Designer Children Chapter 5

Had some people asking for Chapter 5 a little earlier. So here it is. Enjoy. As always, please leave a comment if you are so inclined. I love to read the discussions regarding the plot and character or just what people think of the story itself. Believe me when I say that as an author, these comments and kudos are a huge motivating factor for me to continue writing.

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Chapter 5

I lay in bed, my face completely devoid of emotion. Musica continued to sing about waking, but I didn’t budge. I heard movement above me, and saw Ashley slowly climb down the ladder. She looked at me with a mixture of pity and anger. The slight shake of her head couldn’t hide the raging tide of her eyes. She was still likely angry with me for the prank. I turned away from her and faced the wall.

My hands explored my face, feeling the delicate bone structure, the cherubic cheeks and the smooth hairless skin. Next, I peered down at my hands, as if seeing them for the first time. This was not some drug-induced nightmare. I couldn’t believe how tiny they looked, like the hands of a living doll. I flexed my fingers, wiggling them and then stared at the nails, which were adorned by a bright purple polish. My dainty toes were painted the same colour. I felt around the side of my head to my ear lobes, noticing little studs protruding from them.

Along my graceful neck, I could not locate my Adam’s apple. It had not only receded, it had completely disappeared. I had used the bathroom yesterday, so I knew what else was missing. I had spent yesterday in absolute denial, but I had to face reality- not only had I lost probably fifteen years of my life, I had lost my gender. Why hadn’t Ashley been turned into a little boy? It wasn’t fair.

As these feelings permeated my mind, I felt tears welling, and this time, I couldn’t stop them. With the full realization of my condition, the flood gates opened, and I lost complete control. My mind was a chaotic mess of jealousy, self-loathing and fear, the emotions crippled my system, and twenty-two years as a man could not halt the influx. Like a swarm of locusts descending on a field, the torrent destroyed my ego and devastated my masculine self.

It began with a few gentle tears tumbling down my face, but ended with my body wracked with sobs. I felt someone behind me, and then a hand on my shoulder.

“It’s OK, Ryan. Let it out. I’ve pretty much wanted to cry non-stop since I got here. It’s like we put up these barriers as adults, we grow, we learn to control our emotions, and then we’ve been put in these bodies that haven’t established any walls. There’s nothing there to stop the flow. Good and bad. I noticed it yesterday when I could finally write a passable ‘S’. It was this intense feeling- like a satisfaction you only receive when you do something new that completely changes who you are as a person. But it’s like that every time I succeed at something in this body.”

I covered my face with my hands, deathly afraid of the emotions that threatened to flood my mind. Yesterday, they had been on the periphery, but as soon as I felt even remotely scared, they tumbled out. I had felt it as I peered into the darkness last night, the childlike fear that resisted adult logic or reason, but this morning it was too much. My denial had been a powerful adult wall that was subsequently demolished by emotions that came and went like water from a faucet.

“Now you see why we have to work together, Ryan. And why we shouldn’t resort to childish pranks to hurt each other. Whatever is going on inside our brains probably feeds off it.”

She gently rubbed my back, but I turned over and fiercely brushed away the tears from my eyes. Ashley looked startled as I turned to look at her, but she didn’t leave the bed. I still couldn’t believe how easily it happened, and how unprepared I was for the onslaught. Would it happen like that every time I felt a powerful emotion?

I sniffed, “I haven’t cried like that, since- I can’t really even remember. Probably elementary school. When I broke my foot, I was with my dad, and I held it in. I just swallowed the big lump. I hated to cry in front of my dad. He never said anything, but I knew he would be disappointed if I did. But I cried later, in my room. Fuck it hurt.”

I added, “I’m not a pussy. I mean like you said, it’s like falling in a river when you can’t swim.”

Ashley rolled her eyes slightly, but a little smile appeared on her face. Oddly, Musica just watched the exchange, not saying a word. “No, Ryan, you aren’t a ‘pussy’ for showing emotion like that. Like I said before, I can’t imagine what is going through your head, knowing what you were before and what you are now. But we need to work together, and the first thing is- we need to know how this happened to us. Put the clues together and hopefully figure out how to change back and how to escape.”

She continued, “It’s obviously got something to do with the show we both auditioned for, and the vaccine we received. I’m guessing that Ms. Daniels and Doctor Travers are working together. She was the one who sent me the text about where to get the vaccine. It’s just too much of a coincidence. She knew she was sending us to the clinic to see Travers.”

