Unfair- A Diaper Dimension Novel

Ok, so this chapter and the last one got to me. I’ve been busy with life and haven’t been reading much so I just read them together, The impact of Janet’s emotional ache over the way Clark is resisting his new life, I even more plainly put into view now and the reaction of Mark and the others at the restaurant is so telling of Amazon’s as a whole.
The question I keep asking my self about some of what we have seen, like Beouf distancing herself from dealing with Clark the fact that Janet was being more into “bonding” with him and then the almost total shutting down the anger and hurt, maybe even guilt if in fact what Clark thinks about the idea that Janet was the one that caused him to wind-up in his new life. The bit at the restaurant when Clark had the diaper failure was eerily similar to the accident he had during the I.E.P. meeting that landed him in diapers so just wondering about that fact a bit too.

Still, I really like this story and how you have written it is great too.
have a good day and a better tomorrow too.

Chapter 87: The Bigger Picture

Half an hour later, Death Itself walked into Beouf’s classroom wearing a salmon pantsuit over an aquamarine blouse. Its wrinkled face and skeletal frame came in through the back door of Beouf’s room. The Ambrose occupied territory that was once my classroom was eerily quiet; Death having already stunned the poor children into silence.

Its soulless, predatory eyes stalked the classroom behind rounded bifocals; Its thin withered lips drawn pert. On a pestilent wind- that may have been the lingering smell of milk vomit or Its own natural perfume- it silently glided, deeper and deeper, inside the normally whimsical prison of Beouf’s world. Littles who saw It averted their gaze and sucked on their pacifiers, lest they scream in terror or draw attention to themselves. Better to pretend to play quietly and feign preoccupation with a wooden car or a set of stacking rings.

We’d already missed Circle Time and were missing the first center rotation. We hadn’t even all been changed yet. Most of us were still in our picture day clothes. Transport had been slow. Those of us who’d tossed our breakfasts up took the longest to clean up and containment of our soiled clothes took priority.

Zoge tackled that part, quarantined us by the bathroom, and then carried us one by one to the reading nook as she finished. Beouf got the others settled and busy doing meaningless play and independent activities, then started making phone calls to parents. Three guesses to who she called first.

Clothing wise, I was back down to a Mint’s Hints t-shirt and nothing else. No surprise there. Mrs. Zoge still said “I love you” after she’d finished redressing me, but it was quicker, more out of habit than sincerity. That was grimly pleasant. She kept looking at her phone, too.

Speaking of grim, when Death visited, I’d been lounging in a bean bag next to Billy. Annie laid on the floor, lazily making carpet angels. Technically she’d seen Death first and signaled trouble when she started sucking on her thumb. Sandra Lynn and Jesse were still sitting by the bathroom in their ruined Sunday best, waiting their turn to get cleaned up. Chaz, regrettably, had been unsuccessful in his attempt with his finger down his throat and was assembling a log house with Tommy who hadn’t made an attempt to buck the system at all.

The prison couple had tried sneaking in an open mouth kiss and quickly regretted it, both grimacing at the taste of each other. They were passionate, if impulsive, which made them great toadies in the first place. Our collective breath was rancid, but our smiles were smugly satisfied.

Every now and then, one of us had remembered to wince and hold our stomachs while letting out a low groan, just in case someone was watching or listening too intently. We were happy with plausible deniability; not seeking attention.

The fact that we looked like death warmed over helped our case. We’d each gagged, choked, and vomited so hard that blood vessels in our face had burst open leaving gastly pink and red webs covering our faces while the rest of the flesh was ghastly pale. I don’t think there was ever a movie about Zombie Littles, but if there were we would have been great extras.

It was nothing that a day or two of not puking our guts up wouldn’t fix. If Cassie had seen my face she’d have said that I’d had much too much to drink and then reminded me to switch the laundry for her.

The only other sounds Death might have heard was Ivy blubbering in the bathroom, and Beouf making her calls. I poked my head out of the reading nook to watch Death’s approach. If the fates were kind, I’d watch Beouf get a near death experience right in front of everyone. But Death remained motionless and at a respectful distance while Beouf made her calls.

Unlike love, Death is patient. Bitch always has been.

“Hello? Mrs. Ogden? Good morning, how are you? I’m fine, thank you. I’m calling you because Billy just got sick. Yes. Tummy troubles. No, not diarrhea this time. He threw up. Alot. No. No fever. I don’t think it was something he ate, no. Not exactly.” Beouf sighed, paused, and looked over her shoulder towards the reading nook. She saw Death, too. “Well, it could be a sympathetic thing. A couple kids threw up, not just mine. Mmmhmm. One gets started and it gets everybody going.” She glanced back at Death again. “Then again, there might be something that’s starting to go around, it’s hard to tell. Also I think I heard him coughing just before, so it might have been a tickle in his throat like a sinus drip and it triggered his gag reflex. Yuh-huh. I’m not a doctor. Could be a tummy bug. Could be anything.”

She started nodding. She’d already had this exact conversation with everyone else’s folks and a briefer one with Janet. She hadn’t nodded then. Likely she was adding in choreography for Death’s benefit.

“So here’s the thing, Mrs. Ogden. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but…yes ma’am. That’s correct. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.” What I’d already accounted for with my devious bit of mischief is that when a child vomits it’s school board policy to isolate them and send them home. No other symptoms required.

Quietly, I ducked back into the nook so that the three of us could exchange fist bumps. This is exactly what I had in mind when I told them we’d be starting our weekend early. Damn, I loved it when a plan came together.

“Yes,” Beouf continued. “That’s correct. Come on over to the school. Hm? No, don’t worry about the pictures. We’ve got a makeup day next week for students who are absent. I’ll wash his yucky clothes this weekend and have them ready to go. Just come on over and check in with your ID. The secretary will send you with someone over to my classroom and you can take him home. Okay. See you in a few. Goodbye.”

She hung up the phone, exhaled in a way that made her look like a deflating pool toy and then turned around.

“Rough morning?” Death asked, pretending to be concerned.

“Yes, ma’am.” Beouf replied. “What can I do for you, Mrs. Brollish?” Of course ‘Death’ was Brollish. Who else would it be?

“I just wanted to stop by and check in on you and your students,” Brollish said, every word carefully measured and calculated as always. “As you know, students who experience sickness to the point of vomiting aren’t allowed to stay.” Leave it to Brollish to say what everyone already knew. I resisted the urge to slap my forehead.

“Yes, ma’am,” Beouf said in equal measure. “You walked in on me making my last parent phone call.”

Brollish nodded curtly. “Excellent.” I could only see the back of her head, but I had no doubt she was giving some kind of thin fake-ass smile. “Do you know what caused it?”

My ex-mentor looked Brollish dead in the eye and said. “No ma’am. I can’t say.” That was a lie. She absolutely knew that I had something to do with it. That’s why she’d shouted my name; my real name. She just couldn’t prove it. Beouf was a lot of things, but stupid wasn’t one of them. She wouldn’t fall into the kind of trap that I’d set for Forrest.

Brollish hemmed for a second and tapped her chin. “Some people said they thought they saw some kind of dust? Or powder being coughed up…?” Her voice tilted into a question, even though it wasn’t.

“I don’t think so,” Beouf said, softly. “The cafeteria is pretty clean. I don’t think there’d be any allergens or spores in the air. Not that could cause this.”

The breath in my lungs turned shallow. Why was Beouf playing dumb?

The Principal cleared her throat. “Maybe some of your students put something in their mouths that they shouldn’t have…?” Another accusation framed as a question.

My teacher held firm. “No, I don’t think so. The custodians did a really good job of cleaning up before the photographers got here.” I could feel my heart in my chest. What game was Beouf playing?

“Do you think one of them got a case of the sillies and took something from your room? Baby powder perhaps?”

“No ma’am.” Beouf said. “My kids wouldn’t have had the opportunity. We go straight from the bus to breakfast. Every day. “

“Not all of them.” I felt a noose tightening around my neck. It wasn’t just Beouf who suspected me.

Zoge exited the bathroom, carrying a topless Ivy on her hip. Someone had convinced their Mommy to let them wear their fancy dress all day and didn’t have a change of clothes. I averted my eyes out of politeness, but kept my ears peeled.

“Clark and Ivy were nowhere near the powder, ma’am.” Zoge said. She plopped down an all-but naked Ivy right beside me. “They didn’t need changing before breakfast and I would have kept the powder out of reach because of their outfits.” Billy and Ivy started snickering behind their hands, while Zoge leaned over and said something to Ivy in Yamatoan, and then more loudly said, “I’ll get you a shirt, my love.”

I popped my head back out and saw Beouf give Brollish something of a cross between a shrug and a nod. “Sorry.”

“So you’re sure you didn’t see anything?”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t.”

My teeth bit down on my tongue so hard I almost screamed in surprise. That was more than just playing dumb. Melony Beouf had a front row seat of the debacle. The woman had run to my side when I was choking and had been at ground zero when I hacked up that first round of cinnamon. There was zero chance that she hadn’t seen that puff of brown spice billow out of me like a chimney. She was outright, bold face lying to Brollish.

I just didn’t know why. Playing nice with the old bat got her that swanky new playground and the feeding tables.

“Do you mind if I check in with your students?”

Beouf directed her towards the reading nook. “As long as you understand that any formal investigation that could lead to discipline, has to involve their parents.” I was suddenly seeing shades of not just my mentor but my old Union Rep come out.

“I’m not here for that,” Brollish lied right back, “I just want to make sure that they’re okay.” The witch glided around and slid up to us, blocking our view and way out. Towering over us, she asked. “How are you feeling boys and girls?”

My cadre and I exchanged quick looks. “Yucky,” Annie said.

“My tummy and my throat feels bad.” Billy mumbled.

I just looked away and made a pitiful humming noise. Funnily enough I was feeling slightly nauseous back then.

“Ivy?”

Still trying not to stare at her, my peripheral vision caught the slight movement of Ivy’s head lifting to make eye contact with the Principal. “Hmmm?”

“How are you feeling, dear?”

I poked my tongue on the spot where I’d bitten it, nervously picking at the spot to steel my nerves.

Ivy’s reply came back low and pitiful like a puppy that had been kicked too many times. “Not good. The smell was real bad and my tummy got sick and I threw up all over my pretty dress.”

Brollish lowered to a knee so she could get closer to Ivy’s eye level. “Do you know who got sick first or why? Did you see or hear anything?”

