Amy wrestled the key into the beach house door with one hand while balancing her phone on her shoulder, the whole operation complicated by the tote bag weighing down one arm. Her mom spoke in her ear. “Do you really mean Colin won’t be joining us for Christmas?”
“We’re on a break, Mom. If I understood it, it probably wouldn’t be happening.”
“Now, don’t say that. He’s the one who needs to come to his senses.”
Amy appreciated her mom’s loyalty. She just wasn’t sure she deserved it. “He seemed pretty clear about the whole thing,” she said. She’d never worried about Colin and commitment. The trouble with Colin was getting him to change his mind.
But she was here to stop thinking about Colin. She needed to leave that behind, or what kind of a vacation would this be? She’d decided when she planned this: the trip would be all about New Amy, who didn’t obsess about guys.
She jiggled the handle and the door popped open. She managed to hop inside and kick it shut without dropping anything. She wrinkled her nose. Had the last tenants forgotten to empty the trash can? How long had this place been empty?
The midday sun filtering in through the slats of the blinds was enough to show that the downstairs was about what she expected: a small white kitchen opening onto a blue living room with lots of white wicker furniture and the kind of matchy-matchy design that never happened in houses people actually lived in.
She ignored the living room and headed for the kitchen. It was her first time in one of these rentals, but she’d memorized the layout; her company rented dozens just like it. This one was farther from the beach than most, which was why it had been available when her boss forced her to finally take a vacation. She’d been so annoyed at the order that she decided to mark the property as occupied for the week. After three years in property management, she knew how to hide her tracks. As long as it was pristine when she left in a week, no one would be the wiser.
She hefted the tote bag onto the kitchen island while her mom continued speaking in her ear, trying to make a connection between Amy’s situation and the ups and downs of living with Amy’s father.
Amy dumped out the tote bag to reveal a six-pack of wine coolers, a baggie of celery sticks, and a packet of Oreos. The balanced lunch of a mature twenty-eight-year-old.
She stared at the Oreos. Colin’s idea of a serving of Oreos was half a bag, and he still didn’t gain weight. It wasn’t fair.
It really wasn’t fair.
“No, I don’t know what Colin was thinking,” Amy said. “You’d have to ask the bastard yourself.” Her mom started to reply. “Oh, no,” Amy laughed. “Please don’t actually call him. Thanks. Bye.”
She set the phone down on the island with the rest of her junk. She hated lying to her mom. A break? Sure, he’d said that. But he’d also mentioned seeing other people.
Amy knew what that meant. He wanted to break up with her, he just didn’t want to say it. She just wished she knew why.
It wasn’t so long ago that Colin had seemed perfect. He never did that threaten-to-break-up-constantly thing like Jason back in college. Nor did he have the idealism of Paul, whose passion made her giddy … until he disappeared to teach English in Bangladesh.
Colin had a steady job at a bank, he didn’t overindulge, he was polite to waitstaff. His biggest flaw was that he didn’t like to dance. What did it matter if she ended up dancing alone to videos she found on the net?
Of course, it was Colin who’d announced they needed a break. Which was in a way what created New Amy. She dated the start of New Amy from when Colin made his declaration, because that was when she had marched over to Colin’s place for a two-hour shouting match that left her a wreck the next day at work.
Followed by her boss insisting she take some of those vacation days she’d piled up.
Ugh. All she wanted to do right now was veg out in front of the TV. She could catch up on the last few episodes of Celebrity Dance Death Match.
Her eyes travelled from the Oreos to the wine coolers. She yanked one out of the six-pack, twisted off the top, and took a swig. She glanced at the label. Berry something. It’d do, but one six-pack wouldn’t last long.
Unless she restocked at Colin’s parent’s nearby beach house. Now, that was a New Amy sort of thought.
Points in favor: it was only a few blocks away. It had a vast wine cellar. Colin’s parents never went there anymore. Amy knew which plastic rock they hid the spare key under.
Points against: Colin might be there. She didn’t want another fight, and she definitely didn’t want him to think she’d chosen this particular beach house because it was near his.
