my brother has begun to shrink. No one knows except the two of us. Mom’s suspicious, but she doesn’t have any proof. It’s been about a week, and he’s already lost seven inches. At this rate, he’ll be shorter than me in a few days.
“Joe,” I say, placing my hand on top of his head. “Joe-Joe, Joey, Joseph, Broseph.” I play his favorite Jack Johnson album on repeat and bake his favorite coconut cookies, my tears blotching the recipe card. Since he moved in with me, I’ve been baking every day. Untouched and inviting cookies, brownies, cakes, chocolates, and muffins litter every surface in the kitchen.
Every day, I mark the tip-top of his head on the doorframe with a wooden ruler and a pen. I date it and put his name. “Stand up straight,” I say, sometimes adding a centimeter or two. I have him measure me, too, but soon he’ll need a chair.
No one calls, except Mom. She wants us to come over for dinner on Saturdays. “No, Mom,” I say to the voice, “we have a chicken.” She wants us to come over for dinner on Sundays. “No, Mom,” I say to the voice, “we have a chicken.” She wants to go out to KFC on Mondays. “You know Joe won’t eat that,” I say.
The mailman asks me how he is, now that we get his mail forwarded to my house. “He’s fine,” I say, “just feeling a little under the weather. Thank you.” I give him his mail. National Geographic, Mother Earth News, and Green Futures come regularly; bank statements and bills less regularly. He sits and reads the magazines two or three times, his posture becoming progressively more slumped as he flips through the pages. Then he places them carefully into the recycling bin with the unopened statements and bills and goes outside to stare at the sky.
It’s been more than a month since Joe first moved in.
He knocked on my front door, carrying a small chicken in a cage. She squawked at me. His eyes were sad. Endless squawking would make me sad, too. I offered to stay on the couch so he could have the bed, but his legs sticking off the end didn’t bother him. Maisy-Mae moved into my backyard and continued to squawk. She doesn’t let me pet her and doesn’t even lay good eggs.
I was happy when Joe first got here, even though he was sad and I was sad for him being sad. I let him know that I was happy, too. That I’d missed him. We made a good pair growing up and still do as adults. He likes to talk a lot, and I like to listen. I’d missed the long talks we used to take down the old gravel road by our house. We would talk past all the old farms with their dozens of chickens and big tire swings; we would talk when Dad came and picked us up in the truck; we would talk through dinner; we would talk after Mom tucked us in and turned out the light. I don’t remember what it was we would talk about. Probably a bit of everything: about the earth and the sky and things I didn’t understand. He still talks about similar things I don’t understand, and it doesn’t really matter, I suppose. I just know my house had no talking before he came, and now it does.
On his last full-size day, Joe was pretty quiet. He lay flat on the brown, crackly grass in my back yard, staring up. I sat down next to him. When he didn’t say anything, I walked inside and returned with two grape sodas. We sipped in silence. My neck hurt from staring up. “Jules, do you ever feel like the sky is going to come down and squish you?” I didn’t answer. He rolled over. I was happy to lower my gaze to stare at the ground with him. I pulled at the dead grass. “Do you ever feel like the earth is going to rise up and squish you? Squishing from above and below: like a squished sandwich.” I patted his shoulder like Dad always did when Joe came home early from school with no lunch money and wet streaks down his ruddy cheeks.
The next morning, when I went to wake him, I noticed his feet weren’t sticking off the edge of the couch anymore. When he walked to the bathroom, I noticed he didn’t have to duck to miss the doorframe. When we started making breakfast together, I noticed my head was at his chin, instead of his shoulder. I gave him a hug, and he noticed, too. I made him cupcakes instead of pancakes.
Joe’s clothing is getting too big now. I take him shopping in the men’s section, but some of the boys’ clothing would fit better. I don’t want to say anything. I try to remember to wash his clothes in really hot water like the tags tell you not to. I use Mom’s sewing kit to hem some of his jeans. When we stop for lunch in the food court, he doesn’t finish his sandwich. I ask him to refill my soda: Orange Crush with Mello Yello. While he’s gone, I tear off most of his leftovers and toss them under my chair. I leave enough for pride but realism. I try to remember to not step on the mess when we leave the mall.
While he’s out gardening or walking, I start moving things down, slowly, but not too slowly. I move the plates and bowls onto a lower shelf. I move his plants from tables to the floor. I lower the shower nozzle, so I have to crouch to rinse my hair. I even lower pictures and posters. I’ve hidden my only pair of heels and spend as much time sitting on the floor as I can. I wish I would’ve gotten my Grandma’s short genes. The chiropractor has to work harder on my knots.
I’ve stopped going to work at the library. I had started losing books and forgetting regular patrons’ names. When I got home last week, Joe was lying out on the grass, not moving. I lay down next to him, not saying anything. My boss called for a few days but when I didn’t return her calls, she stopped bothering. She could find someone else who didn’t have a shrinking brother.
The whole thing is like waking up from a bad dream and feeling scared and sad and anxious and helpless and small. I prefer a bad dream to a bad reality. When I can sleep, I wake up with a wet pillow and puffy eyes. When I can’t sleep, I sew clothes in decreasing sizes. I always get up early so I can beat Joe into the bathroom to wash my face and practice cheery smiles. “Good morning, Joey. It’s a nice day today, isn’t it?” I say to my reflection. I slap my cheeks and try again.
It’s day twenty-six and Joe beat me into the kitchen. He’s standing at the counter. He’s staring up at the cabinets glaring down at him, out of his reach. He senses me, even hiding behind the fridge.
“Jules,” he says, his voice soft and high, “I want cereal.”
“I’ll make you muffins,” I say. My hair hurt from my hand’s tugging.
I nod, and walk toward him, reaching to open the cabinet for his Cocoa Puffs.
I think about Joe at 6’5”, and then I look at Joe at 4’3”. I bend down and hug him.
I want to pick him up and leave his feet on the floor, stretching him tall. I want to squeeze him so tight that I squeeze out all of the shrinking and replaced it with my own non-shrinking. I want to give him my height. I want to give him my safe and normal. I want my big brother to be my big brother again.
Letting him go, I turn around and walk down the hallway. I unlock the door to the closet where the step stool hides.
Theresa Pfister is a senior at Pomona College.