For the second time that morning I stopped breathing entirely.

“Mmm-mmm.” Ivy mumbled. “No, ma’am.”

Brollish rose so slowly that I thought I heard a creak. “Okay.” She started gliding back towards Beouf.

A peek Billy and Annie’s way revealed that they were open-mouthed grinning like a couple of idiots and throwing all of their admiration Ivy’s way. They’d thought she’d sell us out. Honestly, I was as surprised as they were. I stole a look at Ivy.

One hand still covering her breasts, her face hardened instantly. She mimed sucking her thumb and then pointed hard towards the direction Brollish had gone. I popped my head back out. She wasn’t actually going to Beouf. We weren’t the only kids left to interrogate.

Shit. I had almost no relationship, coercive or otherwise, with Sandra Lynn or Jesse. They were facing away from us too, giving me a good look at the crone’s haggard face and no way to send any kind of begging face or threatening glare to my classmates. My fate was in their hands.

“Hello children,” Brollish said with all the sweetness of an old woman offering an apple. As always her smile didn’t reach her eyes. “How are you, dears?” The pacifiers didn’t leave either of their mouths. “Are you feeling well?” The two looked down and off to different sides, avoiding eye contact. “Did you see what happened?” Nothing. She tried at stooping slightly and hunkering her hands down on her knees. “How did you get sick?” Her questions were met with silence and sucking.

Mrs. Zoge came back with a Pink Princess t-shirt. “Here you go, baby.” Ivy raised her arms and let the shirt be pulled over her. With the tights and slippers still on, Ivy looked like she was getting ready for a ballet class. Her smile turned back on when her Mommy slid the plastic tiara back on her head.

Over by the bathroom, Brollish was rising back up. “Do they still talk?”

“They’re just feeling yucky and a little shy,” Beouf answered. “Their parents will be here to pick them up soon.”

I felt my face scrunch up into a full blown snarl. Melony Beouf was a lot of terrible things. She was a typical Amazon. But in all my years not once had I ever encountered a prisoner of hers mindfucked to the point where they couldn’t talk or understand spoken language. How dare Brollish! How dare she!

Something else jumped into my brain: Brollish didn’t even know Sandra Lynn’s and Jesse’s names! She probably didn’t know Annie’s and Billy’s either. What kind of educator didn’t bother to learn as many students’ names as possible? I knew dozens of names of students I never even had! Picked a bunch up just by osmosis and listening to teachers. Beouf’s class had a slower turnover than most. Sandra Lynn had been in that room for at least two years and the only people whose name she knew was a teacher she followed and an aide’s kid who’d been there for over a decade!

The fucking nerve of this cunt! A massive finger pressed up against my lips, snapping me out of my self-induced fury trance. Zoge was putting her fingers to her lips. “You’re growling,” she whispered.

I was? I leaned back away from Zoge’s index finger. Ivy was sucking her thumb. Billy and Annie had pacified themselves. So I sucked my thumb too…

Zoge stood back up and started going back to the Littles that were still in vomit stained clothes to pick up where she left off. Brollish however, waved her over to the conversation, presently moving closer to the semi circle where Beouf held court.

“Is there anything else you’d like to discuss, ma’am?” Mrs. Beouf asked, subtly turning so that Brollish was facing the exit. She didn’t say it, but I felt there was an unspoken ‘or can you leave my room?’ tacked onto that sentence.

“Actually, yes,” Brollish snipped. Her voice was still chipper, but that fake ass smile had a more predatory glint to it. “Mrs. Zoge, have you been able to contact your husband, or anyone else who can watch Ivy?”

For what felt like the fourth or fifth time that morning, Zoge looked at her phone. “I’ve been texting him, ma’am, but he hasn’t responded yet. He’s very busy.”

The Grim Reaper in the salmon pants suit nodded her head thoughtfully and tried to make it sound like what next came out of her mouth was both coming out of her for the first time and a foregone common sense conclusion. “I thought that might be the case. I know how hard he works. That’s why I’m giving you the rest of the day off, Mrs. Zoge.”

The aide seemed genuinely confused. “Day off?”

“To take care of Ivy. She can’t stay here. She got sick all over the floor.”

Beouf tried to ask a question “But-”

Brollish gently cut her off by raising the palm of her hand. “Don’t worry. I’m already working on that end. I know your position has a guarantee of an aide for the majority of student contact hours, but you’re losing half your class today so that will make it easier.”

The other two giants clearly did not like where this was going. “Soooo…?”

“I’m already moving around some of the other schedules to get you temporary coverage throughout the day. Different aides will come in and out of your classroom, assuming that the schedule you gave me at the beginning of the year is up to date and accurate.”

Beouf looked almost offended. “Yes, ma’am. It is.”

“I’ll see if I can’t convince the therapists to give you some time by taking your four away. You won’t need extra help with lunch, and then right after is naps. Then you do free time on the playground? Right?”

Zoge spoke for Beouf. “Yes, ma’am.”

“So with the reduced numbers, you really only need another warm body to help you run centers and such until lunch.”

You wouldn’t know it unless you were a teacher, but Beouf and Zoge were having a fit inside their own heads just then. In their own mind, every teacher is a duke or duchess within their classroom. We like our marching orders vague and the freedom to teach the content so that it is best for our students and plays to our strengths.

Beouf had just had her whole day micromanaged for her and had her competence and preparedness subtly called into question. Zoge in a roundabout way had just had her contributions to the class reduced to being a seat filler. The difference being that this sort of thing was typical Brollish as far as I’d been concerned. I was used to it.

They weren’t.

Zoge and her daughter were exiled. Beouf was losing her lieutenant and would likely have to walk two to three strangers through center routines and expectations and warn them about every given student’s nuances and tendencies. To be effective, the explanation might well take up half of the allotted time. There was a reason why I was so focused on predictable routines and rituals, and not all of it came from just Little level paranoia and neuroses.

I learned it from Beouf. I learned it from watching her.

If Brollish had led with this news, I’d be close to doing a jig right then and there and no one could have stopped me. Beouf was having a bad day; Zoge too; Ivy third; and I’d bet even money Janet was going to have to find a substitute so she could be trapped with me all day. This operation had panned out better than I had anticipated.

Brollish had led, however, by showing just how little she knew about the Littles at her school and even less about what her staff actually did. It lined up with my experiences in many ways. That kind of neglect allowed so-called teachers like Ambrose and half-asses like Renner to remain unchecked.

I loathed that I was empathizing with two of my chief tormentors, but I couldn’t help it. The lesser of two evils was still evil. It was also still less. My teacher and her assistant were much much less evil than the Principal.

“What about Clark?” Beouf asked Brollish.

“I’ve already talked to Ms. Grange about it. Things are taken care of.”

Knew it.

“Yes, ma’am.” Beouf said, feigning acceptance if not submission. “Anything else?”

“One last thing. I’d like to talk to you about a few things after the buses leave if you can make the time.”

Beouf set her jaw. “Sure thing. I’ll be happy to see you then.” What was one more blatant lie? “Would you mind emailing me about it?” She was trying to create a paper trail.

Death Itself quietly stepped towards the front door. “I’ll see if I can find the time.” She held the door open and called expectantly. “Mrs. Zoge? Are you and Ivy coming?”

Hands folded in front of her, Zoge bowed slightly. “I will be out in a few minutes, but I’d like to finish cleaning up the children, and stay long enough until either help or the parents arrive.”

“That makes sense.” A beat. “Remember to call the office if relief hasn’t come within ten minutes. Word might not have gotten around quickly enough.” An eerie groaning noise preceded the door finally closing. Some say that the door’s hinges were finally starting to rust, and the maintenance crew would oil them just before the weekend. I’d like to think it was because Brollish accidentally lost composure and burped up whatever poor soul she’d consumed for breakfast that morning.

The door closed, and I trotted all the way back into the nook. Quiet high fives and exclamations of “yessssssss!” were traded. We’d done it! We’d gotten away with it. Mission success! Better than Why Day, Cry Day, Paint the Frog Day, and every other bit of mischief we’d managed thus far.

It was Ivy who put a damper on things. “You’re not that smart.” she said bluntly. As a group, the A.L.L. turned and regarded the mindfucked doll. Ivy sat there with her arms crossed and huffing.

“What?” I asked.

“You’re not that smart,” Ivy repeated herself. Her normally demure and childish demeanor had melted like a candle and become an indignant huffy pout. “You’re not.”

My eyebrow was already cocking like a loaded gun. “What do you mean?”

She leaned out and pointed back towards the bathroom. “Look.”

The two remaining giants were already springing into action. Beouf dug through her desk and ripped open the top of a yellow wax papery packet. Out of the bag and into the palm of her hand came a few tiny egg shaped candy pieces which she took over to Jesse and Sandra Lynn.

“Three for you. Aaaaand three for you.” They stared down into their hands. “Color doesn’t matter. They all taste the same.” That was enough permission for them and they popped the candy into their mouths.

Candy. Good candy too. Special treats for special occasions, not the cheap chalk textured stuff given for correct answers (or what passed for them in Beouf’s class). “Oh man,” Tommy whined and whispered. “They’re getting Geese’s Pieces!”

I gave him a light elbow to the ribs. “Shut up and watch.” Where was this going? She quickly gave out one to each and every one of us, save Billy, Annie, and myself.

“Hey,” Billy asked. “Where’s mine?”

“We’ll have a talk about it when you come back on Monday,” Beouf told him and walked away.

“She’s bribing them,” Annie said loud enough for us all to hear.

Billy stuck his bottom lip out. “For wh-…? Oh…” It finally clicked. For all of us. They knew. They definitely knew.

Zoge was likewise keeping oddly busy tidying up in the bathroom and giving Jesse and Sandra Lynn time to munch on their candy. She came out with four thin generic trash can liners, the kind that even I could tear up, with their tops twisted up and knotted. “Here’s the clothing so far.”

Beouf was on top of them, tossing them into her supply closet. “Got it.”

Zoge disappeared into the bathroom and came out again with a different type of garbage bag. Thicker plastic; see through but yellow, and with a special rim on top that opened and snapped shut into itself like a coin purse. “Changing the pail.”

Beouf marched up and took the literal bag of crap off of Zoge’s hands. “On it. Thanks. It’ll be good if I have it empty before the ‘cavalry gets here.’”

