Sylvia Potter was definitely shrinking.
As she stood on her toes to look in the mirror while brushing her long, damp hair, she felt her bracelets slide down her wrist and off her hand. “This is absurd,” she sighed and kicked the jewelry out of her way. Then she stretched and reached for her make-up. Sylvia thought about calling in sick, again.
She knew she was the talk of the office. She’d even replaced Mr. Edison’s affair with Barb from the accounting department. Just the other day in the ladies’ room, she’d overheard two of the other administrative assistants discussing her. They hadn’t noticed her sitting in a stall, her feet dangling just above the floor.
The first girl said, “Did you notice poor Sylvia?”
“Who hasn’t?” Asked the second.
“It’s too bad, shrinking so young.
“Maybe she has a back problem.”
“But to shrink that much?”
“Well maybe there are midget genes in her family, and they just became dominant,” the second one said with a giggle.
“Then that makes us an equal opportunity employer!”
Sylvia could still hear the echo of their cruel laughter, even now, in the sanctuary of her own bathroom. She felt her cheeks flush, but there was nothing she could do about her size or the catty bitches she had to tolerate.
Sylvia thought about how delighted she’d been when she first noticed that her clothes were a little large. But then, her shoes started to slip off in midstep, her panties started to slide down as she walked and her bras had to be stuffed again, just like back in junior high.
Her family physician, Dr. Jameson, after the usual blood tests and tongue clucking, said, “Sylvia, I think you should be admitted into the hospital, just for observation and a few tests. You do have insurance, don’t you?”
Sylvia nodded, suddenly scared that maybe she was really sick. She’d spent three days confined to a hospital bed with tubes sucking from her veins and even more tubes refilling them. She grimaced with the remembered pain and gritted her teeth at the worst part: the tests showed nothing at all. Not one thing wrong! Not one reason for her regression. But during that time, she hadn’t shrunk a centimeter. Funny, how as soon as she returned home, the problem had begun again.
She finished applying her make-up and left for work. Left for another day of torment. All day she tried to meet the too quickly averted eyes of her co-workers, and she tried to ignore the whispers that were always just out of earshot anyway.
She handled it, just like always. After all, she was used to the cruelty of others. She worked at the computer on her desk, typing letter after letter, to keep obliviously busy. She kept watching the clock, counting the hours until she’d be able to see and hear the Holy Reverend Alexander. Knowing that tonight she’d see him made another unbearable day, bearable.
As the clock struck five, Sylvia dashed from the building and to the bus stop. Boarding the crowded commuter, she stood and waited patiently. Soon she’d see Him and all would be well. She stood and wished she could reach a handhold. But she was too short so she held onto the back of the seat next to her. The tightly packed crowd slowly thinned, and she gratefully sat and watched as the grime-encrusted brick buildings gave way to open fields and abandoned farms.
Half-an-hour later she stood reverently before the shabby, patched tent planted in an overgrown field of weeds. Paying her seventy-five dollar donation, she entered the dim, smoky, canvas church. She found an empty seat and waited. Every Tuesday night for the last six weeks his hellfire and brimstone sermons made her feel alive, made her burn with secret shame and passion. She knew he was the one, the one who was going to save her from herself. He said he would melt the sin from his flock and if anyone could wash away her sinful burden, Sylvia was sure it would be The Holy Reverend Alexander. If he cleansed her soul, she’d finally be able to live a normal life.
She thought about the financial drain of these meetings, but knew that sacrifice was important when getting healed. In fact, the Holy Reverend said sacrifice was good, and she knew he only spoke the Truth.
Sylvia mused about the years she’d spent looking for the answers to questions she’d never known how to ask. Now, she finally found someone to tell her how to live her life. It didn’t matter that the Reverend was under investigation and his followers were being ridiculed as fools. She believed in him and knew that the truly divine were always persecuted.
At seven-thirty a hush fell over the small group of people. Sylvia woke from her reverie and noted, with dismay, how the crowd was dwindling each week. She feared, no dreaded, the day when she’d come out here to find the tent packed up and the Reverend gone, gone in search of the real true believers. What would become of her then, she wondered?
The podium lights came on and she shivered in the heat. He strode out to greet his flock. Sylvia listened in devoted awe, her hands clasped tightly and her throat dry.
