. That was how she slept.
The next morning, after Vickie left for work, Gil moved their stuff to the smaller bedroom down the hall, bending the queen-sized mattress through the door. Then he tarped the floor and, following an online video, prepared an adhesive remover, which had the texture of honey and smelled like gasoline.
He’d show her.
Gil didn’t tell Vickie about the tiny apartment, or the tiny woman, or her tiny husband, who showed up late in the day, tossing his briefcase on the counter and grousing about work. Or that’s what Gil figured the man was complaining about. Through the glass, he couldn’t actually make out what was said.
The tiny people were three, maybe four inches tall.
The husband fixed himself a drink in the kitchen. The tiny woman stood at the kitchen counter, listening, in heels, her hair done.
Neither of them once looked at Gil.
That evening, Gil tacked a blue tarp up over the wall, covering the window. He’d make up some excuse.
When Vickie’s headlights turned into the driveway, he went to meet her in the kitchen–and discovered Otto’s latest mess.
Otto had dragged a robin through the cat door, the linoleum speckled with blood and feathers. The bird’s tiny remaining eye stared. Otto sat hunched, looking huge in his luxurious white fur, tail swishing back and forth. He studied the dead bird, as if divining the entrails.
Vickie, swinging the door shut, surveyed the scene. “Damn cat,” she said good-naturedly. She unspooled paper towels from a roll while Gil broomed the carcass into a dustpan.
After mopping up, Vickie lifted Otto. He twisted around to kiss her lips with little flicks of his sandpaper tongue.
Gil, repulsed, looked away.
“Make progress on the bedroom?” she asked.
“Yeah, but it might take longer than I thought.”
“Like how long?” She nuzzled the top of Otto’s head. “A couple days?”
“A week,” he said, watching her. “At least a week.”
Vickie looked unsurprised. With all the cabinet doors missing and their canned beans and cereal boxes exposed, it looked like someone had pulled their kitchen’s teeth.
“I’m exhausted.” She set Otto down and headed toward the bedroom. “I better get to my grading.”
Gil followed Vickie into the hall. From the ceiling, a bulb dangled on a wire and emitted a retina-burning glare. She paused at the master bedroom as if she might pull open the door and take a look, but she just moved on.
Later, when Gil climbed into bed, he knew Vickie was still awake from the rhythm of her breathing. Lately she’d had trouble sleeping, and her not sleeping often kept him from sleeping. He’d lay awake, trying to puzzle out what she might be thinking, what it might portend.
He didn’t do that tonight. He drifted off thinking about the tiny couple. He wondered what kind of job the tiny husband must have to carry a briefcase and wear a suit and afford that life, that apartment and that tiny, perfect woman. He wondered how the two of them had ever gotten together. Had they met in high school, like Vickie and Gil? How had the tiny woman known he was the one?
Come to think of it, how had Gil known that about Vickie? He couldn’t recall.
Recently Vickie had been staying late at work. She had faculty meetings, teacher-parent conferences, grading, lesson prep. They had these new state exams, the whole thing was a mess. On top of it all, she’d started tutoring to make a little extra.
The tiny woman was a house wife, the type he’d always dreamed of marrying, being able to support. He watched her dust, move the vacuum around, and clean the windows wearing a pair of yellow gloves. She went for groceries, returning laden with bags. Every night, she prepared an elaborate meal: broiled steaks, oven-baked salmon fillets, a whole chicken shimmering with a perfect brown glaze. She always put on a nice dress for dinner, did her make-up. No frozen oven pizzas, no frumpy plaid pajamas, like the ones Vickie practically lived in.
One night she did lobster, bringing it home from a market wrapped in wet newspaper. From a cupboard she produced a big silver pot, which she filled with water and placed over the stove’s blue flame. She chopped shallots and carrots. She kept the point of the knife on the cutting board and moved the heel of the blade up and down, in quick sure cuts. Wheels of carrot smaller than pocket lint danced away.