I said, “I thought it was weird that we had to go to this specific clinic for the shot, but I was desperate for a job. I didn’t want to make a big deal about it. I mean there was a clinic I could have gone to down the street from my place that probably offered them.”

Ashely nodded, “Well we’ve got that in common. I was ready to quit acting after my last audition. I got the part too, but I just couldn’t take it. It was a really sexist role, just three lines and eye candy in a bathing suit. Some stupid B movie, like Porkies, called Bikini Beach Patrol. I really wanted to show I could make it, but I just knew if I took that part, I’d never get a serious role ever again.”

I replied, “I don’t get why it’s such a big deal for you. Guys like those movies. It could have really pushed your career. You could star in the next Transformers movie. You had an incredible body, why didn’t you use it? You seemed to treat it like it was a massive disadvantage, when it could have been your ticket to success. I meant what I said. You were hotter than her.”

Ashley glared at me, “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were still producing testosterone. I didn’t want anything to do with those movies, and I’d probably slit my wrists if I was in a Michael Bay movie, where the women are set pieces and nothing more. If I agreed, I’d be selling out my gender.”

I shook my head, “Those movies are harmless. Plus, if you didn’t agree to do it, well some other girl would. You just missed your opportunity. You can’t look like you do and expect to be treated the same way as like ... ”

The hard look never left Ashley’s eyes. The sympathy she had for me evaporated. “You can’t name one woman actress with a breast size below double D, can you?”

I shot back, “Sure I can. Karen, she’s Henry Hill’s wife in Goodfellas. She’s a great actress, and she’s pretty tiny up top. I actually felt bad for her, you know because she’s originally this nice girl and she’s all caught up in the mob life by the end of it. It sucks too because her husband goes to jail, and she’s stuck taking care of the kids, trying to fend for herself.”

Ashley nodded, but the hard look never left, “And what is the name of the actress?”

I said sheepishly, “I-I don’t know. I never looked it up. I just call her Karen.”

Ashley sighed, “So she puts on an incredible performance, and you don’t even bother to look her up? I know that movie isn’t very new, but do you see a problem with that? She’s a character, not a person to you. So many women face the same problem. They don’t stand out the same way that men do, or they stand out for the wrong reasons. I would have killed for that role, honestly.”

I shook my head, “Look, the whole industry is based on appearances. And women choose to be part of it. And you never would have gotten the part of Karen. She’s not ugly or anything, but she’s got these really angular features, she’s perfect for the role. I’m going to say, as much as you don’t want to hear it, you can’t have a body or a face like you did and expect to be in anything really serious. It’s not believable. You’ve got that big-budget action movie girlfriend, or ass-kicking leather wearing vampire chick look. But Karen Hill? No way.”

Ashley sneered at me, “And that is everything that is wrong with Hollywood. I’m a really good actress, but if people, and by people I mean Neanderthals trying to pass as casting directors, can only see what my body can offer, then it’s just broken. What’s the point?”

I said, “And that’s why you were going to quit because some casting director said you were too pretty? You just don’t get it. Just go for the roles you know you can get and watch the money roll in.”

Ashley shook her head, “I said I was going to be civil, but your attitude needs a serious adjustment. I’m starting to think this might be a really good experience for you. And I can’t help but really want, you know, in say ten years from now, when you finally figure out just how fucked up men are, that you’ll call me and say 'I’m sorry for being a sexist prick who didn’t have a clue about women. I know what you meant.' You know, the first time you catch your boyfriend cheating on you because you won’t put out.”

I smirked, “Is that what happened to you, is that why you are such a man hater?”

Ashley slid off my bunk and said, “No, Kay-lee, it’s not. When you can prove you are a human being, someone who actually cares about the feelings of others, maybe I’ll tell you.”

I glared at her, “Hey! I thought you weren’t going to call me that.”

Ashley replied, “I’d rather speak to a little girl at this point than someone with such a caveman mindset. Would you like to play dolls with me, Kay-lee? Maybe taking care of something other than yourself, and your dick, will teach you to be a nicer and more compassionate person.”

I shouted, “Cut it out! I thought we weren’t going to do this!”

Ashley went to the toy chest and returned with a very life-like doll. She thrust it into my arms with a smile, “There you go, Kay-lee. Now you can be a mommy. That feels nice doesn’t it? You want one of your own one day, right?”