“This is an evil world,” he said. “Modern life can only bring grief. Each generation is more selfish than the last. And unrepented sin carries from the parent to the child.” He spoke the same words every week and Sylvia absorbed them as if for the first time.
“Yes. Yes!” she mumbled, her nails digging into her palms. “Sin carries.” She wanted to cry out, to ask how to relieve herself, but all she could do was sit and mumble as the tears rolled down her cheeks.
Finally he took out a handkerchief and wiped his reddened face. “Remember, my children, the burden is getting too heavy for the next generation. We must clear our souls before we pass on the weight that will crush the world. We need a flood to purify the world again!”
He turn to leave, then stopped to stare into the audience. “I can help you and all your children that follow. Help to lift the burden from yourselves, my children. Give your earnings that are tainted with sin, give it to Heaven. Start the flood with a tidal wave of sacrifice. Greed is a sin, sacrifice is the raft of salvation!”
His minions passed baskets and Sylvia took out a five dollar bill. She stared at the green wrinkled bill and put it back. She took out a twenty instead, a dirty grayish rectangle with blue ink scrawls on the edge. She read the handwritten words: Hey baby, call me 604-3332 and threw the filthy thing into the basket. Yes, yes. Too much sin, she thought.
The next day after getting out of the shower, she studied her four-foot-ten figure in the full length mirror. “At least I’m shrinking in proportion. Besides, I’ve always dreamed of wearing a size two.”
Dressing, she glanced at the closet full of clothes that were for a much larger woman. A wave of hopelessness washed over her and she moaned, “Ah shit. Why me?”
She walked to work slowly, being careful not to slip out of her size five shoes. She worried how much more she would dwindle. I can’t afford to buy a new wardrobe every week, she mused. Last month I was five-foot-seven. This can’t really be happening.
“At this rate I’ll be shopping in the children’s department next week,” she said aloud then glanced around quickly to see if anyone on the crowded sidewalk noticed. “All right, I’m not only minimized, I’m nuts too. Yep, everyone look at the crazy, short lady in the bad-fitting clothes talking to herself. All I need to complete this picture is the shopping cart full of dirty canvas bags.”
At the office she tried to ignore her dilemma and concentrated on work. After typing a letter, she reached into her desk drawer and pulled out a moist towelette to wash her hands. It was a ritual she performed at least eight times a morning.
After work she caught a cab to her analyst whom she’d been seeing since her diminishing size became obvious. Sylvia walked in the waiting room and greeted the receptionist. “Hello Jane, ready for me?”
Jane smiled and got up. “Got my tape measure right here,” she said and motioned for Sylvia to stand next to the wall. Sylvia had to be measured every time she saw the doctor.
A few minutes later Sylvia walked into Dr. Cohn’s office.
“Sylvia, this shrinking is certainly not in your head, you’ve lost another two inches this week,” the doctor told her. “I know that this must be very hard on you.”
“It is, Doctor, it is!” Sylvia said starting to sniffle.
“I’ve been thinking about your case. This is obviously a physical phenomenon, but maybe something emotional is triggering it. Some physical problems have their roots in the mind.”
“Really Doctor!” Sylvia snapped in surprise. “I’m paying you a lot of money to help me adjust to being a sideshow attraction, not to make up silly reasons for my problem.”
“Now Sylvia, you’re not a freak, but you are obviously angry.”
“I’m not angry. I’m frustrated. Let’s not talk about what may be causing this, all right?”
“What would you like to talk about, Sylvia?”
She thought for a moment, “I’m tired of being stared at, I’m tired of the whispered jokes and the fact that I can’t find a truly clean man to date. I don’t even have a friend to share a movie or dinner with. But of course, nobody goes out with anyone innocently. Everyone wants something.”
Dr. Cohn said nothing.
After her session, Sylvia made another appointment for the following week, but before leaving she asked, “Would you like me to pay for next week now?”
Looking puzzled, Dr. Cohn asked, “Why?”
“Well, I’m afraid I may be a little short,” Sylvia said, looking at the floor to hide a pained smile.
She could hear Dr. Cohn chuckling softly as she left the office.
Once in the safety of her apartment, Sylvia took a long, hot shower. The steaming water beat on her flesh, soaking into her, washing away all the painful memories. If only the shower could wash them away forever, she thought, feeling tears mix with the water on her face.
She knew that all those shared showers during her childhood could never be erased with soap and water but she continued to try. Daddy may be long gone but he would haunt her forever. Each time she scrubbed herself, she hoped the memory of his touch would be rubbed into oblivion.
When her skin was so wrinkled that her fingers were almost numb, she turned off the spraying water and collapsed exhausted on her bed.
In the morning she woke feeling better and made breakfast before taking her morning shower. Putting on her new size five dress, she noticed that it was too large and her feet were lost in her shoes.
She belted and bloused the dress to make it fit and stuffed her shoes with tissues.
She took a sick day and she went to Dr. Jameson’s office, where she was measured and then sent in to see him.
He got right to the point: “Sylvia, you’ve lost four inches this week. You measured in at four-feet-eight this morning. I wish that I could tell you something encouraging. Damn it, I wish I could tell you something, anything!”
Sylvia remained silent and thought, that’s two inches since last night!
The doctor continued, “We still haven’t a clue. All I can suggest is that you return to the hospital. Something there arrested your shrinking. Now you’ve started again, and it’s rapidly accelerating. I can get you a bed this afternoon.”
Sylvia hesitated then said, “Dr. Jameson, I…I just can’t go back to the hospital so soon. Please, give me another week.”
“Sylvia, a week may be too–“
“Too late? Maybe, but I’ve lasted a month so far. I just can’t get hooked up to those tubes again. I just couldn’t stand it! Let me have a day or two to think about it?”
“Well, it’s against my better judgment, but I can’t force you to go.”
Sylvia rushed back home and called Dr. Cohn. “I need to talk to you!” she sobbed. “Sylvia? Calm down, I can see you in an hour.”
At two o’clock she was sitting in Dr. Cohn’s office. “I just don’t know what to do!” Sylvia cried. “I can’t go into the hospital again. They’ll hook me up and run hundreds of tests. Oh, Dr. Cohn, tell me what to do!”
“First of all, calm down,” Dr. Cohn said soothingly. “I can’t tell you what to do, you know that. But I can help you make your decision. I still feel that you are, somehow, doing this to yourself, Sylvia.”
Sylvia stopped crying and asked, “How, and why? I’m not making myself shrink. Do you think that I wanted this to happen? Haven’t I suffered enough?”
“Frankly, I think that on some level you do want this, or you wouldn’t be shrinking.”
“Then prove it to me!” Sylvia pleaded. “Prove it!”
“Let me hypnotize you and we will see what we discover.”
Sylvia, feeling utterly defeated and with little hope, consented.
After a few minutes, Dr. Cohn started asking questions. “Sylvia, what did you do when you left here last night?”
“I took a shower and fell asleep.”
“Fine, and what did you do this morning after you woke up?”
“I made breakfast, took a shower, tried to get dressed, then went to see Dr. Jameson.” “How tall were you at the doctor’s office?”
“I was four feet, eight inches.”
“After you called me, what did you do?”
“I took a hot bath to relax, then dressed and came over here.”
The doctor stopped her questioning and looked at her chart. “Sylvia, do you know that you have shrunk one and a half inches since this morning? she asked. “Did you shower or bathe in the hospital?”
“Why do you shower so much?”
“I want to be clean.”
“Don’t you believe that if you showered once a day, you would be clean?”
Sylvia hesitated, then said, “No, I wouldn’t be clean inside. I must be clean all the way. I cannot stand to be dirty.”
“Why do you think you are dirty?”
“I am filthy with sin!”
“Sin? What makes you think that?”
“The Holy Reverend Alexander. He said that we are all sinful, inside and out. He said we
take the sin from our parents and we must cleanse ourselves, or burn.”
“When did he tell you that?”
“I’ve heard him preach every week since last month. I believe in him. He’s righteous and holy. He speaks Truth!”
“Sylvia, listen to me, he doesn’t want you to shrink. You cannot wash away life’s dirt by melting away in layers. You are not a bar of soap! Do you understand? The Holy Reverend Alexander does not want you to shrink anymore.”
Sylvia felt herself begin to shake. She jumped up and screamed, “I must wash away my sins! I must become clean!”
“Sylvia, you will feel calm now. Tell me, why do you consider yourself so dirty? What have you done that you believe is so terrible?”
“I…I’ve been a good girl,” Sylvia whimpered. “I’ve never let other boys touch me there, only Daddy.” Sobbing uncontrollably, Sylvia blubbered. “Daddy was so angry at Mommy for dying that he ma…made me take her pl…place!”
Dr. Cohn forced Sylvia to calm down, then brought her out of the trance. “You are not responsible for your childhood. You were abused, you are not the guilty one. I’m going to call your doctor immediately and this Reverend Alexander, too. Go home, wait for Dr. Jameson’s call, and whatever you do, don’t shower anymore!”
Sylvia went home. She waited a few minutes for Dr. Jameson’s call, then packed her suitcase. She was going to met him in the hospital in half an hour. He told Sylvia that the Holy Reverend Alexander would be there to speak with her. Closing the suitcase, she looked at the clock and muttered, “I have to be clean for the Holy Reverend. One quick shower won’t hurt.”
She ran into the bathroom, stripped and turned on the water. She sighed, “After all, I’ll be quick and if I shrink a little, well, so what’s another inch.” She grabbed a new bar of soap and climbed into the bathtub pulling the curtain closed.
With the water caressing her body, she closed her eyes and lathered up. “Got to get clean, got to get clean,” she chanted.
As she rinsed the soap off, she opened her eyes and stared at the bathtub ledge. She had shrunk too fast! The huge drops of water were starting to hurt as they hit her flesh.
She waded through the hip deep water as she tried to get to the spigots. She reached for them, stretched for them, but the knobs were too high. Panic rushed through her. She felt weak, shaky. She fought the urge to faint knowing that to pass out would mean death. She looked around, trying to slow her panic. “I need to think!” she said, hoping that using her voice would help. “I have to climb out!”
She tried to pull herself over the rim of the tub. Grunting with effort, holding onto the shower curtain, she pulled herself up; but the swift current of the emptying water tugged at her and she crashed back.
She struggled to get her footing and found that she was standing waist deep in a rushing torrent. “Oh God, please let me stop shrinking. I don’t want to die! Please God, save me!” she half screamed, half sobbed.
Somehow she managed to keep her grip on the shower curtain so that she wouldn’t drown. She knew that when she didn’t show up at the hospital, someone would come looking for her. All she had to do was hold on and stop growing smaller. She clung to the fabric and the rushing water pulled at her, the big drops beat on her, and the loud gurgling was almost deafening.
She sobbed, and began to lose all hope. No one was going to save her. She knew she was going to die. Defeat started to loosen her grip on the curtain when she suddenly heard a loud crash outside the bathroom.
The faint voice of Dr. Jameson filtered through the shower’s roar, “Sylvia? Sylvia, are you here? Why didn’t you come to the hospital?”
Sylvia heard Dr. Cohn scream, “Oh no! I hear the shower! Quick, into the bathroom!”
Sylvia felt a swell of hope bubble through her. She tightened her grasp on the curtain and yelled, “I’m here! Help me!”
“Sylvia! Sylvia, where are you? Open this door if you’re in there!”
Sylvia realized that the shower had drowned out her tiny voice. She cupped her hand to yell again, and the water swept her from the curtain.
She fell under the water and she realized that the water was over her head. She couldn’t push herself up to the surface. She was caught in the rush toward the drain and she was drowning.
All of a sudden she found herself swirling in circles with her head bobbing above the water. She choked and gasped, finally able to breathe a little, but then she saw that she was caught in the whirlpool, speeding to oblivion. The drain gaped below her, and the water swirled around her, trying to suck her down into the darkness.
“No,” she screamed. “I’m not going to die this way!”
Her strength renewed by the adrenaline rush, Sylvia struggled to grasp the metal crossbar in the center of the drain. Using all her fading strength, she managed to wrap her legs around it as she braced herself with her arms.
The gurgling water was so loud that she barely heard the bathroom door being broken in, or the voices calling to her. She sat precariously on the metal cross as the vortex of the water swirled around her. “I’m here!” She desperately yelled. “Help! Help!”
The shower curtain was shoved aside, and Sylvia saw the giant heads looking down.
“Oh no!” Dr. Jameson cried with pain, “We’re too late, she’s gone!”
Sylvia shouted, “No, no! I’m not gone. I’m right here in the drain!”
“A tragedy!” Dr. Cohn sighed deeply, as both faces moved out of sight.
“No, wait, I’m not dead!” Sylvia shrieked, struggling to hold on with her legs and wave her
The water, swirling around and around, caught her and knocked her off her perch.
Sylvia was swept away toward the sewers…finally and totally clean.