Five Percent

by Jesse Salvo

It was just getting to be near around the end of Q3 when I first became aware that I was shrinking. No, that is not quite right. Not shrinking as you understand it. Not shrinking as a natural part of the aging process—hunch of the back and shoulders, thinning of the hair, reduction in overall muscle-mass, in men the face receding away from the nose and ears til we all start to look like those sidewalk caricatures vagrants draw of uncomplicated families beside major national monuments.

No, what I am talking about, at the youngish age of 37, is the inexplicable overall reduction of my biological self. Understand, it is not that I was losing weight or suffering some spinal condition, but that I was experiencing, in terms of millimeters per week, the slow scaling back of my physical form in perfect proportion to itself. I did not experience any pains, the way, as a child, I had experienced leg cramps as I shot to my now (former) height of 5 feet 11 1/2 inches, which I had often used to round up to six-foot-even, to many discourteous looks and scoffs from people who likewise claimed to be six-foot-even—no, it horrifies me to say it was an almost unnoticeable and completely painless process, my receding from the world.

As I am completely alone in life and oftentimes will spend weeks at a time silently believing that I am afflicted with some phantom illness or else that I am completely delusional, I couldn’t honestly say when it was I began to notice the shrinking for myself or even if I did so. I do know that the moment it became unstuck from the morass of lonely unreality, for me, is when a person I work with (named Daphne) stopped abruptly on her way to the bathroom, in the middle of our open floor plan, and said

“Have you lost weight or something?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, looking down at myself sort of perplexed and with the whole electric grid of my brain screaming terror at having been so directly publicly addressed by another human, especially regarding my weight.

“O.K.” she said. “Well take care of yourself.”

“Will do. Ha-ha.”

I weighed myself in my apartment later that evening and found that I had not lost a single ounce, which at the moment didn’t really bother me at all, but over time, as I started to perceive my own, as I’ve said, reduction started to make me more and more fearful in ways I could not easily articulate.

My boss—our boss—was a handsome, well-appointed man with a flashbulb temper and penchant for humiliating subordinates. He’d storm in the office and yell about how much he hated all of us and how he wished we would sell more units (the firm where I worked sold food storage containers) and how he could not believe his luck. He was the second person, after Daphne, to zero-in on my shrinking, during an impromptu staff meetup he’d called in order to terrify us into selling more food storage containers.

“I cannot believe my luck,” he said, “to have been gifted such a useless contingent of abject failures.”

Nobody spoke. We were all ashamed.

He sniffed. Then, eying me, said “What are you, sick?”

“Um,” I said, once again terrified by direct address + physical observation, “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”

“I mean that you look sick, Tom.” He sounded exasperated by my thickwittedness. I have often been called exasperating, by the few intimates of my life who all eventually found it too embarrassing to love me in the long term. My longest intimate and closest friend told me when she left that “it is impossible to love somebody who doesn’t love himself, Tom.”

She was spot-on, in that I have always had trouble loving myself unconditionally, on account of I could never get a handle on why precisely I was created in the first place. The answer could not possibly be just to sell food storage containers. Nowadays I think that maybe the reason I was created was to be the first person ever to shrink, which, medically speaking, there has never ever been a documented case of someone shrinking the way I have. You might think that would fill me with dread but actually I find it incredibly comforting.

My second closest intimate, who was not my best friend because she despised me, told me, on our anniversary, that I lack ambition and do not like to work hard. This is also true and I recognize that that makes me defective as a mate. But me realizing that I am defective has done very little to improve my lot any, and I rather wish I had not been told. Eventually that second intimate stole all the furniture from my apartment (well to be fair, our shared apartment) and left a note on the counter that read “I wish you would go home, Tom.” even though she had never even seen my childhood home and I myself hadn’t been back there in five years, since both my parents died in a gas-main explosion.