I reached back and launched the doll at Ashley, intending to strike her right in the head, but my throw was well off the mark. The entire throwing motion was alien to me. I knew that I had to shift my feet to get extra power, but like the letters, my body just wouldn’t cooperate. The doll landed at Ashley’s feet. I knew Ashley, with her feminist mindset, would never ever say I threw like a girl, but she didn’t have to- because I was thinking just that.

Musica chimed to life, “Practice makes perfect, Kaylee! Try-try again, each day you’ll grow, and soon you’ll be throwing like a pro!”

I replied, “Seriously, fuck off, Musica.”


“Look, I’m sorry for the doll thing, but you really pissed me off with your comments. It’s just- you summed up everything I want to eliminate from this business. You have no idea what it’s like to be judged that way on your appearance.”

I had sulked in the corner until lunch, spending my time playing the Gameboy. I still could only beat the first level. I just couldn’t get the timing right for the second boss.

I tore into my peanut butter sandwich, and across from me, Ashley did the same. Despite her previous allergy, the girl had taken a real liking to the formerly deadly sandwich spread.

I said, “Sure I do. Casting agents told me that I didn’t have the right look. One guy even said that I would have to fix my chin if I wanted a chance. He’s like 'Male leads have strong, well-defined chins.' How ridiculous is that?”

Ashley nodded, “I’ve been told everything from get a boob job, get a reduction, get a nose job to narrow my nostrils- and even lose weight. Why did we ever get involved in this?”

I took a long swig of milk, followed by a less than delicate burp, “Because we want to entertain. I’ve always loved getting a reaction from people. I mean being filthy rich would be nice too, but I just want to be in a position where I really enjoy what I’m doing, get to play different people. Most of all I want other people to enjoy it, you know?”

A little smile appeared on the girl’s face as she listened to me. “Yes, exactly! And when did you know you wanted to be an actor?”

I told Ashley the story about my third grade Christmas pageant, and her eyes lit up. The smile on her face grew into a wide grin, and the terrified or overly serious girl was replaced with someone who actually had a personality. “Me too! But for me it was actually my first dance recital. I was probably five or six, and the other girls, they were terrified. I got up there and they had to get the hook to pull me off, I just loved it so much! It was a weird thing to be so focused as a kid, but I knew that I wanted to entertain. Whether people laughed, cried- it didn’t matter- I wanted a reaction. I tried out for the school play every year after that. Did your parents support you?”

I shrugged, “My dad wasn’t into the acting thing. He really wanted me to join the army. I-I guess my mom did though.”

Ashley scrunched her face slightly, her lips tightening and her nose wrinkling, “You OK, Ryan?”

I nodded, “Yeah, just thinking.”

Musica chimed, “Girls, it’s time to meet a very special friend, hurry and get dressed, he’s right around the bend!”

I narrowed my eyes and looked at Ashley for her reaction. She walked over to the dresser beside the bed, which I had never even bothered exploring. I was still wearing the same pair of pajamas with the cartoon cat. Unlike my male body, I barely sweat, and even when I did, there was no discernible odor emitting from my body.

I stood next to Ashley as she rifled through the dresser drawers, “You aren’t actually thinking of following her, are you? We have no idea where she’s going to take us. We definitely can’t trust her. Like you said, she’s trying to get us to start thinking like kids.”

Ashley handed me a light blue t-shirt with a glittery butterfly on it and a pair of navy blue jeans. She replied, “Let’s look at it this way, Ryan. Doctor Travers, through Ms. Daniels, gave us a shot, and it turned us into kids. Do we really want to risk not listening to them? Just follow my lead. We are obviously important to them. I don’t know why exactly, but I doubt they would go to all this trouble and then kill us. But, I’d imagine mentally, it could get a lot worse.”

She added, “Our best bet is just to play along at this point. We don’t know how they did this, beyond the shot. We don’t know if there’s a way for us to turn back. If we refuse to follow their orders at this stage, we are only hurting ourselves. Musica is no help, and you certainly aren’t learning anything playing that video game.”

She looked at me squarely, “Do you trust me?”

I looked down at the clothing in my hands with a sigh. I peered into the drawer at the sea of pink, the skirts, t-shirts and flowery dresses. Ashley had found the only pair of jeans and the only non-pink t-shirt. I nodded, “Uh. Yeah. I’ll follow your lead.” Ashley’s words made perfect sense. Powerful feelings of jealousy flowed through me as I realized that Ashley was a lot smarter than I was. It bugged the hell out of me.