Satisfying as it might be to raid their wine cellar, it was a spectacularly bad idea.
Instead, she opened the Oreo packet and popped one in her mouth, pressing it against the roof of her mouth with her tongue until it cracked in half, while slipping the rest of the Oreos into the pocket of her lime-green hoodie. Colin’s hoodie. He’d actually asked for it back while they were arguing. That was when she stopped trying to reason with him.
She shook her head. New Amy time. Obsessing over Colin was what had led to that scene where she ended up yelling at a customer on the phone. Her boss hadn’t cared that the guy couldn’t decide whether he wanted to vacation in Miami or Key West. Didn’t matter that she’d never yelled at anyone before. To her boss, this proved she needed to take some vacation.
Well, she would prove she could vacate with the best of them. Amy picked up the six-pack so she could head for the couch, grabbed the open wine cooler with her other hand, and took a sip. She frowned. Did not pair well with Oreos.
She took a deep breath, then wrinkled her nose again. “Did somebody leave a diaper lying around?”
Remind the clients all you wanted, they’d still forget to empty the trash … but the kitchen trashcan was empty. She opened the fridge a crack, but it was spotless, except for a styrofoam takeout container holding two egg rolls.
She heard something from the living room. She stepped to the doorway between kitchen and living room and looked towards the entertainment center. A movement caught her eye, something heading for the couch, fast.
Ugh, were there mice in this place? If it was mice, there sure were a lot of them. She swiveled her head to follow the shapes moving across the couch now, like water flowing down a rocky hill.
Except the rocks were cheap throw pillows, the hill was the couch, and the water was a cascade of four-inch-tall men with purple and orange hair, wearing only loincloths and tattoos.
Amy froze, blinked her eyes three times, and looked again. A tide of tiny dudes flowed toward her, their squeaks and warbles resolving into battle cries, echoing as they ran under the coffee table toward the kitchen. And her.
The chorus of high-pitched voices broke her shock. Amy dropped the six-pack right in front of them.
It shattered against the tile floor, icy droplets splashing her legs, glass shards tinkling. But at least it made the man-tide pause. For a second.
Then the whole mass of them shook their shaggy manes and shouted.
Amy spun around to run for the front door, but found that upwards of thirty of them had flanked her, brandishing tiny spears. One waved a sewing needle in a circle, then stabbed her foot. Amy yelped and grabbed her toe. Now there was blood on her favorite sandals.
She raised a foot angrily for a stomp, and they scattered. She ran from the kitchen to the only enclosed space within reach — the hall bathroom.
She shut the door and leaned against it, sucking in deep gulps of air. That was a mistake. It smelled like a locker room. She saw movement and stopped. There were a dozen of the little weirdos already in there with her, running in and out of a hive of toilet-paper tubes, glued together in a mound on the counter.
She still had the last wine cooler in one hand, but she snatched up a plunger with the other. “Get out, get out, get out!” she shouted, flailing at them with her rubber weapon. They yammered like a bunch of sopranos, but held their ground.
Amy got angry. She stopped randomly thrashing around and aimed for one, trapping it under the plunger, mashing the plunger down.
She heard a scream. She stopped mashing as the trapped fellow’s pals yanked at the edges of the rubber dome. When she pulled the plunger away, there was one figure lying still underneath it. She let out her breath when he leaped up.
The little guys had had enough. Amy opened the door and they ran out. She grabbed up the cardboard hive and threw it after them with a yell. Then she slammed the door.
Amy set the wine cooler down, dropped the plunger, and turned on the hot water, keeping a finger in the stream to test the temperature. When it was hot enough, she splashed her face over and over.
Tiny men. Ridiculous. Her first alone time in forever, and she was already seeing things. She splashed some more. Then she grabbed a hand towel and dabbed at her face.
She glanced down. Little bits of brown cardboard littered the floor. The smell in the room. She wasn’t hallucinating that.
She turned on the fan, looking at the wine cooler on the sink counter. She’d only drunk about a quarter of it. Even downing the whole thing wouldn’t be enough to make her see things.