“Not like they’re going to change anybody.”

“Pffft,” Beouf scoffed. “Not that I’d let them.” She started twisting the liner up, again and again and again. Making it smaller and tying it up in knots to conceal just how empty it really was.

“Do we want to wait to change the other kids?” Zoge asked.

“Can’t,” Beouf answered. “No time.”

“Why is she throwing it out?” I asked myself outloud. “There’s like five diapers in there, tops.”

“They know,” Ivy said mysteriously. “The grown-ups always know.”

At just the right time I caught Beouf finishing knotting up the bag at just the right angle. There were a handful of used diapers still in there; swollen and rolled up into tight little balls of waste. Also, crammed and wedged between the bottom one and the top was a relatively tiny cylinder filled halfway with brownish reddish dust. Had it been made of aluminum even I could have smashed it down flat with my foot. It was plastic, though, and so held its shape.

Zoge narrowed her eyes. “You’re winding it too tight.”

Beouf unwound the bag a tad. It was much harder to see the contraband I’d snuck in now. I couldn’t see it as much as just know that it was already there because I’d seen it. “You think anybody is gonna go dumpster diving?” she asked.

That knowing soft smirk of Zoge’s blossomed anew. “Do you want to take that chance?”

“Point taken.” Beouf moved towards the door, trash in hand. “You keep cleaning up the kids. I’ll be right back.” She poked her head out of the front door and checked if the coast was clear. One deep breath later and she was jogging towards the school dumpster, likely to place her bag underneath bags and bags of half eaten and discarded breakfast trays.

Zoge picked up Sandra Lynn and boosted her into the bathroom.

My jaw hung loosely from its hinge; not plummeting dramatically, just hanging there lightly like it did when I was half asleep. “They found the cinnamon,” I said. “They had it the whole time.”

Billy leaned over to his girlfriend. “I told you to get rid of it.”

“Mrs. Zoge was ‘getting rid of it’.” Annie said back. “I just told her that I found it.”

I ignored them and instead wondered, “Why didn’t they turn us in?” Annie and Billy only offered me noncommittal shrugs.

“Mommy and Mrs. B are our teachers,” Ivy broke in. “It’s their job.”

My brain just didn’t want to wrap around that concept, even though I knew that I’d do the exact same thing for any of my students; even the Jeremies. “Yeah,” I said, “but then why didn’t you?”

Ivy got a far off look. “Mommy said that we can’t let our feelings stop us from doing the right thing.” She sounded like she was reciting something she didn’t really understand. More fluently, she tacked on. “And you guys are friends.”

“Yeah right,” Billy sneered, as if friendship with the Little Zoge was somehow fighting words. He’d learned that from me.

I was about to tell him to shut up and that we owed her, but Annie beat me to it. “Don’t be a dumb baby.” He shut up.

“Thanks,” I said to Ivy. I stepped out and raised my voice. “Thanks guys,” I called out to the whole class. I was met with a combination of enthusiastic smiles and thumbs up to quiet, disdainful, yet dignified and knowing prolonged eye contact…

The sound of tapes being ripped off of plastic backing ricocheted off the bathroom walls. “Sandra Lynn says you’re welcome,” Zoge echoed back. Love me or hate me, I was far from being an outsider or Helper anymore. I was one of them now. One of us.

Beouf came back about a minute later and started helping Zoge out with the remaining class. Zoge still manned the changing table in the bathroom. Beouf grabbed supplies and play clothes and took Mandy into the nap room to maintain the thin veil of pseudo privacy.

Another minute later, Mandy waddled out in a purple onesie with light lace trimming, and Beouf was power walking from behind holding a backpack in one hand and a balled up diaper for the pail in the other. “Tommy,” she called. “Get ready, kiddo. You’re next.” She leaned past Zoge and tossed Mandy’s shame away.

A knock on the front door made Beouf pause from reloading and she quickstepped to her front door. She opened it and almost playfully asked, “Yyyyyeeeeeesssss?”

“Hi there,” came a familiar voice.

“Hello…” Beouf said. I couldn’t see who was on the other side, but Beouf seemed vaguely surprised; a bit confused even. “Did Miss Brollish send you?”

“What?” the voice said. “No. I’m here to pick up Clark. Clark Grange?”

Hearing my adopted name clicked everything into place. My face locked into neutral. Beouf’s spirits lifted. The lights came on in Beouf’s expression, and she opened the door completely. “Oh yeah!” she said. “I remember you from the shower. Janet’s friend, right?”

“That’s me!”

“Come on in.”

The lady who walked in could have been a Little made large. She should have been a Little: Skinny and straight almost to the point of pre-pubescence, with tiny hips and breasts, while still bigger than any of the girls in my class due to sheer body mass, were completely antithetical to the Amazonian ideal of matronly beauty.

Her state of dress was also extremely un-Amazon. Short denim jean shorts cut above the knees over gray leggings with white lace up sneakers, did not a mature and responsible adult project. Her light brown hair, cut short though it was, was still bunched up in a side ponytail. Compounding the contrast even further, she was wearing a Mint’s Hints T-shirt that was identical to mine, save for it that it had been machine washed to the point of fading, giving it a kind of retro or nostalgic look.

Mrs. Beouf regularly wore functional clothing like jeans, t-shirts, serviceable shoes, and comfortable tops. The room’s latest entrant was the opposite of a Gwiffin Party costume; an Amazon doing an impression of what they thought Littles looked like; minus the padding. If she’d been wearing a diaper, the jean shorts wouldn’t have fit over it; no elasticity.

If shrink rays were really a thing and not some mad scientist creepypasta, I would have suspected Janet of wanting to adopt her.

“Hiiiii Clark!” she sang, all smiles and coos. All Little eyes pivoted away from her and to me. “It’s Auntie Jessicaaaaaa!”

‘Auntie’ Jessica. Janet’s best friend. ‘The fun Aunt’. My official babysitter.

Well…crap. This was going to be annoying. Another survey of my peers told me who liked me and how much based on who was openly smiling with glee and who was doing their best to hide their amusement. The survey results were not surprising.

I stepped forward, completely out of the nook, sighing to myself. I hadn’t planned on this but I wasn’t exactly shocked. I should have foreseen it. At least Janet hadn’t made up with Mark or someone. Best to get this over with. “Hi,” I said softly. “Ready?”

I was up on her hip in the blink of an eye. “You bet Little guy! Let’s go!”

“Bye,” Beouf waved. She sucked her lips in trying to suppress a smile. We both had a gut feeling about what kind of day I was in for. “Feel better, Clark. Have a good weekend. See you on Monday.”

“Say buh bye, Clark.”

I almost made another tender spot in my tongue, grinding my teeth. “Buh-bye, Clark…”

“Ha!” she crowed. “Good one! Let’s go!”

The door had remained open during this whole exchange. Jessica stepped out with me and I was treated to the sight of Raine Forrest, holding the door and watching us like a jealous hawk.
“Have a good day,” she said in her best monotone. She’d been the escort.

“You too,” Jessica sang, oblivious to the daggers being stared. I took a small but palpable amount of enjoyment sticking my tongue out at her, and watching her nose wrinkle up in anger.

On the way out to the parking lot, an odd detail I noticed was how Jessica carried me. Janet had gradually adjusted so that she carried me on her side and used one arm wrapped around the small of my back to keep me pinned to her with her hips supporting a good chunk of my weight. Lacking Janet’s experience (and hips) Jessica used one arm for me to sit on and reached across herself to steady me at the shoulders. It’s strange what details one notices when being manhandled becomes part of the daily routine.

The classroom was barely out of sight when she adjusted things to carry me draped over her shoulder, with one hand directly under my bottom, and the other hand resting between my shoulder blades. “Better,” I heard her whisper. At least I could rule out that she hadn’t gotten much practice caring for or snatching up “cousins”. Funnily enough it was sort of gratifying being too heavy or awkward for her to carry me like that.

“Heard you got sick, but your Mommy can’t find a substitute, so she called me,” Jessica said as if I hadn’t already figured that much out.

“Yup.”

“She put me on your student emergency contact list so I’m allowed to pick you up.”

“Uh-huh.”

We came to a silver painted SUV with a hatchback trunk. I wasn’t good with cars, but it looked like an older model still in good condition. Jessica leaned back so she was supporting more of my weight on her body and freed up the hand between my shoulder blades to open up the door.

“Let’s get going. We’ve got a big day ahead of us.” She lowered me into the car seat and buckled me in.

I looked up at her while her hands worked the different straps and buckles. “Let me guess,” I said. “Doctor?”

“Naw,” she said. “You don’t feel warm. Nothing looks swollen or glassy. Your voice is a little scratchy, but that’s not so bad. You just look like you just threw up a lot. Mommy can take you tomorrow if you start feeling icky.” She gave me a playful, knowing wink, and shut the door.

Jessica knew, too. Which meant that Janet at least suspected that I’d been up to no good and warned her.

She walked around, got in, turned on the engine and started backing out. I sunk back into the car seat. I can’t precisely say why I decided to be more honest and upfront; but it felt like a good time to lay some cards on the table. Maybe I was just playing the odds. I’d had a good round and didn’t want to overplay my hand.

“You don’t think I’m sick, do you?”

She started backing out of the parking lot. “Not really.” She had a relaxed, laissez faire, playful way of speaking about it. Janet sometimes spoke like that, before she’d gotten all quiet on me.

“You think I did it on purpose?”

The silver van pulled out onto the street and the shade of familiar trees and telephone poles slipped over my face. “Don’t know,” Jessica mused. “Don’t care either.” The confusion was real and it showed even in the rearview mirror. “You’re a little,” she said. “Littles do naughty silly stuff.” She added, “And I know a certain Little boy who likes to put things in his mouth that he shouldn’t and likes to do things to make big people upset.”

I opened my mouth to retort, but couldn’t. Lady had a point. It was a skewed, stupid, distorted typical point based on the reality of my situation, but it was a point.

“Doesn’t mean I don’t love him though.”

“Doesn’t mean you like him.” That got no reply, but the eyes in the mirror and glimpses of her face betrayed no signs of pain or cognitive dissonance. She wasn’t trapped with me for several days a week. I hadn’t had the time or opportunity to grind her resolve down.

