Thumbe-Wheeler: A Short Story.

An open book in the foreground with a blurred background.

Trigger Warning: needles, insects, arachnids.

Audio:

Laura stirred and opened her eyes slowly, blinking against the bright lights. She was staring up at an unfamiliar ceiling decorated with cheerful colours and familiar cartoon characters, lying flat on her back under a heavy blanket. Someone was having a muttered conversation nearby, something about “we can fix this”. Her legs hurt, and something was tickling her nose. Sluggishly, she reached up to itch it away, and felt a plastic tube taped to her cheek.

“She’s awake,” Laura heard her mum say from the bedside, as she finally remembered where she was. Her legs…

Laura threw back the quilt with what little force she could muster, revealing two heavily bandaged stumps just below her knees.

3 Months Later…

Laura watched as her mother donned blue, latex gloves and picked up a syringe, holding it upright and pushing until liquid dripped from the needle. A ladybird fluttered through the open window and settled on the table, almost as if waiting to see a spectacle.

“Mum, I really don’t want to do this…” Laura insisted from her new wheelchair, “I just need to get used to the prosthetics. And it stinks!”

“Trust me, you do want this, Laura. I don’t want my little girl at a disadvantage. You deserve the same opportunities as anyone else,” Laura’s mother was equally insistent, “this serum will insert the DNA of the axolotl into your gene sequence, with the protein to activate it, and you’ll be good as new! Now hold still.”

“How do you know this is safe when your boss won’t let you try this in your lab?” Laura flinched away.

“Well, he doesn’t have children so he doesn’t understand, but I’m as much of an expert in genetics as he is; I have no concerns. Now hold still.

The needle sunk into Laura’s arm and she felt the cold solution seep into her shoulder.

Nothing happened.

Laura’s mother turned away to dispose of the used needle, and started to grow at an alarming rate. At the same time, the ceiling also seemed to move further away. Suddenly, Laura’s wheelchair seemed roomier than normal, as did her jeans. With alarm, Laura realised: everything else wasn’t growing, she was shrinking.

Laura closed her eyes and screamed like only a panicked child can, only opening her eyes when she heard a sound much like the whirring of helicopter blades, and felt a distinct THUD behind her. She turned around, and came face-to-face with a massive ladybird.

“Hullo,” it said in a surprisingly deep voice.

Laura screamed again and scrambled away to the edge of the wheelchair cushion.

“Well, that’s just rude,” the ladybird continued, “but if you don’t want a lift down…”

Laura glanced down at the floor below, which now seemed to be a gaping canyon. Suddenly, she realised that she had shrunk out of her clothes. She pulled a tissue poking out from a pocket and wrapped it around herself in a make-shift dress.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “it’s just…my mum injected me with that serum and now I’m tiny.”

“I suppose that is rather disconcerting,” the ladybird conceded,” I’m George, by the way. What’s your name?”

The ground shook as if the whole world would tear itself apart.

“Laura?” Laura’s mum looked around. Her face drained of colour, and her eyes widened in panic, “Laura?!”

“Down here, mum,” Laura called up, waving her arms.

“She won’t hear you,” George said, “and it looks like she’s about to do that panic-flailing you humans are so fond of. I suggest we get out of here before she squishes us. Hop on.”

“But…where will we go?” Laura gazed up as her mum’s shadow fell across them, the ground shaking as she hurried towards the wheelchair covered in empty clothes.

“Doesn’t matter, but we need to go…NOW!”

George pulled a pair of flight goggles down over his eyes and charged forward like a lumbering bison, head down to scoop Laura up. She landed on his back and clung on for dear life, rather hard considering the shape of a ladybird, as George’s red wings began to beat and they lurched into the air. Up they glided, past the dining table still covered in breakfast dishes, past the sink, swooping around the dripping tap, and out through the window.

***

After a few minutes in the air Laura found the courage to lessen her grip on George’s back and sat upright, looking around. The ladybird ducked and weaved around the pedestrians, who paid no mind to the passing insect, and soon they found themselves heading into the city.

“Where are we going?” Laura had to raise her voice to make herself heard against the breeze the buffeted her face.

“I have a friend who I think could help you, so his nest seemed like the best place to start,” George replied, starting the descent towards a large rose bush. As they approached, Laura could see other ladybirds crawling amongst the leaves, surrounded by strange, green flies with gangly legs, and wispy wings that looked too fragile to offer much flight. Laura tensed as they approached, unsure of what to make of the aphids, but fortunately they scurried off as George approached.

George landed on a leaf which bobbed up and down with a surprising impact, and another ladybird, a yellow one this time, greeted George.

“This is Wesley, our resident scientist,” George said, and then, “You can get off me now.”

“I can’t really walk without my prosthetics,” Laura replied.

“Prosthetics?” George queried.

“Had you not noticed that my legs are much shorter than most humans, and don’t have feet?”

“No, not really, you humans all look the same to me, especially sat down. I suppose you can stay on my back for now, until we get you back to normal size.”

“You think that’s possible?”

“Of course,” Wesley interjected, “you’re not the first downsizer George has had to rescue. Admittedly, you’re the first human downsizer we’ve had-“

“What’s a downsizer?” Laura interjected.