I stood there glaring at her, still holding the offered clothing in my hands. She frowned, “What’s the matter, Ryan? Why are you looking at me like that?”

I shoved away the thoughts, but it was like trying to trap Godzilla in a cardboard box. She probably went to a fancy private school too. Memories of prim jacketed youth directing insults at my intelligence came flooding into my mind.

I was twelve, and it was our third move in as many years. I was used to losing my friends, but I wasn’t prepared for the bullying I would face. We had moved overseas for the first and last time. It was the beginning of the end for my family as I knew it. My dad would soon be called to Afghanistan, then Iraq, and as a result, I would lose him for months at a time. In the meantime, my mom tried to be my dad and failed miserably.

The kids on the base housing tended to be like me- easy going and ready to jump into new friendships. We understood they would be short lived, but we made the most of them. Off the base, I usually had little difficulty, but in Germany, at the pretentious preparatory school I was forced to attend, I was depressed enough that my teachers felt I should see a counsellor. My depression stemmed from the absolute culture shock I faced when trying to deal with the multinational snobs who were also my classmates.

With smaller class sizes and strict discipline, I couldn’t engage in my class clown routine, and even when I tried, not only did the teachers order me to stop, the students joined in too. It was like going to school with little adults, and I hated it because on top of not understanding the material, I also had no one to joke around with. When I was called on in class, I knew that every eye was on me. They were just waiting for me to get the wrong answer, so they could laugh at the stupid American.

My dad actually completed a shorter tour due to how poorly I was doing in school. The experience always stayed with me, and even with Ashley’s reasonable words, I couldn’t help but picture myself back in the classroom with those kids- laughing at me, then ignoring me at recess. They had years of that type of education, while I had been thrown into the classroom like a non-swimmer into a gigantic wave. It was my mom’s idea too. It had to be. She was always pushing me to do better in school.

“Ryan, are you, OK? Did I say something to make you angry?”

I finally managed to dismiss the thoughts of jealousy from my mind, and I felt my expression soften. “No, you didn’t. Uh, what’s with all the stuff in here, and the clothing? Why only one pair of jeans?”

Ashley shrugged her shoulders, “I don’t really know. I chose that for you figuring you wouldn’t want to wear a skirt or anything pink. I have a feeling they are experimenting on us. And especially on you. But we’ll get through it.”

I realized that I was lucky to have Ashley, and while she could be stubborn as me, she also had a lot more compassion. I could hear the sincerity in her words, and feel her warmth.

I said, “I’m sorry about last night. You know, for scaring you.”

Ashley nodded, “It’s OK. I guess it’s pretty childish to sleep with a night light. I was just really scared those first two nights. It’s like the darkness had eyes, and I swore I felt something pass over my body.”

I had experienced something similar, but I decided not to share this with Ashley. Perhaps it was the masculine spirit that still survived within my slight frame, but I had no desire to reveal weakness, even though I was coming to trust Ashley. I said, “Yeah. They probably want us to use the light. Act like scared kids or something.”

I took the clothes Ashley had given me into the bathroom and pulled the door closed. I was still too self-conscious to let her see my tiny new, soft body without at least some clothes, no matter how childish they might be.

After removing my pyjamas I could see what I'd been avoiding for some time - the tiny panties with a Disney Minnie Mouse image on the front. I quickly pulled on the jeans to conceal them. It was no surprise that they fit perfectly. They had neither buttons nor belt but were held up by an elasticated waist band - easy to pull down for you know what. The t-shirt had a sizing label on the collar - 'Girls 6 to 8 years'. There was a pair of tiny pink sneakers with Velcro fastenings to go with the lace-topped white ankle socks.

As soon as I rejoined Ashley in the main room there was a sudden whirring, then the sound of gears shifting, and suddenly, the superstar makeover closet slowly pulled away from the wall. Instead of the wall, it revealed a heavy looking metal door. It reminded me of a fire door in a high-rise. I bolted toward it, knowing that although it would likely lead us toward our captors it also promised freedom from our bedroom prison. I heard a gentle click, and the door opened on its own accord.

The doorway led to a narrow corridor. I quickly left the room, my little legs pumping, with Ashley trailing behind. The corridor was lit like a hospital or a school with fluorescent ceiling lights. The light in the bedroom was muted, but here, it was almost blinding. The entire corridor was painted white, while the floor was patterned like a black and white chessboard. I could see three doors, one to the left and right, and one at the end of the corridor. Each one was similar to the door that led back to the bedroom.

