Dana Kroos completed an MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University in 2008. Currently she teaches English at New Mexico State University and creative writing, English, and ceramics at Alma dArte Charter Arts High School. Her work has appeared in Penumbra, Fresh Ink, Maize, Spout Magazine, and Minnesota Monthly.
June was getting younger. She woke up one morning with a little more energy, and again the next day, and the next. She thought that it was something she was eating—less red meat, more fiber. Her eldest daughter, Shannon, at seventeen years of age, had decided to become a strict vegetarian explaining to June that besides the numerous social reasons not to eat meat, vegetables were simply more healthy. And besides, all of Shannon's close high school friends were also becoming vegetarian, and if Shannon didn't do the same, she would stick out like a sore thumb.
It was at dinner on the fifth night after Shannon's announcement—everyone eating vegetarian lasagna and salad (except for June's husband, Brandon, who ate a frozen hamburger)—when June began to get younger. June stretched after dinner as Shannon and her younger daughter, Katie, began to clear the table and said, “I think that this new diet really suits me. I just feel better.” Later Brandon would recall her saying those exact words and think that he should have known something was wrong. The entire family would wonder if the new diet had caused it all, or if it had been the switch to a new brand of laundry detergent, chemical's that were being pumped into the air, an allergy of some kind, a genetic disorder. They would think back to that night and realize that they should have acted sooner; they should have started loving her more and letting her dote after them the way she always wanted to rather than systematically ignoring her. But they had not realized. As a matter of fact, Brandon plainly stated in response on that evening, “Maybe you just woke up on the right side of the bed.”
June didn't say anything more about it for a month, but she continued to feel different. Her fifty-something year-old bones ached less, her back didn't bother her, she didn't get tired in the middle of the afternoon or fall asleep watching the evening news. She felt lighter and stronger and full of energy. It happened so gradually that she didn't appreciate it as much as she could have.
Then one day, a couple of months after her announcement, her friends came over dinner. It was Marcy Patterson who noticed first, “My god, June, you look wonderful. What did you do? Did you dye your hair?” Marcy was always extremely well dressed and made-up, so June thought at first that she was just being polite, but then Sandra Bell arrived with Christine Hayes and they both said the same thing, almost in unison. And by the time that Dale was there, it was all that the women could talk about. “Well, obviously you've dyed your hair,” Marcy went on. “I mean, for goddsakes, June, it's Sunsoaked Walnut number 32. I know it. I've used it. Just two months ago you were as gray as Dale.”
“Hey,” Dale said. “I'm no grayer than you, I just don't try to cover it up.”
“And that's your choice.” Marcy went on interrogating June, “But why lie to us, dear? We're the ones that you're not supposed to have to lie to, and besides, you look terrific.”
“It's not just her hair though,” Christine added, “It's her whole face. It looks . . . tighter, or something.”
“Ohmygod,” Sandra exclaimed, “did you go on an extreme make-over shows?”
“Well, you've obviously done something,” Marcy pointed out.
“One of those new herbal rubs?” Dale asked.
“Don't hold-out on us,” Marcy demanded.
June shrugged. She had wandered over to the hallway mirror where Brandon checked his tie each morning. She combed her fingers through her hair, touched her face, and stared deep into her own eyes. “I hadn't noticed, really,” she told them, told herself. “I mean, I've been feeling really good lately. We've been on this new diet. Vegetarian.”
“My sister has been vegetarian for decades,” Dale said with a swipe of her hand that seemed to knock June's words out of the air. “It hasn't done anything but make her gassy.”
The women sat down to eat. The first meal that June had prepared with meat in it for months: stuffed ravioli with sausage ground up so fine that there was no way that June could pick it out and still eat.
“Maybe it's leafy, green vegetables,” Dale suggested. “I heard that they have all kinds of benefits.”
“Or green tea?”
“Are you taking vitamins?”
“A new lotion?”
At the end of the evening the women left without solving the mystery.
That night June stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom and stared at herself. “Do you think I look different?” she asked Brandon.
“You look great, Honey,” he said immediately and automatically.
“But, really. Look. Do I look different?”
He studied her, then tried again. “Have you lost weight, honey? You look fantastic.”
“It isn't that,” she told him.
Brandon hugged his wife, who almost seemed upset about all of this. “Well, you do look incredible, June,” He told her. “You always do.”
Then June didn't think about it for a while, until she actually began to decrease in size; her breasts first, normally heavy and sagging, went from a D to a B. She stole one of Shannon's bras, which was purple and obviously meant to be seen. She also lost the roll of fat that had been around her mid-section since Katie was born, and fit into her old college jeans again. I knew I'd get back into these one day, she told herself. But when even those got loose and after having seen a TV special about tapeworms, she decided to go to the doctor.
Dr. Sweeny, who was round and sixty with only a ring of short white hair around the base of his scalp, had been their family doctor since Shannon was born. “What brings you here today?” he asked.
“I don't exactly know,” June told him. “I've been feeling . . . well, I've been feeling great. I've had a lot of energy. My back seems to have practically healed itself. And I've been losing weight.”
He began to note things in her chart.
“A lot of weight,” she added. “And I've got these,” lifted her bangs to show a row of red dots. “I had one on my nose last week.”
Dr. Sweeny looked closer. “Those are pimples,” he chuckled. “You remember those. Have you changed your diet, lately?”
June explained about the vegetarian fad going on at their house and then shrugged. “I don't know,” she said. “I feel silly for even coming in, but I've just felt . . . different.”
“My god,” Dr. Sweeny said once he'd gotten her on the scale, “you really have lost weight. Fifty pounds since your last visit? Can that be right?” He checked the chart again.
“And it's all been in the last few months,” she told him.
“And you're two inches shorter.” He was baffled, “We can run some tests.”
But the tests came back normal—better than normal—and Dr. Sweeny sent her home stating that he needed to keep an eye on her. She was relieved, but then the next day she was miserable. When Brandon asked her why she burst into tears and said, “I don't know.”
It was the next morning when Brandon really became concerned that his wife was, in fact, changing. He came downstairs in the morning to hear Shannon in the kitchen yelling at her mother, “You're being unreasonable.” It wasn't unusual that they were fighting, or that this was taking place before eight o'clock in the morning, or even that both women were in tears, red-faced and furious. What was unusual that morning was that Shannon was in the right: it was June who was being unreasonable.
“But Mom,” Shannon screamed, “you promised that I could use the car tonight. It's Sarah's birthday and we're all going out and I'm supposed to drive.”
“Well, it's my car,” June yelled. “I don't have to give it to you if I don't want.”
“But you promised.”
“What's going on?” Brandon asked after listening for a long time.
“Mom said that I could use her car tonight and now she says that I can't.” Shannon's face was wet with tears.
“Well, I don't have to give her my car if I don't want to,” June reported and then she stomped out of the room.
“Dad . . .” Shannon whimpered
“Don't worry,” he said, because he didn't know what else to say. “You can use my car.”
That was the beginning of a downward spiral for June. She could never get a hold of her emotions; she was laughing hysterically one minute and crying the next. “Maybe it's menopause,” Marcy suggested to Brandon when he called June's friends to explain that they had to cancel dinner plans because June just wasn't “feeling like herself.”
Brandon called Dr. Sweeny to ask if June had been put on any medications, or if she could be and Dr. Sweeny prescribed little blue pills that mostly just made June sleepy.
One morning June woke up having shrunk so much in her sleep that only her fingers dangled out of her pajama sleeves. She ran in hysterics to Brandon, who got out a tape measurer and discovered that she'd lost nearly two inches in her sleep.
“That's impossible,” June yelled. “You didn't do it right.”
Brandon decided that it might be due to the little blue pills and he took them away. He suggested that they keep track of June's height on the bedroom wall. During the next days June decreased in size at an average of an inch a day. Two weeks later Brandon had to raid Katie's closet to find clothes that would fit his wife. He found her a pair of jeans and a blouse. “I don't want to wear that shirt,” June whined. “It's just so . . . it's just too . . .” and then she started to cry again, and for a moment Brandon thought he saw a flash of the wife he remembered in those deep brown eyes, but in a heartbeat she was gone.
A few days later he came home to find Katie in their bedroom doing her mother's make-up. The two were laughing as Katie slopped on eye shadow and lipstick. When they were done both his daughter and wife had bright blue eye lids, excruciatingly pink lips and hair sculpted with hairspray. “I'm taking Katie to the mall,” June announced.
“Looking like that?” Brandon asked.
“What do you mean?” June said.
That afternoon his wife and daughter got into a car accident. It was just a fender-bender in the parking lot. The security guard at the mall said that it they had been whipping around the mall like it was a racetrack. “Take your daughters home,” he told Brandon.
Brandon wanted to ground them both, but instead all three sat down at the kitchen table, drank soda and stared at each other. No one knew what to say.
“I don't think that you should drive anymore,” Brandon told June that night as they got into bed. “At least until we figure this whole thing out.”
She didn't respond.
He held her close while they slept and thought that he could feel her shrinking away in his arms.
Less than a week later, June had grown too small for Katie's clothes. She had to roll up the cuffs of the jeans and sleeves of the shirt, and Katie was getting sick of her mother raiding her closet. “Get your own stuff,” she yelled at June one morning, to which Brandon yelled back, “Who do you think bought everything in your closet? Now you let your mother wear whatever of yours she wants.” He couldn't believe the words had escaped his lips.
June's height was becoming a problem. She could no longer reach the top cabinets in the kitchen, or cook on the back burners of the stove. In a fit of remodeling Brandon lowered some things and built step-stools to others so that everything was within his wife's reach.
Brandon continued to mark his wife's height on the wall of their bedroom, the dashes slowly progressing downward. Dr. Sweeney ran more tests, prescribed hormones—that made June impossible to be around, and finally threw his arms in the air. “I guess that we'll have to just wait and see,” he said. He suggested that June start eating meat again, but June was becoming a picky eater.
Shannon started helping out around the house. One night she took a shot at making meatloaf, a major step for her. Brandon and Katie seemed to think that it was fine, but June complained that it was too spicy, too hot, too meat-tasting. She even complained that the mashed potatoes Brandon had made had “bumps in them.” She ground the food up on her plate with her fork and mixed it all together into a slurry, forming the mixture into a mountain at the center which she then flattened with a swat from her knife.
“Mom, that's gross,” Katie told her, to which June responded by taking a bite, chewing for a moment and then opening her mouth to show her younger daughter a tongue full of half chewed food. She was sitting on phonebooks that were stacked on her chair.
“Girls, go to your rooms,” Brandon said, resting his head in his hand.
All three stood up and he put his hand out to stop June. “Not you, honey.” Then he called after his daughters, “Shannon, dinner was excellent. Thank you.”
She turned back and nodded, but had tears in her eyes.
Brandon began to clear the dishes from the table and June sat back down. “Am I in trouble?” she asked. “The potatoes had bumps, that wasn't my fault. I'm not eating bumps.”
Brandon took a deep breath. “I'm worried about you. And you're not eating.” He opened the freezer and the fridge at once. “We have some of those Lean Cuisine meals that you like, teriyaki chicken?” he asked.
June shook her head.
“How about left over pork chops?”
June shook her head again.
Brandon sighed. “I could make you a sandwich. We still have that wasabi mayonnaise, turkey, swiss?”
June looked away.
“Peanut butter and jelly?”
He cut the crust off for her and sat with her at the table while she at the sandwich into a circle and showed him, and then into a dog's head—showed him again, and then into a heart. He smiled a little.
It was almost four months after June had gone to visit Dr. Sweeny for the first time that she wet the bed. Brandon hadn't been sleeping with her for a while. He couldn't say why exactly. He would fall asleep on the couch in the living room with the TV flashing late-night infomercials across his face. That night he was awoken by his wife, who had grown a fat, pouty face that made her head seem too large for her body. She stood at the couch and tugged on him. “Brandon, Brandon, wake up, wake up.”
He almost didn't recognize her. She was holding a pillow in front of herself. Her long, brown hair was tangled around her face.
“What's the matter, sweetheart?” he asked wishing that she would tell him she was having growing pains, that she had found a gray hair, wrinkles around her eyes.
“I wet the bed,” she whispered. She started to cry and wiped her eyes with tight fists. “I didn't mean to,” she sobbed.
He leaned forward to hug her. She dropped the pillow. There was a wet spot down the back of the over-sized tee-shirt that Brandon had given her to sleep in. “Don't cry. I'll take care of it.”
She sobbed heavily and buried her head in his shoulder.
Almost instinctually he picked her up and carried her into the bathroom. He ran a bath for her, careful not to make it too hot. He maybe hadn't noticed—or hadn't wanted to notice—how smooth and hairless she had become. She was shaped like a pink fish. Two nearly-red caps were buttoned to her flat chest where once she had had breasts. She sat comfortably, looking at him from time to time, splashing the water and watching it drip from her finger tips with fascination.
“Do you want to hear a story?” he asked when he'd gotten her tucked into bed.
She nodded sleepily.