Still. They couldn’t be real, could they? Colin liked to say she imagined things. Of course that was when she asked why he was always staying late, working weekends, or going on fishing trips. Why he was always distracted, always tired.
But Colin wasn’t here. Maybe she was crazy, and maybe she wasn’t, but right now she was stuck in a bathroom while a bunch of miniature Tarzan extras were out there trashing a beach house she wasn’t even supposed to be using. She couldn’t have imagined that. Maybe it made sense to freak out a little.
Trouble was, she didn’t have the energy right now to do a proper freakout. She felt all used up. She really did need a vacation.
She wondered what Colin would do if he saw these little men. Set out traps for them, she supposed. He’d probably scoff at her for being too tenderhearted to smash one. Although if recent behavior was any indication, he’d ignore the things until they got right up in his face, then blame it all on her. But that wasn’t how New Amy rolled.
She cracked the door. The little men were milling about. Some of them lay prone next to the puddle of wine cooler, singing or chanting.
Others were moving in big groups, swaying and waving their spears. Had to be a hundred of ‘em. She’d faced down a dozen, but a hundred?
Still, she couldn’t stay in the bathroom forever. Out of a hundred tiny men, surely one of them would see reason. She took a deep breath, readied her plunger, and opened the door.
Five of them were set up in front of the bathroom, with one fellow standing, arms crossed, on an inverted yogurt cup. Behind them were scattered groups all the way from the bathroom to the couch, where she could see trash piled up into shapes like the hive from the bathroom.
Amy squatted down for a closer look.
The little men were still making a lot of noise, but at this level she could start to make out some of the sounds. The ones by the puddle of wine cooler were repeating one chant over and over, something like “lowhall”.
She turned her attention to the delegation by the yogurt cup. “What do you guys want, anyway?” Amy said.
The one on the yogurt stage said something to the four below him, who all gabbled responses until the one on top said a sharp word. The yogurt guy was tall compared to the others. He wore a half-cape on his shoulders in addition to the regulation loincloth. He held a bottle cap form one of the wine coolers in both hands like a tray; it was full. He had to squeak at Amy for a while before she realized he was repeating the same word. Lowhall? Lo-hawk-sall?
“Lohoxal?” she said. They gabbled at each other in excitement, then the yogurt guy did a sort of dance. He waved the bottle cap at her again, looking at her with eyebrows raised. He wanted more.
Amy thought about the wine cooler perched on the bathroom counter. She hadn’t really planned on sharing. “Sure, I’ve got more,” she said. “But you guys realize you can’t stay here, right?”
They squeaked at each other some more then looked up at her. Amy sighed. She did a fingers-walking-across-her-hand gesture. The yogurt guy danced some more.
“Well if dancing’s what you want…” She did some moves from a video she’d seen recently for a pop song about a nasty breakup, trying to convey that these dudes needed to move on down the road.
The more she danced, the more excited yogurt guy became. But he wasn’t agreeing with her, she began to understand. He was trying to tell her a story.
He kept returning to a move that involved fingers to his ears while he leapt around and shook an imaginary tail. Slowly she got the picture: a pointy-eared creature — a cat? — that chased them to here, to the beach house.
She supposed it wouldn’t have to be much of a cat to be a danger to these little guys. Then he started counting heads, and gesturing at the sky… she had the impression he was trying to tell her how long they’d been here, but she wasn’t sure.
She did another short dance to encourage him to continue. She pointed at a group of the men, and he bobbed his head. She looked past the troops at the holes cut in the couch, with stuffing pulled out. Empty Chinese-food boxes and chip bags turned into tents. Evidence of a growing population.
They went back and forth for a while to get the numbers right, until she decided he was trying to tell her that maybe thirty of the little men had arrived here a month ago.
There was still a big group gathered by the wine cooler puddle, and it was organized. They took turns drinking from the puddle, slowly, reverently. Amy shook her head and focused her attention on Yogurt Leader Guy. “Where did you come from, anyway?”
When that confused him, she put together a short miming dance. She’d never let anyone at work know about her dancing, but now all the time she’d spent mimicking videos paid off. She had moves ready for who, what, where, and why.