I stopped between the two doors to my left and right. Beside the handle to each one, I could see a security entry. The slight groove in the entry led me to believe that a pass or card would be required to open the doors. I saw Ashley’s eyes widen as she caught up to me. She was staring at the door on the right.

“I’ve seen that door before.”

I shook my head, “It’s the exact same as the others. Same as the one in the bedroom too.”

Ashley frowned, “No. Look closer.” The girl swallowed hard and pointed at it, “See these marks?” She was pointing out small indentations in the otherwise sturdy fire door. I nodded, and she continued, “I made them with my keys. I’ve definitely been in this corridor.”

Ashley’s mouth hung open, “I-I thought it was a dream though. Well more of a nightmare. It was before they started sticking me with all those needles. Before the sounds too.”

I blinked, “Is it possible that you escaped somehow? I mean- I guess they caught you eventually, but still. Do you remember how you did it?”

Ashley shook her head sadly, but with her diminutive size, she might as well have just received the terrible news that there would no pony rides at her birthday. “I don’t. But maybe if I see something else, it’ll jog my memory.”

Neither door opened, so we approached the far door. As we did, it immediately swung open, revealing the exact opposite of what I expected.

Considering the experiment we were part of, I expected to see a laboratory, but instead, we entered a massive hangar. Hundreds of studio lights hung from the rafters, placed carefully to provide lighting to four separate sound stages. I could see wooden sets featuring a classroom, a clubhouse, a music store and a two-storey family home. Lengthy boom mics, used to capture audio, also hung from the rafters, again strategically positioned on each sound stage. I thought this was odd, considering boom mics usually had operators. We had entered a television studio with no gaffers, grips, stage managers or camera operators.

Before action is called, television studios are the epicentres of motion, with hundreds of workers moving set pieces, hanging lights and running cable to prepare the area for the actors. The entire production crew was missing. Normally, even after action is called, grips remain on set to organize and place props, boom mic operators change locations to capture audio, and the lighting director remains a constant presence to instruct the crew of electricians as each scene unfolds. I had seen sets with skeleton crews, but it seemed as if everyone had taken lunch at the exact same moment.

At the centre of the room, there was a table with chairs well-suited to my new body. Each one looked like it had been plucked from an elementary school classroom.

“What the fuck is all this?”

“I don’t know, man, but this is seriously fucked up. First, they lock us in a room for almost a week. And they think we are going to listen to some lame ass boom box right outta the 70s or 80s or whatever. No fucking way.”

Despite the swearing, the voices clearly belonged to children. The slightly lower pitch meant we would soon be meeting two young boys, or perhaps older girls.

Ashley said, “Apparently, we’re still on the show. Just not how we were originally cast. I’m guessing those two are our co-stars.”

I shot back, “I don’t want to be on the show like this! It’s so embarrassing! There’s no way I’m agreeing to anything. I was supposed to be Mr. Grant.”

Ashley raised a brow, “What happened to what we talked about? Just play it cool, Ryan. Go along with it for now. We’ll get more information that way. Plus, no one knows who you are. Anyone watching the show will just see Kaylee.”

Two boys turned the corner past the classroom sound stage. As they approached, I could see that both were taller than me, but only one reached Ashley’s height. The taller one was African American with a thick mop of short-cropped hair. The other was Caucasian, with a shaggy head of blonde curls. He could have been Kaylee’s brother.

The Caucasian boy said, “Fuck, this shit. I’m going to kill the people who did this to us. Murder them cold! I did not sign up for this. Motherfuckers!” His rant was not remotely frightening. He sounded like his mother had taken away his TV privileges for the night.

The African American boy said, “I hear you, Mark. I want a piece of that creepy ass doctor who gave us the shot in the first place.” He looked to Ashley and me, “From the looks on your faces, he did the same to you.”

Ashley nodded, “Yeah. Well it’s obvious what’s going on here. And now that I think about it, I mean- it’s crazy but it makes sense. To someone who is completely crazy.”

Mark said, “What the fuck are you talking about, bitch? Get to the point.”

Ashley glared at Mark, “And nice to meet you too. Is that how you talk to your mommy?”

Mark said, “I’ll talk to you anyway I want, you fucking bitch. Me and Devon, we’ve been here for a week, getting these goddamn raps from a boom box. Eating fucking sandwiches all day long. I don’t care why they did this shit to us. We’ve just gotta get ‘em to stop, turn us back, so I can ram those needles they gave us into their dicks or pussies or whatever.”

