The Summer We Shrank
And we were off. Cruising through the slab of black road, the sun kicking our eyes. I was strapped into the passenger seat, nerves brimming. It was my first time out in four months. After the pandemic had announced herself, I had locked myself in my room, yanked on a pair of headphones, and stayed that way until something had enticed me to venture out: “ROAD TRIP!” a socially-starved Dim yelled out of my phone.
And now here we were, near we were, and my skin was inching away from every threat of human contact. Skinny was behind the wheel, Dim sprawled out in the back. My hand reached out and shook a cloudy bag of pills.
They nodded their heads like solar-powered dolls and I popped the seal, fed them one each. I took a handful of Tic Tacs myself, hoping the sugar would disguise itself to my body as a kind of proper breakfast. Skinny was sawing through the midday traffic without mercy – I had no clue why we let him drive, with his natural disposition of madness. But so we did and there we were. Poised and ready for a weekend of doing nothing, sunbathing, more nothing.
An hour in and we were shouting along to some terrible song, boredom rearing its ugly head at the back of the car, brewing in the engine. We shouted and shouted and the lyrics fell off at the verses but we didn’t care because life was too short to memorise lyrics to songs that didn’t matter.
I was halfway through the Tic Tacs. I imagined the grains of sugar ballooning out in my stomach. I had no way of knowing if it worked that way. Skinny was the Science Man. Skinny the Scientific Scoundrel.
We stopped at a gas station to empty our bladders and then we were off again, lost in the deep infinite of traffic lights and smoke with nothing to guide us but the God-bestowed miracle of the GPS. The music was turned down low and finally, we swerved into the entrance of the villa. I was high on pills, sugar and sunlight, and couldn’t wait to sit poolside with a cool drink in my hand.
As promised, it was scorching.
Skinny was lounging on a wicker chair by the pool as I walked through the sliding glass door. He gave me a nod and went back to his book on the intricacies of time-travel. I slung a towel over one shoulder and walked up to the curb of the pool.
The heated ground felt good under my feet. I forgot how hard it was to be sad under the sun. I let my towel fall and it was then that I saw Dim by the far corner of the pool, hidden in the shadows of the trees, watching me. I felt funny in my swimsuit—it was the most they’d ever seen of me.
Skinny stood up and flung his intellectual bible aside.
“How’s about we kick it up a notch.”
It wasn’t really a question and so on and so on and we were inhaling gas out of shiny, wet balloons. We had nicked them at a convenience store earlier along with a pack of beers. The cashier was fat and balding and most likely suicidal and I hoped this hadn’t given him the final push.
The gas tasted like cold metal in my mouth. It spread through me, numbing my arms and legs. I looked over to Skinny, who was smiling at me, dopey and sweet. Two more gulps and I was out of this Earth. I looked over to share this newfound heaven with Skinny, but instead found Dim smiling back at me. Suddenly, he looked real good. He had a knowing glint in his eye that suggested I had been mistaken all along, that he wasn’t Dim in the least. He was Dashing.
I wanted him to swim over to me right then, a silent and calculating predator, to take over my body, enter me, replace me, turn me inside out while my organs floated in the water. I wanted to scream:
“FUCK ME OR SINK FOREVER!”
He began swimming for real and my body was shrieking and I was so aware of both our genitals submerged in the water, touching through the osmosis of particles, skin cupping skin. And this time it wasn’t disgusting. It was warm and good. Then the gas came down, the moment was gone, Dashing was Dim again, and I needed a gargantuan mug of Skinny’s signature Jungle Juice to drown out the heat.
DWARFS AND GARDENERS
Skinny removed two gangly mushrooms from a frying pan and looked at me.
I stared at the mushrooms on the pan, sad and flaccid. I had no idea what to say so I nodded.
He seems satisfied and dunked the two mushrooms back into the plastic bag. With the remaining two, he went to work. He started grinding them like a five-star chef – first course HEAVEN, second course THE FEAR, third course, REGRET. That’s how it went anyhow. But I didn’t know that at the time.
I was the last to go. Skinny made us sit at the dining table, waiting for our Sunday roast dinner like a suburban family, while he presented us with his concoctions. I towered over my mug. It had twig-like seasonings floating in it. “God almighty,” I prayed, “give me the strength to down the contents of this mug”.
The Lord himself obliged and I necked down the mixture with impressive speed. It didn’t taste as bad as I thought it would. Pretty soon, I felt it creep up my chest.
“Placebo, man,” diagnosed Skinny. “That’s all.”
It could’ve well been true. I never know what is and what isn’t. It’s all a matter of deciding anyway.
When it started to happen, we scattered around the house. I took to the poolside immediately. The air was closing around me. Dim was on the couch, mellowing out. Skinny went to his room to grab extra pillows. After a while, Dim followed me outside and pulled up a chair next to me.