The cultural divide seemed like a canyon, but with a lot of repetition, they managed to get a few things straight. Either yogurt guy or maybe his grandparents had landed on the beach in the shells of, probably, turtles, roped together into something like a great hollow raft, after leaving an island where Amy gathered they were either the subjects of an atomic experiment or got cursed by a witch doctor — they didn’t share enough mutual concepts for Amy to be sure.
Soon after they had arrived here, they were attacked by what sounded like a demonic tabby. They had taken shelter in this vacant beach house, where they were delighted by all the food they found, except, apparently, the egg rolls.
“You can’t stay here,” Amy tried to convey, but she was pretty sure the command didn’t land. The beach house was all that Yogurt Guy had ever known, and he was not, it seemed, a young man. Gnome. Whatever.
She started into a dance about how a family with children would arrive here in a week, but Yogurt Guy wasn’t bothered by the idea of small people. He’d clearly never spent a summer babysitting. She tried to start over, but the leader stamped his feet on top of the yogurt cup so that it made a crackling sound. He was determined to stay.
As the leader got angrier, Amy got distracted. She was captivated by the crowd near the rapidly disappearing puddle of wine cooler. After each micro-man drank deep, he’d walk away, getting more and more unsteady, until he fell over a couple of feet away. The prone ones swelled up like balloons. Some of them split open, and from each of those … two new guys crawled out.
“Lohoxal! Lohoxal! Lohoxal!” went the chant, while Amy tried to comprehend what she was seeing. It made her lunch want to come back up. She struggled to keep it down; it hadn’t been that great the first time.
But while she wobbled, the leader continued dancing, incensed now that she wasn’t paying attention. She realized he’d reached his limit when he turned and shouted something.
The groups of men behind him suddenly stopped their swaying and lined up all their spears. They began to march forward.
Amy dashed toward the kitchen to grab her phone, then whirled back toward the bathroom, but a phalanx of the little men moved to block her way. She spun toward the stairs, and they followed. She twisted back about halfway up to use the plunger to shove them back, then ran higher. They chased her through the master bedroom and out onto the balcony, where she slid the glass door shut and watched them beat themselves against it in desperation.
Amy paced the balcony, stopping occasionally to stare at the army on the other side of the glass door. It was like watching a silent movie. The men danced angrily at each other. She was sure they were planning something.
Looking over the balcony rail to the drop below it, she felt caged. In nature shows, she’d always sort of rooted for the lions, but now she felt more and more like a gazelle. She circled the patio furniture: a forlorn metal vase with a dead bamboo, a pair of shiny aluminum chairs surrounding a table. She grabbed a chair and sat down, eating an Oreo while staring at her cell phone.
She could call 911, but then she figured everything would come out. One photo of the downstairs would be all it would take to end her career in the vacation rental industry.
She could call her mom, but what to tell her? No way she’d believe this. Her sister would probably drive out, if only to laugh at Amy’s predicament, but that would take hours.
There was one person she knew who could get here quickly. If he was at the beach house, he could be over here in minutes. Sure, they were on the outs, but this … this was an emergency. They’d been together for more than four years; he’d understand.
She looked through the glass. There were more of the little men gathered in front of it now, and they’d found a broom.
Focus, she told herself. This call might be humiliating, but it would keep her alive. She wasn’t going to let them stab her toes again. She dialed Colin.
“Amy?” he answered.
Her heart was beating fast. “Colin? Are you at the beach house?”
He paused before answering. “I mean, yes —”
“Ok, whew, good,” she said. “Listen, weird question, but —”
“Amy, I thought we agreed we need time apart.”
“Actually, you didn’t give me a choice, Colin, but that’s neither here nor —”
Then Amy heard a voice in the background. “Who’s that on the phone?” A woman’s voice.
Amy hung up.
Tears filled her eyes. She let them fall, penetrating the metal mesh of the patio table to drip onto her jeans.
Amy sat on the balcony for a long time.
She wanted to tell herself it couldn’t be true. But she’d been in denial for too long already; she was ready to move on to anger.