The water came to a high boil, sending up curls of steam. She set aside her knife and retrieved the lobster. It was helpless, the pincers rubber-banded. The tiny woman dangled the lobster head-first over the water. Through the magnifying glass, Gil thought he detected something teasing in her manner. She released the lobster into the pot.
After dinner, the couple watched TV. The odd thing was, they had no TV–at least none Gil could see. Their couch was positioned facing the pane that separated Gil’s world from theirs. As if a television set only they could see hovered in the space beyond the glass.
Whatever they watched amused the tiny husband a great deal: he would slap his knee and laughter roared out of his fat red face.
The tiny husband resembled all the bosses Gil ever had. The whole world at their call. The tiny woman fetched beers from the refrigerator. The tiny husband, without a care, tossed the empties to the floor.
What a brute, Gil thought.
Gil woke in the night to the sound of Vickie weeping. “Are you all right?” he said.
After a long moment, she said, “I don’t know how we got here.” She reached toward him. “I’m worried about you.”
Her fingers were cool on his shoulder. “No, you’re not.” He could sense her shaking her head. “This isn’t a life, Gil.”
“Try to get some sleep. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”
“You’ve stopped going outside. I’ve noticed. You need to talk to someone.”
A memory surfaced, unbidden, of just a few weeks before he was axed: returning to his new house after three days at a conference in Olympia. The dusky valley was cold and blue, but the house’s front window glowed lantern yellow. He sat at the top of the driveway, engine idling, just taking it in–until Vickie appeared at the glass, saw him, waved him home.
Her voice brought him back. “I want to help you.”
He was quiet, the light of the window fading from his mind. He cleared his throat, but didn’t say anything.
After a while Vickie’s hand slid away.
The next morning, Gil looked thoughtfully at Otto, who was hunched over his cat bowl, lapping up the fishy food and gravy they spooned from a can. Gil’s mind veered to the tiny woman, how helpless she was, and a shudder ran through him.
He took his coffee into the garage. The space was crowded with supplies from Lowe’s: gallons of paint, tarps, the cedar planks for Vickie’s new fence. The kitchen cabinet doors were laid out out on old newspapers, waiting to be sanded and re-stained.
Gil set to work with the table saw, double and triple checking the plans he’d worked out on sheets of legal paper. He wanted to be sure the dimensions were just right.
The tiny woman stood at an ironing board and pressed a pair of slacks. She was in a frantic rush. The husband was late for work. He emerged from the bedroom in a dress shirt and boxers, hollering and pointing at the pants. He waved his hand in a gesture of “forget it” and stormed off to the bedroom.
After the husband left for work, the woman stood, distraught, gripping the hair on the sides of her head. Then she fled back toward the bedroom, maybe to lie down or cry.
Later that morning Gil pried off the glass. He worked a screwdriver under the edges of the pane and it came off with a pop.
Around noon, the woman emerged. She didn’t act any differently with the glass missing. She made a call on the kitchen phone. Gil still couldn’t make out what she said, but he could hear the rise and fall of her little voice. She sounded sad. Lamenting with a girlfriend, probably.
She made a simple dinner, some kind of pasta. She didn’t dress up. While she and the husband ate, they hardly spoke.
Afterward they watched TV. Sinking into the sofa, the husband clicked the remote, cuing the brash music, the exaggerated inflections of an announcer’s voice, the fly-like buzz of an audience applauding.
The woman, seated beside him, worked her hand onto his knee, wanting to make amends. With his magnifying glass, Gil inspected her small manicured hand.
Then a movement caught his eye, like a waving white handkerchief. A cat walked with deliberate steps around the couch and leapt onto the sofa, curling up beside the tiny woman. Idly, she stroked it.
Gil, taken aback, stared. It was Otto.
The next day, Vickie and the tiny husband left for work, leaving Gil and the tiny woman alone.