Anyway I am being digressive, which I have also been told is a thing that makes me difficult to love, but my sharp-dressed boss, who was exasperated by my slowness, then said:

“You resemble a sickly child and it is unpleasant to have to look at in the workplace.” He cast around for support and many people in the impromptu meeting nodded agreement, which I found humiliating. He continued to address me directly, “So I need you to go to the doctor tomorrow, so that I don’t have to look at you when I come into work.”

He sent me home for the day (my food storage container sales numbers were robust) and I scheduled an appointment with my internist who made space for me once he’d heard the strange particulars of my complaint.

“’Lo Tom,” he said, sweeping into the room. He was a dashing man in a white coat with close-cropped black hair and a healthful sunburned face hidden behind dark hornrims. “What is the what? What are we looking at here?”

I cleared my throat looking at him looking at his chart and said “I believe I am shrinking.”

He smiled up at me from the chart.

“Very cool. And how long?”

“How long have I been shrinking?”

“That’s what I’m asking, yes.”

“I couldn’t say for sure.” I looked around at all the charts of human bodies with the skin flayed off. I knew that in order to graduate medical school one had to practice medicine on a number of cadavers, but somehow, erroneously, my doctor did not strike me as someone who had ever been in a room with a dead body. “Weeks, maybe months,” I said. “It’s been a very slow process.”

“Well, your weight’s normal,” he said. “We can blood-test for anemia. X-ray your spine.”

“Understand, I believe I am shrinking in exact proportion to myself. That I am becoming, essentially, a smaller version of my self. Former self.”

My internist was very droll and chipper even when giving horrible news which is partly why I have stayed with him for as long as I have.

“Yep. O.K. That is not an existing medical condition, actually, so I cannot test for that.”

“But you believe me,” I said. He shook his head sympathetically.

“Understand I’m not allowed to believe you, in this case, where the medical condition you’re describing cannot exist.”

“You can look at my patient history.” I was sitting on a butcher paper block with my chickenish legs denuded by years of work pants, pigeon-toed and embarrassing-looking. “You can look at my height on previous visits, and my height now, and if I don’t have a spinal condition, then you can know that I’m shrinking.”

“No, right, I get that,” he said, pantomiming his hands being bound together by procedure, “but then really what my training insists that I conclude is that you’re misremembering your previous height, or size, or whatever.”

“But you were the one who took down my height on previous visits.”

“Yes,” he nodded, “but we just have to chalk it up to physician error. That we miswrote your height in the past.”

“I am a full inch and a half shorter than I was.”

He tugged his ear, smiling.

“Physicians aren’t God, Tom. We make mistakes.”

He sent me for an X-ray which revealed no spinal deterioration, no misplaced disks or spurs or any kinds of irregularities.

“Come back when you shrink to, like, five-nine,” he said briskly.

The office sent me home with a prescription for a medication called baclafin which, when I looked it up online, turned out to be a muscle spasm medication that could also cure drug and alcohol addiction, but in some users caused the onset of psychosis and the vomiting of blood.

The next day I felt so terrible and full of dread that I sent an email saying I was too sick to work.

My boss called my mobile phone which I picked up still lying in bed.

“What is wrong with you,” he said.

“I feel terrible.”

“You should feel terrible,” he said. “You are a talentless employee and the entire workplace is made less efficient by your presence here.”

“Do you mind me working remotely.”

“Of course I mind.” He cleared his throat. “I am constantly hamstrung by your fecklessness. Not just yours. But mostly yours.”

“O.K. Well, I can come in.”

“In some ways that would be even worse,” he said, and hung up.

I spent the day reading all the national newspapers, and taking baclafin at regular intervals and cleaning my apartment and fearfully studying my hands for any sign that psychosis was about to take hold. I became so agitated by my condition that I emailed my former intimate and best friend asking if she would meet me to discuss the fact that I was shrinking. She had just lost her job so she said yes and we met in a sushi parlor in a strip mall near her kickboxing gym. When I came out of the bathroom she stared at me worriedly.