Endless fishing trips. Late nights at the office. It was so obvious now, she had to laugh. She’d checked for all kinds of flaws, never seeing how the whole of Colin added up to such a bastard.
She’d let him convince her their problems were her fault.
She glanced at the little men. They were no longer milling around aimlessly. She approached the sliding door and saw that they were all gathered in two lines, perpendicular to the door. Between them was the broom handle, barely recognizable at this point. They’d fashioned handholds on it with carpet nails, and they’d painted it in bright colors. Suddenly they all threw their hands up in the air, and took hold. They lifted the stick up and started moving towards the door, slowly at first, then at a run.
“Holy crap!” Amy said. She scurried to open the door before they could hit the glass, but she was too late. It hit the door with a plink. All the tiny men fell down. Then they jumped up and started yelling silently at one another.
That was when Amy decided she’d had enough of waiting for someone to save her. New Amy wasn’t the type to wait. Who knew what these disgusting little chauvinists would do next? She pulled hard on the sliding door.
“Hey! No need to get violent,” she said. “I just needed some me time.”
They were trying to get organized after the failure of their battering ram. Amy picked up the metal vase from the balcony and rolled it toward the little men so that they had to dodge out of the way, then she followed it in. When a group at the back rallied, she stomped the ground hard right in front of them and they fell over.
She checked the soles of her sandals to make sure she hadn’t actually squashed one, then ran for the stairs. It seemed like there was one of them on just about every step, so she slid down the banister. At the bottom, a whole company of them were stationed between Amy and the door, spears ready.
“Here, boys,” she called, taking an Oreo from her pocket. She tossed it to them, and they fell on it with chaotic abandon. She glanced at the packet and shrugged, tossing it off to the side. Most of the little men followed. As their order disintegrated, Amy booked it for the door and the safety of the outside.
She could hardly believe it. She’d done it. She’d gotten out, and all by herself too.
She squatted down and unhooked the straps of her sandals. There were tiny cuts all over her feet. She pulled the sandals off and looped the straps in one hand, then stood there, leaning on her car for a minute. Her keys, her wallet — they were in her purse, inside.
Never mind. She had a phone. She’d be okay. Distance, that was what she needed.
She was just so done with little men.
She’d made a mistake with Colin. She could admit that now. Before she met him, she’d just had that breakup with Brock, who expected her to take care of him and got so pissy when she wouldn’t. So when she met Colin, her standards were off.
Also, Colin was gorgeous. He must spend some of that fishing time working out, because he had abs like forever. Maybe not so much in the face department. But he was cute, in a vulnerable kind of way, and … no. She couldn’t think like that.
What she needed was to get angry.
She wandered down the street. She didn’t care about the beach house. She wasn’t going to be needing any more vacations. The tribe had solved that for her: after this fiasco, she was sure she wouldn’t have a job.
No boyfriend, no job. Might as well change her name, move to Chicago. Become a dancer.
Still. An hour ago she’d been thinking she couldn’t make it without Colin. She didn’t want to walk away now and prove it.
When she got to the end of the street, she saw a corner liquor store. There was a sign in the window indicating that you could pay with an app, and it occurred to her that she had a six-pack of wine coolers to replace.
Once inside, she looked through the cramped store’s selection. At one o’clock on a Saturday, she was the only customer. A label featuring a garden gnome caught her eye. The description cited notes of lemon, oak, and, she assumed, chauvinism. A dark red with a high alcohol content.
She’d fed the little guys cookies, but only the wine coolers seemed to trigger their weird reproduction. What, she wondered, would they do for something stronger?
She paid for the bottle with a smile.
She stood in front of the crowd of little men. They brought out their leader, whose beard now reached nearly to his toes. He had to be helped by two younger guys, but he came.
It took a lot of dancing around to explain her plan, but Amy persevered. When he seemed hesitant, she pulled her prize out of its paper bag.
She’d had the clerk back at the store loosen the cork. Now she poured out a serving into a saucer. They lowered the oldster down in front of it. On hands and knees, he sampled what Amy offered.
He looked up at her, and started to grow. Amy shuddered. She’d been right: the strength of the alcohol mattered.