Gil watched her a long time. She slumped on the couch, flipping through channels with the remote, still deflated from yesterday’s fight. She painted her nails. The tiny Otto walked in, rubbed against her leg, and strolled out. Gil peered through the magnifying glass, taking in her shock of blonde hair, her despondent, youthful face.
Gil reached in and grabbed her.
He wasn’t sure he could. He’d considered the possibility that it was all a figment of his imagination, an illusion that would vanish, gone, a puff of smoke.
But she was real: the tiny woman, screaming in terror, lay in the palm of his hand.
Gil carried her into the garage. He pulled the canvas drop cloth from the work table.
Then, carefully, he deposited the tiny woman in her new house.
Gil assembled the three-room house from cedar, cut from the planks intended for Vickie’s fence. He painted the interior walls with several coats of the eggshell Vickie had picked out for the den, and he stained the floors with the burnished walnut intended for the kitchen cabinets. He paused to admire the high-gloss sheen.
There were no exterior doors, of course–the tiny woman couldn’t just walk out.
The work pleased him. The whole structure was light enough he could carry it around, no problem, but sturdy enough he could hurl it across the room and it wouldn’t bust.
Gil had considered taking furniture from the tiny apartment, but he didn’t want to remind her of that old life. So he’d ordered a set of Victorian-style doll house furniture online: a red-and-white striped sofa, matching arm chairs, a dinette set, a lavish four-poster with a foam-like mattress. He set the table with the tiny cups, dishes, flatware. There were even kitchen appliances: a handsome refrigerator, an electric stove with little whorled heating elements. Of course none of that stuff worked.
For now, he would store the house in the master bedroom closet, under the drop cloth. In a day or two he would finish a removable roof. Until that was done, he’d have to keep the door shut all the time.
He’d considered killing Otto, though the idea made him ill. But then the cat appeared in the tiny apartment, and it scared him, meant something, he just wasn’t sure what.
The tiny woman, looking about the house, seemed confused.
She would be better off with Gil. She hadn’t been happy. He didn’t know the laws or religious mores of her tiny world: perhaps she wanted to divorce, but it wasn’t possible. He may have saved her.
Bending down, Gil peered at her though a window.
The tiny husband came home early. Swinging the door shut, he dropped his briefcase and called for the woman. He pulled a tumbler from the kitchen cupboard and filled it with ice. Turning his head, he called for her again. After a moment, he set the glass down and went looking.
Gil held the miniature house in his hands. The tiny woman sat on the kitchen floor, surrounded by fake appliances, hugging her knees. She looked up.
“Hungry?” he said.
Gil carried the house into the kitchen. He inspected the deli meat in the fridge: it had a slight iridescent sheen, but was probably fine.
He shared his sandwich with the tiny woman, tweezing crumbs and bits of ham into her serving dish. With an eye dropper, he deposited a jewel of water into a cup.
Gil wanted her to know him, but he didn’t want to talk about his parents, his childhood. Certainly not about Vickie. So he talked about his old job processing grant applications for the county, doing clerical work. Boring stuff, mostly, but it wasn’t so bad, and most of the people were nice. He even had friends. Sometimes, after work, they’d meet up at the bar across from the courthouse and unwind: gossip, play darts. Gil was good at darts.
“I miss it,” he admitted. “I wasn’t getting rich. But it was a job.”
Gil looked down. He expected her to be listening, perhaps visibly moved. Instead, she was on her feet, shouting and waving an angry fist. She wasn’t scared anymore. She grabbed one of the doll-sized chairs and heaved it toward him, but it didn’t come close: the chair arced up, fell, skidded across the floor.
At first, this fit of anger perplexed him. But he realized maybe his intentions hadn’t been clear. Maybe she didn’t speak English. Or maybe she simply couldn’t make out what he was saying. That was probably it. To her tiny ears, he imagined his huge voice booming out like an unmuffled truck engine.