That was a weakness to my favored interaction strategy. Anytime I drove one Amazon to the breaking point, they could always just tag out for a fresh one. It had been a limitation back when my pet cause had been reformation, too. Whether I was tormenting or enlightening them, it was one at a time, and the knowledge or aggravation I’d imparted didn’t get easily passed on to the next giant without my presence.

You can only work with what you have, sadly.

“Where are we going, then?” I asked.

“Shopping.”

Goose pimples started to break out on the back of my neck. “What kind of shopping?”

“Clothes.”

I squinted in suspicion. “What kind of clothes?”

“Baby clothes. Little clothes. Take your pick.” Another wink. That was getting annoying. “Don’t worry, they’ll be nice.”

“Wwwwwwwwhy?” My mouth slowly enunciated the word because there were so many questions to articulate. Not even an hour after my greatest prank, and I was anticipating swift and brutal retribution.

Jessica’s response was immediate. “Umm, you barfed all over your nice picture day outfit, your Mommy is probably very upset and worried and worried about you, it’s getting chillier, and if I take you shopping and get you a couple new outfits maybe she won’t be as mad or worried when she gets home.”

There was a twisted truth to what she said. “You’ve just got baby fever, you’re cosseting me, and you want to play dress up.”

She giggled gleefully and blushed so hard I could see it from the backseat. “Yeah. That’s also true.”

“Can you at least get me some pants?” I bargained.

“I don’t know…” she pretended to be considering it. If she thought I was going to beg, she had another thing coming. “Mommy might not like that.”

“You already said that it’s getting chilly,” I countered. “Why buy me something that in two months will be completely useless.”

“Where we’re going has plenty of footed sleepers.” Jessica was still stringing me along. “Maybe if I heard a magic word or two or three. Starting with, ‘Pretty pretty’ and maybe add some sugar on top.” She was enjoying this way too much; bratty big sister that I never wanted.

Okay. I had a magic word: Blackmail

“Pretty, pretty, please don’t make me tell Mommy how you let me sneak into her room and drink her tequila while you were playing hide and seek.” I swallowed. “With sugar on top.”

My babysitter smirked. “With how you’ve been acting lately, who is she gonna believe? Me or you?”

I deflated and slumped back in the seat. “Please, will you buy me pants?” I monotoned.

“Much better,” Jessica chirped. “And yes. Yes I will. I will buy you some pants. You just have to help me by trying them on, first.”

I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. “Fine.” That’s how the world was working now, it seemed.

Jessica turned on some music; nothing childish, just poppy, and leaned back patiently waiting for the ride to be over. It didn’t take much to get comfortable. The seat had been broken in and fit me well. Extremely well, actually. I looked under my right arm and saw familiar stitching and bits of lint. “Is this my car seat?”

“Uh-huh,” Jessica said, still driving. “I moved it over from your Mommy’s car. You didn’t think I had my own car seat with no Little to fill it, did you?”

“Janet did.”

“Touche” She reached over to the front passenger seat and held up the diaper bag “I snagged this, too so I won’t have to buy you any new toys or diapers. Pretty sure that’d be bad and embarrassing for you, right?”

Reluctantly I nodded. It was bound to happen, but I didn’t need more giants than necessary commenting on what was going on beneath my belly button and a box of Monkeez or a pack of Hippobottumuses was taken as an open invitation.

Did they talk like that about their real babies, or just the ones they constantly needed to lie to themselves about? I wasn’t sure of the definitive answer to that, but I doubted it.

Jessica took a moment to put the bag down, flip it open and dig around, taking inventory with her fingers. I braced for an imminent surprise crash hoping she was keeping her eyes on the road. “Two, three, four,” she quietly said to herself. Then, louder, went, “Yeah, feels like you’ve got enough for one trip. Should be good.”

Relief was sudden and immediate when both hands were returned to the wheel and her left knee was relegated to keeping her foot planted on the floor. Three minutes later we were parking by an empty sidewalk, somewhere close to downtown or the historic district.

Instead of a cheerful “We’re heeeere”, Jessica got out, walked to the back and popped open the hatch. “Come on,” I heard her say. “Let’s go for a walk.”

Within ninety seconds, I was in my stroller, and the skinny Amason was syncing the fancy device she’d foisted on me to walk side by side with her like a dog trained to heel.

“See?” she said once we’d started to move. “Nice fresh air. The sun is up. Empty city sidewalk because everybody else is working. Nice, right?”

I’d already decided that Amazon ‘nice’ was not the same as Little ‘nice’. “You just want an excuse to play with this like it’s a toy.”

“Man, you are cheeky today!” Jessica grinned. “But yeah. You’re right.” This amount of unguarded honesty was kind of refreshing.

The fit to the restraints felt off, tighter and looser in all the wrong places. “Did you stop by Janet’s house first to get my stroller or something?”

“Nope. This one’s mine.” I tossed her a questioning, incredulous, look. “What? I can’t have nice things?” It was easy to continue to stare, since my transport vehicle was automatically whirring along at the same pace as her massive strides. “I know a guy who says he can take one of the parts and programming and fix up my push mower.” That might have been true.

The city blocks continued to sail by. “Uh-huh…” I tried my best to sound even more unconvinced than I already was.

“It’ll be nice,” Jessica said. “Mowing my parents’ lawn without having to get all sweaty.”

“You still live with your parents?” I barked out. I was unsure whether I wanted to laugh or scream.

Janet’s buddy was unphased. “Last I checked, so do you.”

“That is not the same!” My voice was and indignation was rising.

“Yeah,” she said. “You’re a lot cuter and don’t have to pay rent. Economy is hard right now. You got lucky.”

That did it. “Lucky?” I shouted. “Lucky?” I gave nearly the exact same heated rant of red hot truth that I’d poured into Mark’s lap. It was practically a magic bullet. A sinister spell that could break any Amazon willing to listen all the way though.

It broke Mark. Either vicariously or because she overheard part of it, it wounded Janet. It was going to rock Jessica’s world. I added on an extra few barbs about betrayal and how nothing I said counted to all because of one slip up. I was panting when I was done. For what felt like a long time, Jessica was quiet. Near silent. Only the motorized whir, purring like a cat, reached either of our ears.

The city blocks we strolled by were mostly empty. I’d been so focused on her that I didn’t have any time to think about the surrounding people or scenery. We were passing fast enough that we likely weren’t making much of a scene; not like if this had been at a grocery store or restaurant. My outbursts likely went unnoticed altogether.

It took a few left turns in silence for me to realize that Jessica had started walking us around in a single block at some point.

“Yeah,” she finally said. “Agreed. You’re right. Absolutely right. I’m sorry you lost all that. That really sucks.” I was beginning to feel a massive crick in my neck from staring up in disbelief. “Maturosis sucks. But now you have your Mommy, and your teachers, and your new Little friends at school and the meetings, and me.”

Why did I even bother sometimes? “My point is, that if you were my size and acted like you do, you’d be dumped in this stroller with me, you…you…” I needed a word, a good curse word. “You…!” Fuck! Was the baby monitor subliminally conditioning me even more than I already was?

“Yeah,” my babysitter nodded thoughtfully. “You’re probably right. But I’m statistically very unlikely to develop or express Maturosis, so no one is going to misdiagnose me by accident.” Again. Why did I even bother?

The going in circles-both physical and logical-didn’t stop. “I would have to be very careful, though.” Jessica continued. “You’re right. That would suck having to think about whether everything I did or said could be taken as evidence that I was turning into a baby.”

“Yeah.”

Her brow furrowed. “If I had to do that all the time, it would almost feel like I wasn’t really an adult at all, because I’d be constantly trying to act even more mature than I actually needed to. Everything would be kind of performative and I wouldn’t be the real me out in public.”

“Mmmmhmmm.” I was leaning all the way back so the harness didn’t bite into me as much. My jaw was starting to feel like it was locking into place. I wasn’t going to say anymore. Just wait for it.

“I wouldn’t really have any freedom,” Jessica told herself. “I’d constantly be looking over my shoulder wondering who was watching me and if they were thinking the wrong thing.” She stopped. “That sounds like a terrible life.” She looked down at me aghast. “Was that what it was like for you?”

I was not going to cry. Not over this. My throat was still tender, and clenching up. “Yeah…” my voice cracked. I stared off into the middle distance. I was not going to cry. I’d had a victory today, and this was still better than being back at school.

“Oh Clark,” Jessica said. “Baby. That sounds so awful! I’m so sorry you had to live through that.”

“Me too,” I mouthed. “Me too.”

“Can I give you a hug?”

I nodded, remaining mute.

She pressed a button to stop the stroller, leaned in and draped her arms over me, nuzzling my head against her. I closed my eyes, trying to shut out the letdown I knew was coming.

Janet’s sister from another mister didn’t fail to disappoint. “Don’t worry,” she said. “You’re safe now. You don’t have to pretend anymore.”

Again. So close, yet so far. Tears no longer threatened. Expect an Amazon to miss the point and you’ll never be disappointed. I leaned away from her, pressing myself as far back against the stroller seat as I could so that both her body and the uncomfortable harness pressed against me as little as possible. “Can we just go clothes shopping, please.”

Jessica released her grip and stood up to her full height. She sniffed and wiped her eyes with one hand and her nose with the other sleeve. “Sure. One second.” Why was she getting emotional? “Just a second.”

She shuffled around to the back of the stroller and returned quickly with her purse, already opened. She fished around, took out a tin of mints and removed one. She broke it in half and offered it to me. “Here,” she said, “Your breath stinks.” She popped her half in and dabbed at her eyes with her fingers.

“You’re crying. It can’t be that bad.” I popped the giant portioned half into my mouth anyways. I hated the taste of mint, it was like a bitter cold spice; the opposite of cinnamon; toothpaste flavored candy. But yeah, my breath really did taste vile. Toothpaste candy was preferable.

My sitter laughed and blinked away the last of whatever it was that was “That’s not why, silly…” Wordlessly, she reactivated the stroller and finished the loop back onto the stretch of road she’d parked on.

I didn’t bother to ask her why she was crying. I didn’t know, didn’t want to know, and probably couldn’t comprehend if I did. I still allowed a flicker of hope to take root in my heart. Hope for Hope for her help in escaping? No. Hope that she might see me as an adult? Definitely not. It was a kind of hope, however.

The store Jessica steered us to wasn’t nearly as gaudy or ostentatious as I’d anticipated. It was no "L’enfant Magnifique” with periwinkle walls and turquoise shingles, but was an understated brown brick storefront underneath a navy blue awning.

The big display windows had gold lettering on them with the name of the store: BARNABY’S. The only immediate signal that this place catered to people of my stature were the size of the mannequins on display.

The nearest to the door wore a navy blue and forest green polo shirt and soft denim overalls, with turned-up cuffs that almost reached the ankles, color blocking in pastels, and an applique on the large bib pocket in the shape of a frog. Beside it in the window was a display shelf of shoes including white leather booties, buckle sandals, blue chambray boat shoes, and imitation fur boots completely with velcro fasteners.

Damn.

These clothes were somehow both fancier and more babyish than anything I’d ever worn. Ever. This is where the old and rich Amazons came to pamper their captured Littles.

“Are you sure you can afford this?” I heard myself ask.

“Yeah,” Jessica said. “My folks are rich. Not rich rich, but I can swing this.”

“You bought two remote control strollers in a two month period,” I said. “This does not seem fiscally responsible.”

The sitter propped open the entrance door, and piloted the stroller inside. “What’s the point of being a Grown-Up if you can’t be irresponsible once in a while?”

“You have no idea how hypocritical that sounds.”

My comment went ignored and the door closed behind us. A shiver ran through my body, and it wasn’t just because the air conditioning was turned up to an unholy level. “Hello,” a lady clerk about Beouf’s age with makeup aplenty caked on to hide that fact waved to us from behind a thick oak desk. “Welcome to Barnaby’s! Let us know if there’s anything you’d like to try on.”

Us? Who was ‘us’? As far as I could see there was no one else in the store.

“Thank you very much,” Jessica spoke confidently. “We’re going to browse for a few moments and tell you in a minute.”

“Take all the time you need.”

The soft looking carpet matched the awning outside in color. Jessica lifted me out of the stroller and set me down on my feet. It was soft. I could feel it through my shoes. “I don’t think the stroller will fit down all of the aisles,” she told me. “Let’s park it near the front and look around.

The left side of the store was dedicated to boy’s apparel. Pants, shorts, jackets, shirts. The right side of the store was reserved for girls with elaborate skirts and dresses of styles that I lack the vocabulary even now to classify. The front row of either direction had displays of onesies, rompers, and outfits that could only be classified as ‘baby’, differentiated primarily by color palettes.

Looking at the outfits and thinking back to that morning, I suspected some of my classmates and even a few of my former students had parents who shopped here. Zoge definitely shopped here for Ivy. Mr. Zoge must have made beaucoup bucks. Alternatively, they might have just budgeted well. Fancy baby clothes were a luxury some could afford, justify, and accumulate over time if the supposed baby never grew out of them.

I followed her left. She didn’t need to hold my hand. There was no chance I was making a break for it in this part of town looking the way I did.

Polished wood shelves rose up above me on either side. Folded, vacuum plastic wrapped clothing items lined the shelves, with tiny me-sized mannequins posted on top near Amazon eye level so that Mommies and Daddies could get an idea of what their doll would look like wearing them. There were clothes with contrast stitching, baseball tees, button down shirts, mandarin collars, elasticized waists, cargo pants, light-up sneakers, and argyle sweater vests. Thankfully the dolls were all headless.

That same uneasy feeling, that buzzing in the back of my brain that happened when I was on Beouf’s playground started to creep up on me. It was quiet and calm and relatively sophisticated and the floor was soft instead of rough and sticky and worn, and everything smelled good, and the lone clerk had yet to talk down to me and even Jessica was relatively bearable.

I didn’t like it here. Not one bit.

“What are we looking for? What outfit?”

Jessica scanned the shelves the way a hawk scanned a grassy field for mic. Idly, she fiddled with her side ponytail, twisting it in her fingers. “I haven’t decided yet,” she said. Then her tone lightened. “Oh wait, here we go.”

The giantess became a sorting machine, whipping her arms out in seemingly random directions, getting clothes high and low from shelves. Her pace quickened, and I had to struggle to keep up. She piled item after item into her arms until she had a stack from her belt line up to the bottom of her chin. Impressive, doubly so considering they were clothes meant to fit me.

“Excuse me,” Jessica called for the clerk. “Can we use your dressing room?”

The old lady with too much eyeshadow rushed up and looked Jessica over. She pressed her lips together in consternation and finally managed, “Let me help you sort those out and get the samples for you, dear.”


Two hours later…

“Okay,” Jessica said. “Walk around in them some. Get a feel.”

“Yeah,” I whined. “I know. You’ve already had me do this a million times.”

The would-be preschool teacher rolled her eyes. “It’s not a million. We’ve done a dozen at most. Maybe twenty.”

“It’s called hyperbole.”

“Just move around.” She lightly swatted my backside like Janet used to, to get me moving. So I did.

My lip curled while I paced the aisle nearest the dressing rooms. The red cotton long-sleeved tee I was wearing badly needed fabric softener. I wasn’t a fan of the stitched-in slogan that read, “Eat. Sleep. Cute. Repeat.”, either. The denim pants were admittedly nice. Too bad the pockets were sewn shut.

“What do you think?” Jessica called, cupping her hands together as if I were very far away.

“These don’t have any pockets!” I called back.

“So? What do you have to hold onto?”

If only she knew…

I bowed my head, fatigued. Whoever said clothes shopping wasn’t a physically demanding task was a filthy rotten liar. Personally, I’d put it above wrestling a Ramean lion in a coliseum and below soccer.

“Well?”

“Hold on! I’m thinking.”

It was still better than the itchy starched white button up paired with the brown and blue argyle sweater vest. The elasticized waist tan slacks had been an even bigger deal breaker. They chafed when I walked and were too tight on the rump. Every few steps I took I could feel them sliding down my plastic backing. I needed clothes I could move in.

The first outfit with a pale green wool sweater had sleeves closer to a Tweener’s. I kept having to push them up in the dressing room until Jessica rolled them up for me. Something that would impair my hands was a no go. The dark green corduroy pants the sweater had been paired with announced my presence with a swishing sound whenever I walked. The light up white and blue shoes didn’t help much. Hard to use my hands and hard to sneak around in? Cancel.

I walked back to Jessica. Like every other return trip down the aisle, she had her phone ready and snapped my picture. “Why do you keep doing that?” I groaned.

“To see which one Janet likes best.” I’d sabotaged Picture Day and was getting my own personalized fashion shoot instead.

My head hung down to my chest, wilted. My throat was dry from how many times I’d sighed in the last one hundred and twenty minutes. This was boring. This was uncomfortable. This was useless. This was stupid. “Fine,” I said. “I guess I hate this one the least.” Another plus was that none of these items had snaps along the inseam.

She ditched her phone. “Yeah. I like it too.” She took me into the dressing room one last time and got the store’s trial clothes off of me and back to just my t-shirt and regular sneakers. I really hoped for my sake and whoever followed me that Barnaby’s had spares and washed these things.

I was a limp ragdoll in Jessica’s arms all the way to the counter. “Okay. We’ll take them.” Jessica said.

“Which ones?” The clerk asked.

“All of them.”

That was enough for the clerk. She got out two enormous shopping bags with store lettering on them and began stacking the clear plastic sealed variants in. “New Mommy?” she asked.

“No. Just his Auntie. Sort of. I’m spoiling…”

“That makes sense,” the other woman agreed. “He’s very well behaved.”

I lifted my head and tapped Jessica on the shoulder. Screw the clerk. If she could talk about me like I wasn’t there, I could disregard. “Why are you getting so many?” I demanded to know. “You think this is spoiling me?”

“I’m not spoiling you, silly,” she said. “I’m spoiling your Mommy.” She pressed her forehead to mine and spoke so low that only I could hear her. “When she called me I could tell that she was close to crying. Janet’s my best friend and you’re going to help me make it up to her. Got it?”

A deluge of curses and slurs and insults swam through my gray matter. I wanted to spit in the woman’s face and find a way to burn all of those. I’d shove them, plastic first into the dryer with the heat turned all the way up.

When I was about to start my offensive, a little, Little voice played itself in my mind’s ear: “We can’t let our feelings stop us from doing the right thing.” Damn you, Ivy.

“Got it.”

The woman behind the counter rang up the total, and Jessica paid with her card. The price was high enough that I was pretty sure I could have bought groceries for at least a couple months with that price tag. Probably close to six. My stomach growled just thinking about it. “I’m hungry.”

“Oh yeah,” Jessica remarked. “I guess you kind of haven’t eaten today, have you?”
I was embarrassed to realize that I’d become accustomed to snack breaks and chalky sweet treats. “We’ll get an early lunch next.”

“How are you gonna get those bags out of here?” Each one was big enough that I could have hid in one had it been empty.

“We’ll cram them in the stroller. I’ll carry you.”

I snorted. “All the way back to the van?”

“Me Auntie Jessica!” she mock-growled. “Me strong! Carry big boy long ways!”

That got a giggle out of me. I let out an “eep!” when I felt the palm I’d been sitting on squeeze me.

“Before we go,” Jessica asked the clerk. “Is there someplace I can change him?”

“Sorry,” the clerk told her. “We don’t have any changing stations here.”

The one bit of childish ‘clothing’ this place didn’t carry were diapers. No diapers. No changing tables. Fewer snaps. The near constant buzzing in my head dimmed considerably. I liked Barnaby’s a little better just then.

“Looks like we’ll have to wait till we get back to the van.”


The Silver Spoon was a diner on the other side of Oakshire, but only just barely off the main road before you get to the Oakshire Wildlife Gardens. It’s also one of the few places I knew locally where a body could get a fried egg and a chocolate shake at any time of the day.

“What are you gonna get?” Jessica asked, carrying me inside onto the checkered floor.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Franz fries. Lots of Franz fries.”

“What is Franz, anyways?” she wondered.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe Franz was the guy who invented them?”

“Wouldn’t that make them Franz’s fries?” Jessica asked.

I gave the closest I could to a verbal shrug. “I ‘unno. Maybe it’s one of those things that got shrunk or forgotten over time.”

“Maybe…”

A Tweener in a light blue waitress’s dress and a paper hat approached us. “Hi there. How many?”

“Just the two of us,” Jessica told her.

The Tweener clocked me, and smiled. The smile didn’t reach her eyes, but it wasn’t a Brollish smile. It was closer to what I’d seen from Elmer’s mother in the grocery store “Great,” she said. “No problem. I’ll go get him a highchair.” Something was wrong. There was a problem.