“You look unwell,” she said.

“Well, I just threw up blood.”

“O.K.” she said.

“Also I am shrinking.”

“Good for you.”

“No,” I said. “I mean that I am slowly receding into myself.”

“That’s a little on the nose, I feel.”

“I mean that my physical self is measurably retreating from the world.”

She pulled a face that she had used to make when we were best friends who were almost actionably in love.

“I am serious here.”


“It’s a medical condition.”

“Is that why you threw up blood.”



“That’s from the medication I’m taking.”

“What’s the medication do.”

“Cures addiction apparently.”

“What are you addicted to?”

“Nothing in particular.”


“Also back spasms.”


“I don’t have back spasms, but it would cure them if I did.”

Her phone buzzed.

“Do you want to order,” she asked.

“No thanks,” I said. “My stomach is pretty full from all the blood. You go ahead though.”

The phone buzzed again.

“Who is that?”

“That?” she toggled the phone screen “My daughter, texting.”

“You have a daughter.”

“I have four daughters.”


She nodded.

“And they have phones,” I said.

“They all have phones nowadays. Did you invite me here just to vomit blood and talk about my daughters, Tom?”

“I don’t understand how you have so many daughters in so short a time frame.”

“When you love somebody it’s hard to think of doing anything else.”

“Anything but having many daughters with them, you’re saying.”

She didn’t directly respond, but twirled her hand and said, “So. What’s new with you.”

“Honestly just the shrinking thing.”

She eyed the menu.

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

The next day, back at work, my boss accosted me at my desk.

“Hello,” I said.

“You are a hateful thing,” he said, standing over me.

“Are you angry that I worked from home.”

“Angry. I am thrilled.”


“I am all the time searching for a pretext to fire you, Tom. Your absence went a long way toward making that a reality.”

“Are you going to fire me,” I said, with blood pumping in my throat.

“Of course not.” He waved his hand. “What would be the use. We would just sell less food storage containers.”

“That’s a good way of looking at it.”

“It’s the only way of looking at it,” he said. “You have absolutely no managerial sense Tom, which is why you will never be a leader.”

“I understand,” I said.

“It is good to have you back,” he said, and left.



Two weeks later, Daphne, my coworker, stopped on her way to the bathroom again. She eyed me suspiciously.

“What kind of disease do you have,” she asked.

“I am shrinking at a very gradual rate,” I said.

“That’s what the doctor told you.”

I shook my head.

“Are you feeling alright.”

“I keep vomiting blood. And I might be going psychotic.”

“Oh dear,” she said. “Did you tell the doctor about that.”

“I let him know over the phone.”

“What did he say.”

“He said it was a very positive sign that I was metabolizing the prescription.”

She shook her head which was very pretty.

“Medicine is amazing,” she said.

“I guess.”

She put her hands at her sides and cocked her hips a little.

“You could take me somewhere some time, you know,” she said.

Something hitched in my chest. She brushed her hair backwards.

“Like where.”

“I don’t know. Outside.”

“I hate the outside.”

“We could stay inside,” she said.

“I would much prefer if we did.”

“What about a movie.”

“A movie is practically outside.”

“O.K. What about the aquarium.”


She wrote down her name and number on a pad of paper even though I already knew her name and the number was her work extension.

“You can only call me during office hours.” She explained.


I had begun marking my height on the doorjamb, like a child. Of course the problem is that it is very difficult to measure oneself accurately. I had to stand straight-backed against the wall and then contort my left hand painfully above my head, behind my back, in order to notch a pencil line in the door. I weighed myself again. I went to the bathroom and threw up blood.

The aquarium was lit up like a dance club for sea creatures. We walked in through the shark tunnel where the sharks glided past our rapt faces, set on some private business.

“How much have you shrunk,” she asked conversationally, brushing past my shoulder to look at a jellyfish.

“I don’t honestly know,” I said. “I have trouble measuring accurately.”

The jellyfish in the tank slow-danced with itself. I read the placard. Apparently it had received its name in the 1920’s when members of the Olympic Swim Team, practicing in the Mediterranean, all began reporting severe illness and wooziness and 8 were hospitalized in Lisbon with severe symptoms and all their hearts stopped beating at the same time.

“Jellyfish are my favorite animals in the world,” she said.

“This one is called the Portuguese Mass Murderer Jellyfish,” I said.

“Does it scare you.”

“I don’t ever swim in the ocean.”

“No,” she shook her head and her hair swept back and forth across her eyebrows like a gorgeous car wash, “I mean that parts of you are disappearing.”

“Well,” I said, pretending to study the placard some more, “Not disappearing, per se. Just that I am gradually becoming diminished, and drawing into myself, and taking up less space in the world.”

“And that doesn’t frighten you.”

“I think it’s natural,” I said.

“Well I’d be terrified,” she said, turning away.

“I was terrified of most everything already, I guess. So there was nowhere else to go when something crazy happened,” I said, following at her side, suddenly afraid she might find someone at the aquarium who she deemed more worthy of her affections.

“Why are jellyfish your favorite animals,” I said.

She bit her lip and put her hands on my shoulders to square them. They were smaller than they had used to be, obviously.

“Jellyfish are 95 percent water.”

“And so.”

“And so.” She looked at me like I was a slow but beloved pupil, “You only ever need to be five percent something else, Tom.”

Daphne, who was more beautiful than I had the right to expect in another person, pecked me on the cheek which began to burn strangely there before all the displays of different trapped exotic animals peering out at us.

“I can come back to your apartment and measure you, if you like,” she said very quickly.

I blinked.

“Its just,” she blushed, “I know it is hard to measure yourself.”

“Yeah, O.K.” I said.

My apartment was sad and small. I had a gray sectional sofa and my fridge was filled with nothing but condiments. Daphne did not say anything about how pathetic it all was. I tried to stand as straight as I could while she lay her hand flat on top of my head and marked the wall with a pencil and we both stood back and stared.

“You’re five foot ten,” she said, sounding impressed.

“I know,” I said morosely.

“I’ve never been five foot ten at all, if that’s any consolation.”

“Thanks,” I said. Then, slowly, I said “There is one thing I like about shrinking, actually.”


“Do you know what it is.” I felt my stomach begin to flutter.

“What’s that,” she said.

“My weight hasn’t changed,” I said. “Not an ounce. Not the whole time. I’m getting more and more and more dense.”

Daphne smiled.

“I’m going to go,” she said. “But I would like you to take me to the aquarium again.”


Often I would call her during office hours and update her on my height, or the fact that I had stopped chucking up blood in the bathroom. “Tom, that’s wonderful,” she said.

I shrank to five foot nine. Then five foot eight. My doctor began writing letters to talk shows so that we could both begin to get famous. “Just keep shrinking,” he encouraged me. “This has been an absolute boon to the practice.”

Unfortunately that was almost exactly around the time, nearing the renewal of Q1, that I ceased my shrinking. I was five foot six and a half—Daphne’s exact height. We would stand nose to nose, holding one another, in my little apartment and I would impress her by reciting how dense I had grown. She brought over flowers and perfumes and filled my fridge up with vegetables.

Still, sometimes when we are sharing a bed together I will wake up alone, with her sleeping beside me, and let my little legs dangle off the side of the bed and be unable to return to the land of my dreams. She is kind to me and tells me how lovely she thinks it is that we are exactly the same size, that I stopped shrinking just for her. But still, as I say, some nights, with her beside me, I cannot think, possessed as I am of the fear of what may happen if ever I begin to grow again.

Jesse Salvo’s short fiction has been featured in Cowboy Jamboree and BULL, where he now serves as a recurring columnist. He spent three years as an at-large contributor for and The Portalist. His first novel Born Secrets is represented by Nordlyset Agency. He lives and works in Seville, Spain.