They needed to communicate. He cut a piece of paper into small squares. On one of the squares he wrote in tiny script: I am Gil ur friend. He dropped the note into the house and the tiny woman snatched it up. He dropped several blank slips of paper into the house. Then he broke off the fine lead tip from his mechanical pencil and dropped it inside, too. Now she can write me a letter, he thought.
Late that evening, Gil checked on the apartment. In rolled-up shirtsleeves, the tiny husband paced back and forth, a drink in his hand. If a call came in, he’d run to the phone, catching it on the first ring, sagging as he realized the caller wasn’t his wife or anyone with news. Her mysterious disappearance was probably all over the tiny news. A pretty, young, upper middle-class woman, her picture flashing over the shoulder of an evening news anchor. Law enforcement’s wide-ranging search, no resource spared. But it was no use. She was gone. The tiny husband collapsed onto the sofa, his face in his hands.
Watching him, Gil felt a strange thrill.
Vickie came home earlier than usual. Gil, hearing her key in the lock, rushed to hide the miniature house in the bedroom closet, covering it with the drop cloth.
She was in the kitchen, pouring a glass of water. “You’ve been cutting the cedar,” she said, and he looked at her in surprise. “I was in the garage this morning and I could smell it.” She leaned against the counter. “What are you working on?”
Neurons fired, but slowly. “Your fence.”
“Really?” She sounded unconvinced.
Otto padded into the kitchen on dainty feet. Vickie bent and his back curled up to meet her hand.
“You’re home early,” he said.
“My tutoring appointment canceled. Upset stomach or something.” Otto purred loudly. “I thought we could order pizza.”
She looked at him hopefully. “We could watch TV. Just relax, the two of us?”
“If you want.”
“Let me change out of my school clothes.”
Gil followed her to the hallway. She stopped at the master bedroom. She touched the knob.
“Better not,” Gil said. “It’s dirty in there.”
Heedless, Vickie opened the door.
“Not much progress, huh?” The blue tarp covered the tiny window. Vickie looked from the room to him. “What’s with the tarp?”
“Asbestos, I think, I’m keeping it covered,” he said. “Let’s shut the door. Otto could get in there and track it through the house.”
She seemed about to comply, but hesitated. Something caught her eye. She stepped in and knelt in the middle of the floor.
“What am I looking at?” Vickie stood, something on her palm. Gil stepped forward, squinting. It was a miniature paper airplane.
Gil made to grab it, but she snatched it away, unfolding the paper. “There’s something written on it.” She held it up. “What is this?”
In light pencil marks, the note said: help Gil took me.
“I don’t know.” Gil shook his head. “That’s very weird.”
She cocked her head, eyes narrowed. “You don’t know?”
Behind her, on the other side of the blue tarp, a faint, sobbing cry: the tiny husband. Vickie turned and, before Gil could stop her, pulled down the tarp.
Vickie didn’t figure out everything. She didn’t learn about the tiny woman, or discover the miniature house under its drop cloth in the closet. Gazing into the apartment, and holding the tiny note of distress, she assumed the morose little man was the prisoner. When Gil thought she might try to reach in and save the husband, he stepped between her and the window.
“What awful thing is going on here?” she asked, her voice very quiet.
He opened his mouth to reply, but nothing came out.
“I thought you were just depressed, Gil, and selfish. I didn’t know you were”–she searched for a word–“cruel.”
“Vickie.” He stepped toward her.
“Don’t touch me.” She held up a hand and raised her voice. “I shouldn’t be surprised. You’ve been so careless with your life, with mine, why would you care about a little man?” She looked at Gil, as if trying hard to recognize someone. “Do you feel anything, anything at all?”
When she left, she didn’t bother packing a bag. Just grabbed her purse and banged through the door, her face wet with tears. Before climbing into the car, she promised she’d be back, and it sounded like a threat.
Gil watched her drive away, then went to the closet and pulled away the drop cloth covering the miniature house. The tiny woman was gone, too.
Furniture had been piled against one of the exterior walls, so she could climb up, hop over, and escape.