“Once upon a time there was a young man who worked in a library while he was finishing his master's degree, and a young woman who used to come there nearly every day. She was studying biology.” He looked at his wife who was already falling asleep, her thumb finding its way to her mouth. “For months they looked at each other and the girl would wait until the boy was working at the desk to check out books—she would never let anyone else help her, and the boy would try to restack books that were in the section where the girl was studying, but they hardly ever spoke to each other. As a matter of fact, when they got near each other they could barely breath. Then one day, the girl lost her library card and the boy helped her get a new one, and she took him out for coffee to thank him. And then they had coffee together every morning after that.”
June's thumb fell from her mouth. She was already asleep as she said, “She didn't really lose it, she just said that she did.”
Brandon leaned down and kissed his wife's forehead. She smelled like Ivory soap. He turned out the light and left the door open a crack.
The following week Brandon told his boss that he was having a “family crisis” and needed to cut-back to part time. Shannon was doing practically all of the house work then and Katie spent almost all of her free time watching after her mother. June's friends started helping out by taking turns cooking for the family. They would come and visit with June, but really, they no longer knew what to say to her. One day Brandon walked in to see June sitting on Marcy's lap while Marcy tried to explain an article in Cosmo.
“So they put vegetables on their face?” June was asking.
“You better believe it,” Marcy said, “vegetables, herbs, honey. It's supposed to make your skin soft and tight.”
“Well, I don't want anyone putting vegetables on my face,” June declared.
“Well, you don't need it, darling,” Marcy said. Then she saw Brandon watching them from the doorway. She lifted June off of her lap and left her on the couch with the Cosmo. “I brought some chicken and pasta over,” she told him. She was holding something in her fist. She slowly opened it to reveal a tooth. “I think that this has been loose for a couple of days,” she told him. “She wiggled it out with her tongue.” Neither spoke for a long time. Marcy gave him a long, hard hug, feeling him tremble.
It was hard to say when June began to loose words, although the first time that Brandon really become aware of it was at breakfast one morning when she asked Shannon for more orange juice and couldn't say their eldest daughter's name. “Shanno, mo' o'ange jooo-ce p'ease,” she'd said.
Shannon didn't seem to notice, or maybe had noticed it long before. She poured her mother more orange juice and said, “There you go, Mom.”
June gulped it furiously, spilling half of it down her shirt. Then she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and stared down at her plate of scrambled eggs.
“Dad, I have a history test tomorrow and I need to study, so do you think that you can take care of dinner tonight?” Shannon asked him.
“Of course,” he said.
“And we need to go grocery shopping,” she added.
“Do we have a list?”
“I have one started on the fridge, but you might want to check through the cupboards to make sure that we have all of the provisions.”
“I have soccer practice,” Katie reminded them.
“Do you need me to pick you up from school?”
“No,” Katie said, “I can just take the bus.”
June watched their conversation while she slurped her eggs, oblivious to what they were saying.
That afternoon Shannon was still at school, and so Brandon had to take his wife along when he dropped Katie at soccer practice. June was really excited to see all of the girls running around in their uniforms. As they pulled up to the field, June wiggled as far out of her seat belt as she could in order to get a better view from the window. “Look,” she was saying and pointing. “Look. Look.” For a while they humored her, Brandon and their youngest daughter. “What?” they would ask with false enthusiasm. “What do you see? What?”
When they arrived at the field Katie reached to the back seat for her bag and as she turned back to her father she said under her breath: “Dad, Mom wet her pants again,” then escaped onto the field. Brandon looked back at his wife. She stuck her fingers into her mouth—she had developed a large, toothless gap that her fingers filled perfectly.
Brandon smiled at her to let her know that it was okay and added diapers to the grocery list.
Perhaps the hardest thing was the next stage when June seemed frustrated by everything. For a while the only words that they heard from her were: “Me,” and “now, right now,” and “I want” and “more,” and “no.”
“Mom, what do you want for dinner?” Shannon would ask. It was getting difficult to feed the gradually toothless June who needed everything cut into pieces small enough to swallow, or mashed or soft.
“No,” June shouted back.
“Mom, you have to eat something. Macaroni and cheese?”
“Mom,” Shannon yelled.
“We don't have cake.”
June's face turned into a tight squint, the skin growing red all around her eyes and in her cheeks. Shannon covered her ears before it even started and then June let loose with a tremendous scream: “I waaaaaaaant caaaaaaaaaaake!”
Shannon threw her arms in the air and walked out. “I give up,” she said.