“You’re not familiar with the Big Shrink?” Wesley would have raised an eyebrow if ladybirds had them.

“No,” Laura answered, clearly perplexed.

“I followed the person with sample like you told me. I couldn’t get inside last night but there was a window open today, just in time for me to witness the Big Shrink,” George interjected.

“How interesting. All of the shrunken rats we’ve dealt with have come from the laboratories- “

“Shrunken rats?”

“It would appear we have a lot of catch up on, little larva,” Wesley responded, “George, set her down here with me while I explain things, and go and get some breakfast. You’ll need your energy.”

Without warning, George opened his wings and tilted. Laura slid off and landed heavily next to his legs.

“Hey!” she shouted, but George was already scuttling off after an aphid.

“George is definitely the brawn of this team,” Wesley mused, “I suppose this is all rather strange to you, isn’t it? You humans seem to think of yourselves as the only intelligent ones, when in actuality lots of us animals have our own societies. We just pretend we don’t so you’ll leave us alone. You’re a very destructive species overall.”

“I’m sorry,” Laura said.

“That’s not your fault,” Wesley said, “but if you think your day has been strange so far, it’s about to get much weirder.”

“I doubt you could shock me at this point,” Laura uttered.

“The Institute of Genetic Research is just around the corner,” Wesley began, spreading his legs so that he rested on his belly, “and I have a friend who lives there called Axel. He’s an axolotl, an animal that can regrow almost any part of their body if they lose it. A very useful ability to have.”

“About three months ago Axel said one of the scientists took a sample of his DNA, which isn’t out of the ordinary, except that the scientist was alone and seemed to be very nervous. The next day they snuck back into the same room, this time with a rat, and she injected the rat with some nasty smelling liquid. Almost immediately the rat shrank and slipped out of its cage, leaving the scientist much perplexed. For the next few days, this kept happening.”

“Then it got to the time of week you humans like to take a break from your usual routine- “

“The weekend?” Laura interrupted

“Yes, I believe that’s what you call it, and it’s then that we get to use the laboratory for our own needs. Axel had been hiding the shrunken rats behind his tank, and with his help and even more of his DNA, we managed to produce a solution we believed could return the rats to their former size.”

“Unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to test it until the following uh, what’s the word you use, weekend? Yes, weekend. We didn’t get the chance to use it until the weekend, by which point the first few shrunken rats had sadly passed away. It would seem your bodies simply aren’t built to be small like ours – you lack certain features, and you can’t keep yourselves warm. I can only imagine that these effects will be accelerated in your case, due to the larger difference in size. But don’t worry – we won’t leave you in this state for long.”

“I – I could DIE?” Laura, clearly panicked, began to cry.

“No, we won’t let that happen. I promise,” Wesley reassured her, not really sure of how to comfort a human child, or a ladybird larva come to think of it.

“You see, the first batch of antidote, a cure, didn’t work at all, but the second batch did. By the time the humans returned to the labs we had managed to return five rats to their original size. They didn’t die! Unfortunately, each one of them grew err… extra bits.”

“Extra bits?” Laura asked, sniffing and wiping her wet cheeks.

“Yes, one ended up with two tails, one had three ears, and the rest developed extra legs. It didn’t seem to bother them and they all managed to escape through the ventilation shafts before the humans returned.”

“Extra legs? Oh no…” Laura said, wiping yet more tears from her eyes.

“For the past two and a half months the scientist has been tweaking the formula at every opportunity, and we’ve been returning the rats to their normal size and letting them escape when the humans are gone. With a bit of tweaking, we even managed to stop the growth of extra body parts, for the most part at least.”

“Well, when I went to visit Axel yesterday with George, he had bad news for us. One of the rats had developed not one, but two extra legs, and he couldn’t escape the lab in time because they slowed him down so much. He was caught when the sneaky scientist came back, and she was clearly ecstatic but had to hide her reaction. The scientist hid the rat behind a grate where he took the opportunity to flee, and she took home a bottle of her foul-smelling solution, which is something they don’t usually do. I asked George to follow the smell and report back to me, and the rest you know!”

“Oh no,” Laura took a shaky breath, trying to get her emotions under control, “that scientist is my mum, & I think she wanted to grow my legs back.”

***

Laura sat in silence staring at her stumps, still trying to process all that Wesley had told her, while he went off looking for George. Her head was beginning to ache, and her lungs felt…tired? The leaf she was on bobbed up and down lightly in the breeze, and then began to do so vigorously. Shouts and screams came from the centre of the rose bush as a mass of insects fled the plant. Looking towards the stem of the leaf Laura watched as a spider clambered onto the leaf, and immediately caught sight of her with it’s numerous, leering eyes. It towered above her, hair on end, and softly rubbed its fangs together.

Laura scrambled awkwardly onto her knees and crawled away to the edge of the leaf as fast as she could.

“GEORGE! WESLEY!” she screamed.

The leaf shook and wobbled as the spider moved towards her, and her knees slipped over the edge, leaving her dangling precariously as she clung on for dear life.