Gil stood and called out. “Where are you?”
In the hall, he turned on the light, looking back and forth, watching where he stepped. He moved into the kitchen. “Hello?”
A flash of movement caught his eye. The tiny woman, running across the kitchen linoleum. She limped–perhaps she’d hurt herself dropping over the house’s cedar wall. Gil was annoyed. Where’d she think she was going? This was no world for her. Didn’t she know she needed him?
From around the kitchen counter, Otto appeared and pounced, snatching up the tiny woman in his jaws. Gil moved to grab him, but Otto slipped away, darting out through the cat door.
Otto shot off into the field and disappeared in the tall grass, Gil chasing after.
Cupping his hands around his mouth, he called Otto’s name, over and over. A breeze moved over the valley and soon it was almost dark.
Gil felt light-headed and couldn’t catch his breath. His tiny woman was gone. He felt a pressure build in his chest: a vise tightening on its threads. He was having a panic attack.
On weak legs, Gil walked home. Moving through the blue light, he half-expected Vickie to be standing in the warmth of the kitchen window, watching for him.
That night it took him a long time to fall asleep, but he seemed to open his eyes almost as quickly as he closed them. A glance at the clock told him it was mid-morning. In a daze, he got up. Otto had not returned.
The tiny husband hadn’t left his apartment. He lay on the sofa, the rotary phone beside him, black cord snaking to the wall. The husband was disheveled, unshaven, gray. Wearing the same clothes as yesterday, staring out into space.
An angry impulse bubbled up–to reach in and grab the tiny husband, just squeeze, put him out of his misery. Make him pop. Gil half-wished someone could do that for him.
He shook his head and went out to putter in the garage, trying to clear the idea from his mind. But it followed him, like something stuck to his shoe.
That evening, when Gil looked in on the tiny apartment, he was startled by what he saw. The tiny husband was trashing the place: throwing furniture against the walls, ripping books apart, smashing appliances. Tufts of white stuffing spilled forth from tears in the couch.
The tiny husband kicked over a side table, smashing a lamp. He sent china sailing into the wall. With a golf club, he broke the leg from one of the kitchen stools. It teetered for a moment, fell. He retrieved long knives from the butcher’s block and cut gashes in the paisley wallpaper.
Gil, taking a cue from the tiny husband, destroyed the miniature house. With a claw hammer, he beat it to pieces, gathering the wreckage in his arms and stuffing it into the wood stove. The fire burned orange through the stove’s tempered window.
By now the tiny apartment was a ruin. Even the lights were out, the bulbs shattered. Swatches of paisley wallpaper hung in torn strips. The tiny husband stood with his back to Gil, at the far end of the apartment, just staring at the wall.
I won’t kill him, Gil thought. Just take him. Stick him in a bottle.
The tiny apartment’s buzzer rang and the husband went to the door.
Red scratches covered her skin, and her clothes hung, just rags, but she was alive.
In walked the tiny woman.
They embraced, the husband’s body heaving with sobs.
Otto sauntered in after her, rubbed his body against the back of her legs.
The tiny woman pulled away from her husband. She was speaking frantically and gesturing toward the window, toward Gil, who stared back, still in shock. The husband, taking her hand, led her toward the back of the apartment, pointing at something–but Gil couldn’t quite tell what.
He ran in search of the magnifying glass, waves of relief coursing through him, the shock wearing off. This time would be better. The tiny house was gone, but so what? He would build another.
By the time Gil returned, the tiny couple stood at the far side of the apartment. From the kitchen, the husband had retrieved the big silver lobster pot and removed the lid.
They were peering into a miniature room that had been concealed behind the wallpaper. Already they had popped away the window pane. While the husband held the pot at the ready, the tiny woman reached inside.
Gil turned just as her giant hand appeared and caught him in its grip.
Keith Proctor works in international development and humanitarian aid. He has published fiction in Novel Noctule and Zahir, and non-fiction in a variety of outlets. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop.