Grandpa measures our heights every day against the hallway markings. Rhiannon and I stand flat as we can, afraid even breathing will subtly lengthen our spines.
We can take care of everything else—bite our nails to nubs every morning, snip the ends off any hair growing past our ruler’s edge—but we can’t alter height, and we can’t argue with the writing on the wall, marks dating back to Grandpa’s childhood.
“Growth spurts again, Mabel.” Grandpa scowls, etching another dark line. Our marks run so close together they bleed into a black streak. “Awful lot of growing overnight. My family never—”
“Well, my sisters grew like weeds.” Grandma pours our other morning ritual—the one Grandpa never monitors—tall mugs of coffee, another pot already brewing. “Come for breakfast.”
Rhee and I slump into our chairs and scald our tongues, praying for stunted growth.
None of us look at the calendar, where Grandma circled today’s date and jotted “Catherine’s b-day” before remembering.
Some days I think she forgets on purpose. She was out when it happened. But we saw Grandpa throw Mom out. He tossed a half-zipped suitcase onto the lawn—one he packed—waving an opened letter from Towering Estates. “You slept with one of those freaks? You dated one?”
Before, he’d just talked about Giants the way he talked about raccoons or deer. Saw one walking right through town. Broad daylight!
“Not very long.” It was the first time I saw Mom cry like me and Rhee. Choking. Gasping. “I knew you wouldn’t—”
“When?” Grandpa’s narrowed eyes caught me and Rhee hiding on the stairs. We slid down enough steps for him to look down at us.
I don’t think Mom saw us from outside. “He wasn’t their father. I swear.”
“Can you be sure?” I’d never imagined him sneering so ugly.
I’d never imagined Mom leaving and not coming back.
After that, the measuring started. Just occasionally. Grandma said it meant he was thinking of Mom. Then Grandpa read somewhere how Giants have a lot of twins, and the measurements turned weekly. We got a long letter with a picture of Mom and her new/old boyfriend all curled up to keep his head in the frame. Grandpa deleted it from Grandma’s inbox, and the measurements turned daily.
We are the tallest kids in our class.
When the group picture comes out, we practically look like teachers towering in back, and we know—we know—it’ll embarrass him.
We beg Grandma to lose the picture, even though none of us need it to know the truth anymore.
“Even if you are,” Grandma says, holding us close, “someday you’ll grow to the ceiling, to the sky, and your grandpa won’t be able to—”
“If we live that long,” Rhee whispers.
Grandma makes a noise like she’s been kicked in the gut. “What kind of man do you think your grandpa is?”
We don’t answer. Neither does she.
Around two a.m., she finds us in the hallway. Maybe our flashlight beams seeped under their door, maybe she smelled the wet paint—Grandpa’s dead to the world when he’s asleep, but Grandma’s always shown up for puke or tears or growing pains since Mom left.
We’re frozen, brushes held to the hallway measurements. Ours, Mom’s, Grandpa’s. All gone under a thick bar of sky blue paint leftover from our dollhouse. The color’s off under our flashlights, and there’s still a shadow of black marker.
She’ll get Grandpa. I know it like a splitting seam, a loose tooth finally giving way.
We tense to scatter like roaches, grabbing the duffels we packed with food, clothes, toothpaste, but Grandma grabs Rhee’s strap and I can’t leave her. Grandma holds us down by one shoulder each.
“You don’t have to run,” she says. “I’m sorry you ever felt like you had to run. We’ll talk it through in the morning, and it won’t come to that. I promise.”
She helps us add another coat, until the strip is nothing but sky blue. She pushes our duffels into the hall closet, hugs us, and sends us to bed.
We wake early to Grandpa’s loudest kind of shouting.
He and Grandma are yelling in the yard, a paint bucket tipped over between them. She tries to push past him toward the house, and Grandpa shouts, spits, red-faced. He’s no giant and he’s frail, but he’s still much bigger than Grandma.
It ends with her roaring away in the spare car, fast as a teenager leaving school—fast as Mom left—and Rhee and I are stuck at the window watching the dust settle when we hear Grandpa at the foot of the stairs.
We grab our duffels and barely have to jump to push up the attic trapdoor. Once we’re up, we drag an old hope chest over the panel. This was our worst back-up plan. The one with no exits.
“Should’ve left last night.” I curse softly as Grandpa calls for us.
The attic stifles us. Rhee’s sweaty hand finds mine in the dark. “When I said that before, I never thought we’d actually—”
“We won’t.” I cling to her. “He would never…”
But I’m not sure.
I’m not at all sure.
After hours of listening to Grandpa yell, he gets too hoarse to hear, and we fall asleep by the small, dirt-curtained window.
We’re woken later by the moon and a car horn.
We smear the dust away, and outside is Grandma with the car, and Mom—grim-faced, high heels sinking into muddy lawn—and a man who takes a long time to unfold from the backseat, like the feet and inches of him will never stop stretching.
Until they came back, I hadn’t realized how sure I was they were gone forever.
“So,” Rhee whispers, “he is our father?”
I smash the windowpane with a dented baseball bat, then shrug.
And his long arms scoop us out through the window.
Originally appeared in Fireside Fiction in September 2017.
© 2017 Allison Mulder