Jessica stepped further into the restaurant and I knew exactly what the problem was: At the back of the diner, two booths sat occupied, jam packed together. A dozen Little men crammed together in booster seats sat with dirty hands and scruffy bears and sweat stained jumpsuits. They were younger and only a little bit smaller than I remembered my ex-father-in-law. They had more muscle on their arms too. No beer guts, either.

Each table of six men at each booth were eating half a plate of Amazon portioned smash burgers and fries. Jawing, and joking, and bitching about whatever job they were taking a break from. A smattering of Tweeners and bored looking Amazons ate nearby, but they paid them no mind.

They got real quiet when they saw Jessica and me, however. No one stared; quite the opposite. They all settled down, chewed more slowly, and did everything they could to avoid looking at me.

One of them quietly held up his hand, asking for the checks, even though many of the men clearly hadn’t finished their lunch. They looked like they’d just started.

No questions came to mind.

Me.

They were leaving because of me.

I was the babied Little to them. I was the reminder of what could happen to them if they weren’t careful. I was the bad omen. Mine was the fate worse than death.

I wasn’t one of them. Not anymore. I wasn’t an adult. I was a victim, a loser. I’d played the game and I’d lost. I was a baby.

They thought they’d be safe from seeing someone like me out here this time of the day. Someone like me was supposed to be at daycare far away from where they could see me or have to deal with the crazy Amazon who’d dragged me in here with her.

No screams for help were required. No pleas for aid or screams that I was married and had a teaching degree needed to go ignored. I didn’t need to say anything. I was ruining their meal just being there.

Panicked, I grabbed Jessica by the chin. “Jessica. Take me home, please.”

Jessica looked confused. “We just got here.”

“I know. I’m not hungry. I don’t like it here. Take me home.”

“The waitress will be back in just a second.”

“Auntie Jessica…”

“What’s wrong? Are you embarrassed?”

“I can’t explain.”

“Did you poop?”

I released her chin and grabbed her ponytail in an absolute stranglehold.

“Auntie. Jessica. I need to go home. Now, please!”

The enormous Little slapped my hand aside like it was tissue paper. She made a quiet “ow” sound and then stared at me.

“Please listen…” I begged. “Please.”

We started moving back the way we came.

“Okay, baby.”


“Come on Clark,” Jessica begged me. She held the spoonful of applesauce up to my lips. “Eat. Please.” I was starving. I withdrew. It being cinnamon applesauce made it easier. “Are you doing this to punish me?”

Kind of. I turned my head sideways so she couldn’t shove the spoon in my mouth. “No.” I was punishing myself more than her. Felt good imagining that I was punishing an Amazon at least.

“No you won’t eat? Or no you’re not punishing me.” I wilted in the highchair. We were back in Janet’s kitchen. I went quiet all the way back. Jessica had asked me questions but I didn’t bother answering. If she couldn’t understand that Maturosis was bullshit, there was no way she’d get why inhabiting the same space as those free Littles was existentially disturbing to both parties.

No grand plan. No short term scheme. I just wasn’t eating and feeling sorry for myself.

“You’re really starting to worry me, Clark.” Good. Or bad? I didn’t know. Too much to process. Too much to take in.

Me sabotaging Picture Day; Beouf shouting my real name; then covering it up in front of Brollish. The feelings in my head at Barnaby’s. Seeing those Littles who still had jobs and homes and maybe families. Janet. Just Janet.

Too fucking much.

“You know if you don’t put something in your stomach, Janet really will have to take you to the doctor.” Wow. Jessica was calling Janet by her name in front of me. Yay, I guess. “If you don’t eat they’ll have to find another way to feed you.” She put the spoon down and held my head up. “Tubes will be involved.”

“Fine,” I grumbled. “No applesauce, please.”

Jessica was over to the fridge with a stride. “Okay fine. What do you want? Pears? Corn dog nuggets? Chicken? Milk? Banana? Orange slices? Orange juice?”

I rested my head on my chin. “Milk.” Maybe if I had a bottle to suck on she’d stop expecting me to talk.

No magic words or ‘pretty, pretty’ or sugar on top was required. “Okay, there’s some right here.” My sitter removed a baby bottle from the refrigerator, pivoted and stepped to me. “Drink up.”

“Thanks,” I reached for the bottle and closed on thin air.

“Almost forgot,” she said. “You like poison proof, don’t you?” She opened her mouth and squirted some in. She froze and made a face. “That’s not moo milk,” she said. “It’s not sour but… that’s not moo milk.”

I wanted to bang my head on the tray. “We were bored and switched to goat milk. Carton in the fridge. Jessica re-opened the fridge, dug the carton of milk out and took a swig directly from it. She swished it around in her mouth with questions in her eyes. It reminded me of the look I sometimes got when I was expecting to sip soda out of a straw, but actually got sweet iced tea.

The Little in the giant’s body, swallowed. “Okay,” she said. “Yeah. That adds up.” She handed me the bottle. “I prefer cow milk. Definitely prefer cow.”

Her preferences aside, I took the bottle and started sucking from the rubber teat. Gently at first, but only at first. Sips turned to gulps. Gulps turned to chugging. My body had done its best to abate the hunger and was starting to get comfortable. Once the sweet, fatty milk touched my tongue, my stomach was open for business.

I downed the whole thing in under a minute.The belch that followed was for close to two seconds.

“Nice!” Jessica offered me a high five. I took it.

A yawn bellowed out of me and I started to wilt again. I’d tanked up quickly enough and now I was feeling sluggish. “Auntie Jessica?” I asked. “Can I please take an early nap?”

“Sure, baby.” Jessica said. “Sure. But you’re gonna eat a snack after I wake you up. Solid food. Deal?”

Another yawn and then, “Deal.”

She checked my diaper and declared me “Good enough.” High praise considering the source. Made sense. Nothing had gone in, so nothing really was coming out. Fringe benefit of purge and starvation?

I was released from the highchair and carried back into the nursery. I was laid down in the crib and the only things that came off were my shoes and socks. She went over and closed the bedroom curtains. The room still wasn’t dark, but it was sufficiently shady to snooze. “Night night, Clark.”

My eyes closed. “Night night.” A terrible thought entered my head, followed by a brave one. “Jessica?”.

“Yeah?”

I pointed to the monitor. “Can you please take that out?”

“I don’t know if your Mommy wants me messing with that.” She sounded hesitant.

I opened my eyes back up. “Pleeeeeeeeease?”

I stared up at her looking over the edge of the railing. “Why do you want me to take out the monitor?”

A lie wouldn’t work. So a truth would have to do. “It scares me.”

“Why?” She was puzzling out whether I was telling the truth or manipulating her. These two things could be true.

“I can’t explain it in a way you’ll understand.” I told her. Technically, another truth where I was concerned. “It just scares me. It’s a Little thing.”

She turned her head and considered the device. “Will you call me Auntie Jess as much as you can?”

“Yes.” That was just vague enough to work. Sure.

In reply, she walked to the monitor and unplugged it. “Okay, but only for your nap. I’m leaving the door open so I can listen.”

“Deal.”

She was winding the chord up around her massive fist. “And I’m putting this with the receiver so I don’t lose it.”

“Double deal.” My eyes were shutting.

“And I’m putting it back before your Mommy comes home.”

“Triple deal.”

I stayed awake long enough to see her take the cursed subliminal messaging device out of my room. I fell into a deep and wonderful sleep like I hadn’t had in ages.

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Chapter 88: A Wake

The rest of that afternoon and evening went about as I expected. I slept peacefully until about half past two; closer to a quarter till three. I might have even had some good dreams, though I couldn’t quite remember. It was a relief to sleep without worrying that a piece of Amazon tech was quietly conditioning me. Or having to listen to Billy and Chaz’s snoring. Very refreshing.

Jessica came in and put the monitor back in its place. And I timed things right so that I wouldn’t have to choose between an aching bladder and sitting in a wet diaper until dinner. Janet got home about half an hour after and Jessica gave her the most basic of rundowns. She left out the not-quite-revelation she’d had before Barnaby’s and the diner incident after. She did mention that I’d only had a bottle of milk so far and that I should be hungry.

My stomach agreed.

Lastly, she presented the bags of new and stylish children’s clothes. Even said “Ta-da!”

Janet seemed pleased, but sad at the same time. All those clothes were just a silver lining to a very dark cloud hovering over her.

“Thanks,” Janet said. “You’re a good friend. I’ll call you tomorrow and talk about some stuff.”

“You know it.”

Jessica left and Janet’s walls came right back up. She found new places for the clothes to hang and new drawers to stuff. She cooked dinner with extra portions and let me feed myself with an extra large spoon. Gave me some time to myself, bathed me, and put me to bed. The entire time she was quiet. I imagined there were babysitter drones more talkative to her.

So quiet.

I tried once with an awkward, “How was your day, Janet?”

“Good.” She said it in such a way that I felt afraid to ask any follow up questions. Damn it, why was I still trying with her?

Fuck.

I’d just finished my nightly ritual of a thousand Hate Janet’s and was settling in for the night. Sleep wouldn’t come, in part because of the extra long nap I’d had, so I just laid there and tossed and turned. Hoping to lose consciousness before my body told me that I wasn’t going to be allowed to sleep until I emptied something.

My ears started to twitch and my eyes opened when I heard something unusual. Normally, if I heard anything, it’d be the muffled sound of the living room television just loud enough to know if it was on, and maybe if it went to commercial, but too indistinct to make out what Janet was actually watching. That was a best case scenario.

Tonight, the television wasn’t on and I could hear the door being open and shut. I detected the faint echoes of a door being heavily shut and locked, and the sound of voices. I couldn’t hear the words, but the cadence was easy enough.

Hello’s, how are you’s, and thanks for coming’s. Awkward transitionary small talk stuff. Rough day. Me too. Maybe something about eating or offering drinks. A polite refusal. That sort of thing.

Their voices faded as they moved through the house, looking for somewhere to sit. I guessed that they were going to the kitchen. I would have been able to hear them slightly better if they were in the living room just at the far end of the hall.

I was probably able to guess the rough basics of the introductions because of how well I knew both voices. I’d know them anywhere from almost any distance. There was Janet, of course. And…Beouf?

What was Beouf doing here? I sat up and stood on the mattress, grabbing the bars. I leaned forward and closed my eyes in a pointless attempt to somehow increase the range of my hearing. Yeah, that wasn’t working. I was probably strong enough to climb up and out of the crib despite my widened gate and the tremendous mattress give, but I had no way to get back in when I was done eavesdropping

If they were discussing punishment -and why wouldn’t they be- would it really be worth it to add to my mounting offenses? Part of me thought yes. In for a penny and all that.

BEEEEP!

My head whipped sideways to the baby monitor. It’d never done THAT before. Was it supposed to be some kind of motion detector or something? Something to alert or discourage me from getting out? Next gen blanket training?

No. Impossible. I’d stood up in bed all the time.

“- ease don’t call me that, Mrs. Beouf.” Janet’s voice cut in from the monitor.

I slapped my hand over my mouth lest I scream. Was this happening? Was this really happening?!

“Please,” Beouf’s voice rang in. “call me Melony, or Mel. Or at least Mrs. B. like the kids do.”

It was happening. It was really happening. My two ex-friends were talking and I was able to listen in without lifting a finger. Janet had done the ultimate rookie parent blunder and installed the wrong end of the baby monitor in my room. I moved over to the foot of the crib and leaned closer so that I could hang on every word, every detail.

Through the monitor I heard Janet exhale. The sound was that good. From the slight echo, I determined my guess was right. They were in the kitchen.

“Fine, she huffed. “Please don’t call me his Mommy right now, Mel. I don’t feel like I’ve earned the right.” Her voice cracked a little bit with emotion. “He doesn’t even call me Mommy unless he wants something.”

“But you are,” Beouf insisted. “You’re his Mommy and you’re doing your best.” I could just imagine Beouf sitting on an adjacent side of the kitchen table, reaching out and trying to comfort Janet by touching her arm or patting her shoulder. Then tentatively looking at the empty highchair like I was there.

“My best isn’t good enough, Melony. It’s just not.” Janet sounded like she was on her way to a long heavy sob. Good, or so I told myself. “I’m not good enough.” Damn right.

Beouf probably took Janet’s hands and folded them into her own. “Easy honey, I get it,” she said. She lowered her voice to a stage whisper, not that it avoided detection. “But keep it down. He’s sleeping. He might still be awake.”

There in my crib, I let loose with a big, maniacal smile. They were talking about me. I’d suspected that they’d talked about me a lot and often. In this moment I could hear for myself, with nothing filtered out or added in for my supposed benefit. This was a rare kind of power to have. I was thrilling in it.

“He won’t hear,” Janet said, regaining some composure. Little did she know. “He’s never once cried out. He’s a deep sleeper.” A sudden revelation came to me. If Janet had messed up and put the wrong end of the monitor in my nursery, then she hadn’t heard any of my whispered hates late at night. Not one.

It also meant that I wasn’t being hypnotized by the monitor. Amazons bought into their own hype and were drowning in their own propaganda, Beouf in particular, but they’d never willingly mind fuck themselves with their own products. “That’s good at least,” Beouf accidentally echoed my own conclusion.

“But that’s it,” I heard Janet moping. “That’s where it stops. And I’m a horrible Mommy and he knows it. That’s why he’s rejecting me.” Her tone had shifted into a kind of depressing deadpan. All of the desperation with eighty percent fewer volume. “And it’s not his fault, but it’s taking everything I can just to keep a straight face and not scream at him or cry or something.”

“I know, Jan. I know.”

I let out a quiet little, “Heh”, and kept listening. It was like I was back at a good old fashioned teacher to teacher bitching session. This time it just so happened to be about me.

“At least he was good for my friend, Jessica,” my would-be Mommy sighed. “But that only makes it worse because he goes out of his way to be horrible to me. What did I do?” It was fortunate that I was across the house. I might have let her know.

“No, he’s not rejecting you,” Beouf lied to the both of them, “He’s just got some big feelings and-”

“Cut the bull, Melony,” Janet interrupted. “Nothing in those meetings or the pamphlets or anything like that is working.” There was silence. Beouf didn’t know what to say. I could just imagine her eyes going wide behind her glasses and her lips puckering like a fish out of water.

Janet kept on. “He’s…I hate saying this, Mel, but he’s awful. He’s spiteful. He’s manipulative. He’s just mean.” There was a brief silence. Just a beat. “It’s like he goes out of his way to make everybody around him miserable and then claims that he’s an adult like it explains his behavior and should be rewarded.”

“Yeah,” Beouf added a sigh to the conversation. “ I know. I know. Same with in class. I have to give him to Hana sometimes just to make it through the day. I think he likes her better now because he liked her less before.” And that’s how I learned Zoge’s first name. Also, honestly? Beouf was probably right on that part. “Zoge’s not a shock to him.”

“Why, though?” I heard Janet sniffle. “Why are we ‘the shock?’”

“It’s probably how he sees things, now,” Beouf said. “Amazons in general and us in particular.” I imagined she was shrugging ruefully in a what-can-you-do sort of way. “Sometimes Littles going through this spike can get aggressive. Especially to the people they knew before the flare up. They don’t care that they’re being taken care of or that the care is coming from a place of love and necessity. They just fixate on how they’re not all that mature anymore and make the real adults in their lives out to be evil. He’s acting out because he wants us to be the bad guys and thinks that acting like how he sees us will make him a Grown-Up again.”

I found a pacifier and bit down in it as hard as I could so that I wouldn’t scream at the crock of shit Beouf had just spilled out of her mouth. Misplaced monitor or not, it wouldn’t do for me to scream out my frustrations and risk detection.

How had I not seen this from Beouf before? Was I really that blind? Or was I just that in need of a social bodyguard and deliberately looked the other way?

“That doesn’t make sense,” Janet said. I pointed directly at the monitor as if Janet might feel my acknowledgement of her point.

”Nope,” Beouf replied. “No it doesn’t. That’s Maturosis, sometimes. Littles with it don’t always make sense. Kids don’t always make sense. Doesn’t mean we refuse to help.”

My hair was in my hands and I was tugging so hard I might have ripped it out. My impromptu I.E.P. discussion had turned into a faux doctor’s consultation, and the quack in question only had one diagnosis for everything. How convenient. How Typical.

“Is it going to last forever? Is it always going to be this way? I want to be his Mommy, not his monster.” She sounded like a parishioner asking a high priest for guidance and forgiveness. All hail the church of the Little Voices…

The faintest creak came across the monitor’s speakers, as if someone was leaning back in their chair. “I don’t think so,” Beouf said. “I think it’ll get better.” She sounded very sure of herself.

“Why?” Janet said.

I leaned forward, eager and terrified. What machinations did that bitch have up her sleeve? If I could predict, I could prepare. I could brace myself if not completely sabotage.

“Clark is definitely turning into one of my most challenging cases,” my ex-mentor said with surety, “but he’s not the most challenging I’ve ever had.”

“Who is? Or was?” Janet sounded like she was calming down, no longer on the verge of sobbing. A pity. She was being drawn into Beouf’s story as much as I was.

Simultaneously I tried to scoff and hold my breath. Somewhere deep in my massive ego I was insulted that some poor mindfucked doll of Beouf’s past haunted her more than I did. Still, it could be fun to learn about the past. Maybe I could replicate or adapt a few things to up my game and figure out where my predecessor went wrong.

“She was a Little girl I had a couple years ago,” Beouf said. “Named Amy.”

My pacifier fell out of my mouth and I banged my forehead accidentally on the wooden bars. I reeled back and stumbled over my heels onto my rump. It was more from surprise than pain, but I was seeing stars.

“Amy?!” Janet sounded as surprised as me. “Amy Madra?! That Amy?!” From the sound of things, Janet didn’t know whether to laugh with relief or laugh to call out Beouf’s claim.”

“Yup.” I could practically hear Beouf nodding again. “She’s a sweet Little thing now but you have no idea how bad she was when she started out.”

Beouf was right. I had no idea. Amy the nuisance and nutter? Amy the girl who had been crying in my time out all those years ago? Animal fact Amy? Eat gum off the floor Amy? That Amy? Little Voices Amy? Zoo Amy? My Amy?

“You’re joking,” Janet said plainly. I stayed seated, worried that the crinkle of my movement might magically obscure whatever happened next.

Beouf answered Janet with a question. “Are she and her Mommy still regulars at the Little Voices meetings? They got really into that, I remember.”

“Yeah,” Janet said. She sniffled slightly. I thought I heard the tear of a paper towel. An improvised tissue. “Helena and I took them on a playdate to the zoo.”

“Thought so.” Beouf sounded even more confident. “Just before she graduated she developed an attachment to one of my classroom stuffies. This purple octopus with a top hat. She named it Jessinnia. Clark used that name for it and I just knew. Darn near gave me flashbacks for a second.”

“But she’s so sweet.”

“Now she is,” Beouf let out a light chuckle. “It was rough at first. Very rough. Clark is a lion, but Amy was a dragon baby.”

“That bad?” Janet’s disbelief and curiosity nearly mirrored my own. Our emotions, however, were likely inverses. She was gaining amusement and hope. I was swapping out mine for dread.

Another creak. Beouf was getting more and more relaxed in the kitchen chair. “That bad and worse,” she said. “Did the same kind of stuff that Clark’s doing right now. Wound up the teachers and students with nonsense and mean-spirited games and tricks. Played innocent so that we kept giving her the benefit of the doubt.”

Yeah….that was my playbook alright. The pacifier found its way back between my lips. I needed to do something to feel like I had some kind of control or autonomy. The pacifier was the only option at the moment.

“One time,” Beouf continued, “she got eight other kids to all play ‘kitty-cat’ on the playground. They were just crawling around on the ground trying to rub up against Zoge’s and my legs and trip us up.”

Holy crap! Why hadn’t I thought of that? That would have been such a great answer to the physical therapy conditioning and Chaz could have played, too.

“Oh yeah?” A note of competitiveness crept into Janet’s words. “Did she gag herself with cinnamon?” Janet wanted me to be the worst kid.

Beouf let out another quiet, slightly rueful chuckle. “Nope. Didn’t have to. She had a gluten allergy. All she had to do was steal a leftover grilled cheese that one of the other kids snuck to her and hide it in her diaper. Then she downed it and puked. I think Ivy tried to stop her and got bit for it. Such a mess. Got everywhere. Picture day, too.”