After that, things got easier in a way. For a while June still knew their names, sort of. She called Shannon 'Sha' and Katie 'T' and Brandon 'Hon,' but she didn't say much else besides “Hi”—to everyone that walked past—and “bye bye”—at somewhat random times. She loved to be held and rocked and snuggled. Shannon would carry her around all day on her hip and talk to her about school and boys and sex and all kinds of things that she never would have felt like she could have talked to her mother about before. Katie would coo at June, play peek-a-boo with her and wait for her mother to giggle, which would make her giggle. Sometimes June would grab at her younger daughters little breasts and try to suck at them through her shirt, and Katie would become embarrassed and push June away.
Brandon had found the girls' old crib in the storage space above the garage. At night he would lay his wife in the crib and rub her back until she fell asleep.
June slept a lot. Slept and slept. In her crib, in the arms of her daughters, on the lap of her husband. Once in s stroller that belonged to Marcy's daughter which Marcy brought over one afternoon so that she and June could go on a walk together. Everyone still talked to her as though she could understand what they said, although she only responded with babble. Even when her eyes began to swim and drift and never really focused on anything Brandon would think that they caught him from time to time and still remembered meeting him in the library, getting married, having the girls, buying the house, camping in the boundary waters and saving up money to travel after retirement.
Then there was no more babble, only crying. Not the silent sobbing that Shannon had when she broke-up with a boyfriend or fought with her parents; not even the terrified shrieks that Katie used have when after nightmares at or a bad skinned knee; these were guttural, primal cries that seemed to come from the center of the earth right through June and out her tiny, toothless mouth. Brandon thought that he could hear every other scream in history exuding itself through his wife. She screamed all day and all night. She screamed because she was hungry and because she was wet and because it was dark and she was alone, because, her family thought, she was trying to communicate with them, but couldn't remember how. Brandon devised a schedule that made each of his daughters responsible for their mother a few hours a day and him responsible all night. They made batches of baby formula and kept them stocked in the fridge, bought toys that lit-up and made tinny musical sounds, Brandon even found Katie's old stuffed elephant and gave that to June. And if they could guess what she wanted she would get quiet and calm and sleep again. Brandon discovered that she liked to watch the reflection from her old hand mirror, and when things got really desperate he would give her a cap full of whiskey, which she had always liked to have before bed. Sometimes she would still scream. Scream and scream and scream. And about the time he and his daughters were so exhausted that they could fall over standing, the crying stopped and never came again.
June continued to get smaller until she drown in the premie pampers and her eyes shut and seemed to stay glued that way. Every hour or two Brandon would remove his wife's penny-sized thumb from her mouth and re-plug it with a bottle, which she would suck for a while. When that stopped, Dr. Sweeny had to insert a feeding tube that dripped an ominous clear liquid directly into June's belly.
The house was suddenly quiet. June now rested in the sunroom in a clear bubble with a monitored temperature, and from time to time they would walk past her, peer in and check the thermometer or the contents of the liquid that dripped in, or empty the pale yellow-brown liquid that dripped out. Still June was getting smaller.
She got smaller and smaller until the threadlike tubes that ran in and out of her seemed to engulf her entire body, until that seemed to be all that there was in the clear bubble and Brandon woke up one night in a panic having had a dream that his wife became so small that he could not see her and arrived at the clear bubble to find that it was nearly true.
She had shrunk to the size of a small, pink bean. She had shriveled away from where the tubes could even reach her. Brandon was relieved that he had found her in time and he lifted her out of the clear bubble and into a sauce dish that they had been given as part of a wedding gift. When she even seemed to drown in that he found a little plastic box—one inch square, with a magnifier in the lid, that they used to keep the girls' teeth in before the tooth fairy came—and slid her ever so carefully into it atop a bed he made of cotton.
People would often ask if she was even still there, still alive, if in the weeks following Brandon could really still see her when he peered through the plastic magnifier lid, but he swore that he could, would swear sometimes that he could still hear her crying or babbling or talking with just a few words or asking him how his day was and reminding him to drive the girls here and there or to buy Katie new soccer shoes and help Shannon look at colleges. He knew that she was still there, and the girls said that they knew it too, although they never could see her or hear her, they could feel her presence. All three of them would enter the bedroom that Brandon and June shared, walk to the dresser where June's clothes still filled the drawers and finger the little plastic box. They would peer through the magnifier at the bed made of cotton and just crack the lid so that she could hear them—but not so much that she would blow away—and tell her all about school, and boys and soccer and college and work and the garden and all of the other things that they were sure she still wanted to hear about.