“Let go!” a familiar voice called from below. The spider had reached the edge of the leaf and raised its front legs to strike.

“NOW!” George yelled.

Laura unclenched her fists and tumbled downwards, landing heavily on her stomach.

“Oof,” George said, dropping slightly mid-flight with the impact.

“Ow,” Laura agreed, hauling herself into an upright position as they flew away. Wesley flew up to meet them.

“We’re not out of danger yet,” he said, glancing upwards. In the tree above them a bird was perched on a branch, watching them keenly, “Let’s get to the labs.”

As if on cue the bird opened its wings and took off, swooping downwards towards them.

Instinctively, Wesley and George turned in opposite directions, and the bird shot between them. George pulled up as Laura tentatively glanced over the side of his body. The bird may have missed its primary target, but it was more than happy to settle for the equally tasty spider that had terrorised them moments before.

“Come on,” Wesley drew up alongside them.

Laura, suddenly overwhelmingly tired, lay down on George’s back.

“Quickly, we’re running out of time,” Wesley looked concerned.

They picked up speed and headed towards the laboratory, taking advantage of one of the air vents to enter the building. Wesley lead the way, taking lefts and rights in quick succession until he dropped through the ceiling into a quiet room. By this time, it was impossible to determine if Laura was asleep or unconscious.

In the corner of the room, by the window, an axolotl rested in a tank.

“Axel!” Wesley called across the room, startling the creature, “the remedy, quick!”

It looked up as the pair of ladybirds came to rest outside of the tank. George gently tilted his body so that Laura slid off his back and landed on the desk with a bump. She did not stir. Axel, now able to comprehend what was going on, immediately delved into his nest and returned, carrying a syringe carefully in his mouth. It crawled up the side of the tank to pass to the ladybirds, who flew up to carry it between them, and set it down pointing at Laura’s shoulder. Wesley made sure it was lined up and gently removed the needle cap with his front legs. George parked himself by the handle and waited for Wesley’s command.

“Ready!” Wesley wrapped his front legs around the needle to guide it as George once again lowered his head, this time slowly pushing the handle.

“Why do I always get this bit?” he asked as he huffed and puffed.

Eventually, the syringe was empty. Wesley helped pull the needle from Laura’s arm and returned the cap, rolling it off the desk and into the yellow sharps bin below. All three animals sat, Axel in his tank, Wesley and George on the windowsill, and waited.

***

The door to the laboratory opened and in walked a scientist with goggles resting uselessly on his head, and his lab coat unbuttoned. He was talking on the phone.

“Yes, yes, I quite understand Molly, you must be worried sick about her… yes… yes, of course… take the day off… hang on- “

The scientist spotted a young girl sprawled on the desk by the axolotl tank, with a scrunched-up tissue on her chest. He hurriedly removed his lab coat to cover her, while holding the phone between his ear and shoulder.

“Molly, you won’t believe this, but Laura’s here… By the axolotl… In the lab…”

Laura stirred.

“Well, I don’t know how she got here, she’s your daughter! Come get her. And bring some clothes… Yes, I’ve given her my lab coat… Just get here!” He put the phone down.

“Laura?”

“Hmm…” Laura slowly sat up, looking around in confusion. She pulled the lab coat around her.

“It’s OK, I’m your mummy’s boss, you’re OK. How did you get here?” the scientist asked.

Laura opened her mouth to speak, then paused before saying, “You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you.”

“Try me.”

“And you might be cross with mum,” she added.

“What?”

“I want mum…” Laura sighed.

“She’s on her way,” the scientist reassured her.

Ten minutes later hurried footsteps could be heard approaching down the hallway, and the door burst open with a bang as Laura’s mother charged into the room, dragging a wheelchair behind her.

“Laura!” she hurried towards her daughter, “Are you ok?”

“I’m fine,” Laura said, “We need to talk.”

“OK, OK. Howard?” Molly looked at her boss.

“Take the day,” he nodded, leaving the room.

“Come on, I brought your clothes,” Molly held up a badly-packed bag, and reached for Laura’s legs which were the same stumps as before.

Laura got dressed while trying to think of what to say. Eventually, she decided to skip straight to the point.

“Mum, you can’t do that again. Ever,” Laura help up a hand to prevent her mother’s interruption, “I’m OK without my legs. I want to learn to live with it, not fight it.”

“OK,” Molly nodded, “OK. We can fix this.”

“No, mum, you can’t fix this. You can’t fix my legs. And that’s OK.”

Molly paused, then nodded, “OK, it’s your choice.”

“Can we keep Axel?” Laura changed topic rapidly.

“What?”

“The axolotl. He’s cute. But no experiments. He’s a pet,” Laura pointed at Axel’s tank, where he looked blankly back at them.

“Laura- “

“Pleeeeeease,” Laura begged.

“OK, fine,” Molly sighed, rolling her eyes, “I doubt Howard will even notice.”

As they left the room, Laura propelling herself in her wheelchair and Molly carrying Axel’s tank, Laura glanced back over her shoulder. On the windowsill, she spied a pair of ladybirds, one red, the other yellow. They took off together, and disappeared into the air vents.

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