My face was buzzing and burning. My breaths were getting deeper and slower like I was trying to stop myself breathing. My greatest act of rebellion, my masterstroke…was a repeat? A rerun?

“Holy shit.” Janet’s voice was low and awestruck. “Do you think she told him to do it? They see each other almost every week.”

“If she did,” Beouf told Janet, “I don’t think she did it on purpose or with any bad intent. She’s very happy and good as far as I know. It might not even be Amy. Clark might have heard me bitching about it back when it happened and tucked it away. Hard to say.”

Incorrect. No, no, and no. False. I never knew or forgot about that and came up with the plan the night before. But was the act really mine, if it wasn’t original or if it was subconsciously inspired?

“Amy didn’t try to get others in on it, though,” Beouf admitted. “Should have seen that coming.” That made me feel a bit better. “I slipped up and accidentally called him Gibson too. Sorry.” That made me feel ecstatic. Same plan but better was still better.

“That’s not going to help things,” Janet moaned. “He probably thinks he’s closer to growing up or something.”

“Probably.”

“How’d you help Amy?” Janet asked. “What did the trick?”

My jubilation died down. I needed to know and listen. If Amy was as bad as Beouf said she’d been and she was who she was now, what hope did I have of escaping that fate? An image of myself flashed across my mind: Gap toothed and drooling, crawling around aimlessly and content. Eating whatever I could find on the floor and calling Janet ‘Mommy’ unironically. I shuddered in revulsion at the very possibility.

“No trick,” Beouf said. “Just patience, persistence, love, and boundaries. She kept escalating and escalating. Zoge and I kept containing and redirecting. Eventually, she just sort of burned herself out and she mellowed; started being a sweet baby. Took about half a year and then things started looking up. She was ready to graduate by the end of Spring. One of my biggest challenges but also one of my biggest success stories.”

Amy? Give up? Burn out? That didn’t track at all. That wasn’t the nutter who had pestered me at every opportunity. Beouf was holding something back; had to be.

“That doesn’t make any sense.” It was like Janet was reading my mind. “Wasn’t there some kind of ‘Aha’ Moment or lightbulb? For either of you?”

“Not for her,” Beouf said. A slight jostling and a thud came over the monitor. One or both of them were leaning forward with their elbows on the table. “That’s just how Maturosis is sometimes. She and her Mommy had some kind of breakthrough and she’s been a sweetheart ever since. Shame about her teeth, though.”

“Yeah,” Janet said. “What happened with that? Helena doesn’t seem like the type to do that level of cosmetics with a kid.”

“Don’t know,” I pictured Beouf shaking her head. “All I remember is that Amy was out of school for a couple days and came back missing those teeth. I brought it up, but Mommy didn’t want to get them fixed. You’ll have to ask Helena for more than that.” I’d known Melony well enough to have a sense of when she was lying by omission. She was keeping something from Janet, but I didn’t think it was the teeth. “Of course,” she told Janet, “If you wanted to ask her, that would mean going to the meetings…”

“Okay…fine.” A note of reluctant happiness had wormed its way back into Janet’s voice. “I’ll keep going to the stupid meetings. It’s just annoying because everyone is so cheery and they’ve already got their perfect happy little Littles that want to be themselves.I mostly keep quiet or hold back on what’s going on at home. Everybody else gets cute baby stories. I just feel inferior.”

“Talk to Helena,” Beouf replied. “In private if you have to. I bet she’s got some stories for ya.”

Stories I might want to hear, too. Could I potentially get the same info from Amy? I’d asked about her teeth before and it was the one time she got close to serious.

“I kind of like the lap bounce songs and silly games, anyways.” Janet confessed. “I just wish Clark liked them, too.”

“He might like them and not want to admit it,” Beouf took on a consoling approach. “He might not, though. Some kids don’t like that stuff and just want a quiet lap to rest in or for their Mommies and Daddies to watch them show off doing something silly. Maybe Clark is or was one of those kinds of kids the first time around.”

“Right now,” Janet groaned, “he’s just a spiteful brat.”

I blinked in surprise. That was one of the most honest things I’d heard from Janet Grange.

“Janet,” Beouf said, “think about it. Clark’s always been kind of a brat. He’s always loved going up to Forrest or Brollish and poking the bear. He was always a cheeky brat with a bunch of maturity piled on top.” She added a dejected sigh to the air. “Now, all that adulthood has just sunk to the bottom and the brat has floated up to the top.”

Janet echoed the sentiment. “Yeah. But he was our cheeky brat. I want him to be that cheeky brat, again. Not…not whatever this is.” I could almost make out her eyes getting all wistful just from how she said it.

“He was a great teacher, too” Beouf started to sound annoyed and angry. “Better than that bitch Ambrose, that’s for sure. That woman is a disgrace. Now we can’t even hang out with Tracy most days. I hope she’s coping.”

“Tracy’s tough. How did Ambrose even get that job?”

“No clue,” I heard Beouf scoff. “Who knows where Brollish gets her pets? She’s definitely not a good teacher. Gods, I wish Clark had never been caught. I’d ignore a thousand missing diapers if it meant he was back in that classroom instead of her.”

There was a silence that followed. It was less than a minute, but it felt long and uncomfortable; like Beouf had just said a quiet part out loud. It was a strange compliment for me to hear.

Janet broke the silence. “Don’t tell anybody,” she almost whispered, “but… I still let him grade papers sometimes. My mother let me do that when I was a kid, too. I thought it might help bridge the gap or something. It’s one of the few things he still genuinely likes.”

“Yeah. I figured you were. I recognize his handwriting and he’s initialing the assignments down at the bottom. Saw it on your desk the other day.

“He’s sign…-? Janet’s voice leapt upwards in surprise. She lowered it back down. “You don’t think…? What if…? You know…? Brollish is gunning for him.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it. Brollish doesn’t give a damn about basic assignments as long as you’re monitoring them and putting in the correct grades. You’ll be fine.” A grunt came through the monitor. “Devil woman is gunning for me, anyways. Not you. Bitch thought she could buy me off by approving grants and requests she’s been gumming up for years. Fuck her if she thinks she can tell me how to do my job.”

“Fuck her in general.”

“Amen, sister.”

A light clinking of glasses. Beouf had agreed to a drink after all.

“Okay,” Janet said. “Okay. What are we gonna do for Clark? Is there anything either of us is missing?”

Yet another tired sigh found its way out of Beouf. “Hard to say. I’ve never known a Little before a flare up. That’s what makes all of this so hard. Some mornings I still have to fight the urge to want to sit with him and sip our morning coffee again and complain about nothing in particular.” Her tone fluctuated mid sentence like her nose was clogging. A paper towel tear pretty much confirmed it.

“Me too.” Janet’s throat sounded tight.

Beouf was still holding on. “Best we can do is wait him out and look for an opening to help. Just hafta do our best. Show him we still love him.”

“I loved him before.”

“I did too.” A pause. “He was my best friend.” Beouf’s throat was tightening up now. “I went home and cried my eyes out after you took him home.” I heard a honking nose blow. “No offense.”

“None taken,” Janet blew her own. “I just wish I’d have told him what a good friend he was and how much I cared about him before all of this happened. I wish I’d met him sooner. He was fun to be around, and I liked him as a person, and it wasn’t just me cosseting.”

“Stop…stop…don’t get me started…”

Janet didn’t listen. “The last time we talked before his Maturosis flared we had a big fight. I wanted to help him and say I’m sorry and be his Mommy. It just feels like the fight never stopped.” These last few words came out as the tiniest, breathiest squeak; a deathbed confession of sorts. It just wasn’t hers. “I just wish I could go back in time and talk to him before…everything!” The ‘everything’ came out in one big long sob.

Before? Before? Why not now! Why not come in and tell me now?

Beouf joined the pity party, barely able to speak over her own looming sobs. “I didn’t tell him what a good teacher I thought he was until I’d changed him and put a bottle in his mouth. I had years, Janet! Years to tell him! I knew this could happen. I knew it but I never told him how proud I was or how much I enjoyed just being around him. He was my friend and now I have to pretend like none of that ever happened so he can be happy.” She didn’t make it to the end of that sentence before she sounded like a sobbing mess.

“I just want my friend back!”

“Me too!”

I wasn’t listening in to an I.E.P. meeting or a doctor’s visit or a cult meeting. I was listening into my own funeral. They weren’t saying it in those exact words, but it was as if I’d been dead to them and they were only just now giving themselves time to mourn and grieve and the corpse of my adulthood was entombed in a nearby crib. Listening to the quiet but heavy breathing and nose blowing and gentle sobs of two crazy giantesses trying to give comfort to one another, I felt wetness drip onto my own cheeks.

“Janet?” Beouf suddenly said. “Why is that light blinking?

“What light?” Janet asked.

“The baby monitor. There on the counter.” Beouf had regained her composure and with it came a sense of urgency. I started to crawl back under the crib’s bed sheets.

“I always keep the monitor with me when he sleeps,” Janet said defensively. “He’s never needed it, but just in case. This thing is supposed to be portable so I can keep it in earshot.” I waited and listened to the sounds of chairs sliding out and scuffing against the kitchen floor. “Never noticed that before,” Janet’s voice sounded louder; more distorted. She was closer to the receiver. “Is that a low charge light or something? Thought I plugged it in this morning.”

“Janet,” Beouf said, sober of all emotions, “this is a King Fisher model. I don’t think that’s the broadcaster. That’s the receiver.”

The panic in Janet was instant. “You mean this whole time he’s been listening to…?”

“Hush and turn it off!”

I spit the pacifier out and closed my eyes. I tried to steady my breathing as gigantic footsteps shuffled in approached. Breath in. Hold. Breath out. Don’t fake snore. Don’t react.

The door opened slowly. The light from the hallway was practically a spotlight shining up against my eyelids. I didn’t stir. Breath in. Hold. Breath out. Don’t fake snore. Don’t react. Don’t even stir.

“He’s fine,” Janet whispered. “We didn’t wake him. I bet I messed up installing that end, too.”

“Okay, come on and close the door,” Beouf beckoned.

“Nini, Clark,” Janet said. ”I love you.”

“Shhh.”

I untensed muscles I hadn’t even known I was tensing when I heard the door click shut.

“It’s okay,” I heard Janet say. I knew the cadence of her voice so well that a couple inches of wood wasn’t going to stop me. “I’ve been waking up every night and checking in to tell him that. He sleeps right through it.”

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