“You good, man?”
I wanted him to disappear.
“Real good,” I replied.
I didn’t ask how he was. I didn’t care. I was a thousand miles above that villa and I could come crashing down at any moment. Suddenly, a voice — two voices — sharp and unwelcome, hissed through the lawn.
“Can’t hear you!” Dim shouted.
The voices came again.
“Look here. Do you mind if we cut your grass?”
I sat up. Two dwarfs holding large pairs of scissors stood in our front yard. I was halfway to objecting.
“Sure man, sure,” Dim purred.
I felt like strangling him then, but his hands were much larger than mine and I couldn’t have hurt him if I tried.
The next day I woke up with a splitting headache. Luckily, I had won the ensuite room after a riveting game of straw-drawing, so I nursed my morning hangover in peace. I took a long shower, the steam reviving my spirits – yesterday me was gone, exiled into the closet of past selves, hung from hooks, limp, forgotten. The new me was emerging, stepping out of the shower, clean as a baby.
I found Dim and Skinny in the living room. They looked as if they hadn’t moved since last night.
“I’m ravenous,” Dim growled.
My stomach was caving in on itself and so we went to get noodles at one of the street food vendors by the beach. The noodles were hot and sat well in my stomach after last night.
“Let’s go lie down on the beach. The beach cures all,” said Skinny.
There were no protests to his diagnosis and there we were a second later. Minuscule ants on tiny, shimmering grains of sand. Then something extraordinarily troubling happened.
Dim started yapping away about some insignificant event that had happened to him some hours, days, months ago. The sun was blaring down and no one else was around save for a couple rubbing up against each other under a red umbrella and a silver-haired man walking his dog. I watched the dog for a bit, tried to get it to trot over, but got bored so I tuned back into Channel Dim.
“…and actually, I thought about you the other day…”
I sprung up, spine-cocked, my undivided attention now on those seven words. I thought about you the other day.
Dim was still prattling on but I was staring at him behind my sunglasses, bewildered.
Why? What could possibly make him think of me? What foreign chemical in his brain flipped its thinking compass towards me? I was a speck. Small, ugly, walled up—a mollusc permanently retreating into its infinitely staircased shell.
I couldn’t move away from the thought. It stuck to me like glue.
We didn’t know each other, I had nothing to do with him. It wasn’t me who had entered his thoughts. It was a counterfeit, an imposter! I wanted to shake him and scream “WAKE UP DIM!!! It’s not me!!!” But this would have had no visible effect. I let him continue while I sat in my cloud of gloom on the beautiful, postcard beach.
Our trip drew to a disappointing conclusion. We left early, at dawn, the sun still prying her way out of the morning smoke. My entire body felt clenched, as if someone had tied a web of strings around my organs and pulled. There was no conversation to be had, our minds had already left and were tucked up nice and warm at home while our bodies were left behind to heave themselves into the car.
They say what goes up must come down. It’s a cruel law of nature.
If only we could’ve experienced our trip in reverse – starting at the sickness and the hangovers and the existential nausea, then climbing our way up towards a shimmering high, golden liquid rising up our necks and spilling out choruses to those terrible songs.
But in reality we were underslept, pumped full of dread, and tanned to the ankles – sunburnt slabs of meat in the rearview mirror. I had never wanted to be left alone so badly as I did then. The two of them were unwanted presences in my periphery. I could hear Dim’s amplified, shallow breathing and I realised I was falling deeper in love with by the minute.
It was doubtless the residue of narcotics but I felt it nevertheless, loud and melodramatic in my veins. I wanted to reach over and cram my hand up his brain, feel around and pull out the reel of his private thoughts and musings, copy it down word-for-word and slip it back in again. I’d move swift, like a bird. He wouldn’t even realise what I’d done. And then I’d recite those thoughts out loud, slipping it into conversation in the right places. “Oh, what a coincidence! You like so and so as well…” and before he knew it, he would be wrapping my image in a halo of cool. The one who gets it.
We zoomed past street markets and rice fields until Skinny suggested we stop at a gas station. I was too drained to leave the car but Dim and Skinny hopped out and went about their business.
I watched as Dim headed back towards the car, his scrawny, orange body getting bigger and bigger in the rearview mirror. He looked like he didn’t have a care in the world and that drove me a little insane.
I felt older now than when I began this trip. We all were.
I realised I had been to countless gas stations in my life and couldn’t remember any of them. I had nothing in my brain but this infatuation that meant nothing, that would never be pursued.
I was sadder than I’d ever been but it didn’t matter, because soon we were on the road again, heading towards our small, shrinking lives.
Shir Ariya recently graduated with an MA Screenwriting from London Film School. She spends her free time writing scripts, short stories and poems.