In seconds, the leader sprouted a giant boil on his back. At the end of a minute it burst, letting out three new pygmies. The leader grinned, apparently unhurt. “Lohoxal,” he said.
Amy shook her head. “You want more?” she said.
“Lohoxal?” he repeated. In response, Amy started to spin and twirl as she danced up a story of a trip to a nearby house where unlimited Lohoxal waited.
The plan, Amy figured, was simple. She’d pack the guys into her hatchback, let them into Colin’s place, and trade alcohol for amok time, letting Colin both pay the cost and reap the dubious reward. She liked the thought of the destruction he’d find.
They arrived in late afternoon, just in time to see Colin’s Mazda leaving. Amy grabbed the key from its rock, prepared to aim the guys at the cellar and depart.
But she had to help them find the cellar door, and then they were afraid to go down the stairs alone. Once down there, she saw a bottle of Beaujolais from the same batch she’d enjoyed the first time Colin brought her here.
Now, watching the little men team up to drag bottles out of racks, she decided that the Beaujolais had been the best thing about that weekend. She’d spent half of it by herself while Colin fished; the rest, they’d spent arguing.
She drank to the memory until she heard a crash. The boys had misjudged the weight of a bottle and it’d cracked on the slab floor, spraying red in a yard’s radius. Amy was ready to tell them not to worry about it—she’d expected her revenge to get a little messy—but then there was the thump of footsteps overhead. The sound startled a second group into dropping their bottle, making another ruddy puddle.
Dozens of tiny eyes looked at Amy. “Oh boy,” she said. She made a shooing motion, fingers spread wide. One gnome nodded and started barking orders as the others gathered into small groups. Amy couldn’t watch; she had to run to the foot of the stairs to flip off the light switch and then hide behind a wine rack.
She froze while the sounds of little bodies moving seemed impossibly loud in the darkness. A beam of light appeared when the door at the top of stairs opened. She heard Colin say, “I’ll get some paper towels,” then the click as he flipped the sibling switch and turned the light back on.
Amy covered her eyes. Colin would have to see the broken bottles, then he’d look further, and then he’d find her down here.
Colin came all the way down the stairs. Amy peeked through her fingers as he pawed at a shelf, swore at something, and then started back up the stairs.
She looked at the space in front of the wine racks. The blood-red puddle was gone. Only a single dark shard of glass lingered in the center of the pale concrete floor. Somehow, the guys had erased their trail.
Then she heard Colin’s voice again as he reached the top. “I’m going to have to get some traps,” he said to someone upstairs. “There’s mouse crap all over the place down there.”
Amy looked around for the bottle of Beaujolais, then snapped her fingers when she remembered it was on the other side of the room. There hadn’t been much left, anyway, judging from the tears that filled her eyes when she pictured a tiny orange-haired figure squirming in a mousetrap.
There was really only one thing to do after that.
Back at the rental, Amy stood in the kitchen and dialed for Chinese while the guys built scaffolds to organize the wine so as to keep the corks wet, a practice they took very seriously once she explained it. She was sure one of them had a clipboard.
Her exit from a cellar window hadn’t been dignified, and she’d never be able to wear those pants again, but without the pushing and pulling of twenty of the little fellows, she’d never have made it out. Not to mention the wine bottles they’d hoisted out using a water hose.
Forty or fifty more were in the living room now, divided into squads of five as they tackled cleanup. They sang as they worked; thankfully, they didn’t incline to whistling.
“Twenty-four orders of lemon chicken. Yes, twenty-four. I understand, I can wait.” She glanced at the living room. The work crews were forming up into a line; apparently, it was time for a dance break. “Oh, and no egg rolls.”
Now that she felt like she wasn’t going to lose her job, she’d started to think about the possibilities that a team of whip-fast workers presented. She happened to know a company that could use a crack Make Ready crew, able to handle any job, no matter how big … or small.
But there was no hurry. She still had the place for four days; plenty of time to figure something out. In the meantime, the guys were waving at her.
She joined them in the living room. It felt nice not to dance alone.