Fiction: Small Worlds

By Nicola de Vera

Natalia had been working on her most elaborate piece yet—a diorama of the Santa Monica Pier—when her mother knocked on the door.

“Hey sweetie, we’re planning to get dinner with Jenny and her husband this evening. Do you want to come? We leave at seven,” her mother asked.

“No thanks,” Natalia responded almost instantly. It has been nine months since Natalia last stepped outside the house, which she knew made her parents worry. They had been trying to encourage Natalia to get out more often, but to no avail.

Her mother entered the family guest room turned makeshift studio, where Natalia spent most of her days inside, preoccupied with a hobby that she’d been so entranced by since the last year and a half.

“Oh my, this latest one is looking really good. You’ve captured the boardwalk so well. And look at these tiny vendor carts! And the ferris wheel… How did you build it?”

Natalia was proud of the boardwalk and was glad that her mother noticed. It had taken her a couple of attempts, trying on different materials, to capture its light brown color and wooden texture.

“I used aluminum wires for the ferris wheel. Obviously it’s not done yet. I still need to add the remaining passenger cars and put some lighting around it.”

“Well, it’s already beautiful as it is. One of these days, let’s try to go to the real pier, shall we? It could spark more inspiration,” her mother suggested with a smile.

“We’ll see.”

Her mother leaned in and kissed Natalia on the head.
“Love you, sweetie. I’m just in the other room if you need anything.”

“Thanks, Mom.”
* * *
Three years ago, Natalia moved back to her parents’ house. Right out of college, she had been aching to live independently, free from family and roommates, and found a studio apartment where she lived in solitude for a full year. But the fantasy of independent life faded quickly, as Natalia struggled with the realities of living alone and being away from her loved ones, taking a toll on her mental health. She would develop distrust toward strangers and excessive irrational fears when in public spaces, triggering panic attacks when in line at the grocery, taking public transportation, going to the theater, and any other situation that made her feel alone, helpless, and vulnerable. Her condition had worsened over time, to the point of unsustainable debilitation, which ultimately led to her decision to move back to her childhood home. While Natalia felt more at ease with her parents, she still spent most time indoors.

Keeping safe inside, Natalia, by chance, stumbled upon a video about the craft of miniature art making—adorned pieces of life shrunk and held in the palm of one’s hand. Look at these worlds, she thought. Wouldn’t it be nice to regain absolute control? Before she knew it, she’d gone deep into the rabbit hole of tutorials on miniature art that compelled her to try it out for herself.

Natalia started small—her first attempt was to recreate her dining set for two in what used to be her old apartment. She used cut-out pieces of cardboard from delivery boxes for the tabletop and stools, discarded electrical wires for the legs, postage stamp-sized placemats, and repurposed bottle caps for the plates. She then layered the furniture pieces with construction paper, painted the dinnerware to achieve the right color for each item, and hand-sewed a floral-patterned handkerchief stuffed with cotton into two mini circular chair seats. When she had all the pieces in place, she carefully assembled each item and pieced them all together with a glue gun that had hardly been used before. Natalia started with the dining table, but before she knew it, her entire former apartment had been immortalized in a maquette. From thereon, she was hooked.

She moved onto more challenging pieces—a 40-seater bus, a grocery aisle, the neighborhood park with the kids’ playground—with obsessive attention to detail. She kept her hands busy and continued to build these little models from memory, until the room was filled with miniature sceneries inspired by real places that she used to frequent.

As Natalia spent most of her days on her newfound hobby, she spent less and less time outside, completely evading her fears. Unlike the unpredictability and the threats in the outside world, her tiny spaces guaranteed safety, and more importantly, agency. Shrinking her world into portable portions gave Natalia the assurance that she would always be in control and offered god-like powers to build and destroy.
* * *
“Natalia, we’re leaving in 10 minutes. Are you sure you don’t want to come?”

“I’m sure, Mom. Have fun.”

“Okay, sweetie. Call us if you need anything. Stay safe.”

After her parents left for dinner, Natalia continued to work on the pier, this time using styrofoam boards as base pieces for what would be the mini benches, shaping them using a cutter. As she sliced the boards and tinkered with the edges, Natalia accidentally cut two of her fingers, her blood dripping onto the diorama. She looked on as a gush of red spread across the wooden boardwalk, staining her piece. But she remained unfazed. Bleeding, Natalia calmly sucked both fingers in her mouth, tasting salt and metal.

“Stay safe,” she whispered to no one. Her tiny worlds were safe. Her tiny worlds were home.

Nicola de Vera (she / her) is a queer writer born and raised in Manila, Philippines. She now lives in Los Angeles, trading one city of tropics & traffic jams for another. She holds a BA in Communication from Ateneo de Manila University and an MBA from Cornell University. When off from her full-time job in product management, she reads, writes, and cheers for Angel City FC.