Ashley sighed, “I don’t know where to begin with that. Let’s start with this though- these people turned us into children. I don’t think they are going to be threatened by us. I’d say they have all the cards. Me and Ryan- we’re going to listen to what they want, play along for now.”

Mark looked at me and burst out laughing, “Fuck, and I thought I had it bad! This poor motherfucker’s lost his dick.” He pulled my shirt, “You like dressing like that? Man, you know there’s a fucking butterfly on your shirt? You playing house with miss fucking peace and love here?”

I opened my mouth to interject, but Ashley, who was taking the lead more and more, beat me to the punch, “Look, asshole, I don’t know who you were before this but we’re in real danger here. You may have been some no-neck bro-dude muscular giant, but all I can see is a little blonde boy who is trying to wear pants that don’t fit anymore.”

Her young face hardened further, as adult rage was thrust upon the delicate features. “And don’t pick on Ryan! He’s been through a lot. The worst thing we can do is fight amongst ourselves.”

I glared at Ashley, “I don’t need you fighting my battles for me, Ashley. I can kick the shit out of this little prick.” I adopted a fighting stance and raised my fists, as I had done hundreds of times before. Until I had grown into my body, I was a lanky teenager with disproportionately massive feet, and a really big mouth. Thankfully, my dad’s training had given me the knowledge, and my many school yard battles gave me the experience. I often tried to joke my way out of situations, but when that failed, my fists answered the call.

I had been emasculated by Ashley and Mark, and I needed to reassert who I was. When Greg pissed me off about Jessica, I struck him, and he knew his place after that. He knew he had crossed the line. Mark had crossed a similar line. Remembering my dad’s words, I proceeded to flatten my hand. Then, I tucked four fingers into the crease of my hand. My slightly pointed nails pressed firmly into my palm, and then I tucked my thumb into position, underneath the joint.

My little hand formed into a proper fist, and I aimed an uppercut at Mark’s jaw, the exact same move I used on Greg. I knew that I had to strike him with my knuckles, but I watched in horror as the fist merely glanced his jaw. Like the letters, I knew how to form the fist, but my body, again failed to cooperate. Mark took a step backward, and then a wide grin formed on his face. I could see that he was missing three of his front teeth, unfortunately, it wasn’t my doing.

“What the fuck, man? That was pathetic. You hit like a fucking girl, that’s for sure!” The already mocking grin widened on the boy’s face, “Are you- are you about to cry?” The memory of my humiliation at the hands of the Beverly Hills power couple was still a searing, bubbling puss-filled wound, and my failure to properly strike Mark had poured an entire shaker worth of salt on it.

Again, I felt my tear ducts begin to fill, a massive lump grow in my throat, but this time, joining my humiliation was a trembling treacherous lip. My face grew hot from embarrassment, and like the first time in front of Ashley, my hands instinctively flew to my face to cover the evidence.

“Fuck, they did a number on you. Or were you a homo or something before, did you like dressing that way? You wear your momma’s heels?”

Ashley stepped up and got in Mark’s face, while I felt red-hot tears dribble down my face. I kept my hands covering my face, but it was obvious what was happening. Devon, the African American boy, said, “Hey guys, I think I hear something.”

I heard the grinding of metal, and then a sound similar to a hydraulic lift. I traced the sound to the control room elevator. It was slowly descending.

I sniffed gently, and Ashley put her arm around me like a big sister trying comfort her weepy-eyed baby sister. Shit. Is that how she saw me? I looked at Mark and the other boy, and seeing their disapproval, I quickly slipped out of her grasp.

Eventually, the elevator door slid open, and what I saw made me very slowly move behind Ashley. I did it gradually, hoping that neither boy saw my actions, but I was forced to peek out from behind the taller girl. Before us, standing on two legs was a bright orange hippopotamus. I couldn’t understand the irrational fear I felt in the creature’s presence, but the fact that I only came up to its navel, likely supported my lack of bravery. It was the first time, I realized just how small I was.

The hippo probably wasn’t even that tall, but to me, it was a giant. I actually had to crane my neck upward to take in the creature’s entire face, which was beaming with a bright, joy-filled smile. It lacked teeth, except for two large buck teeth found at the far side of its mouth. A static reddish tongue remained fixed in position, although as I peered closer, I could see a small voice box protruding from the back of the thing’s throat. Meanwhile, the creature’s orange snout featured large cartoonish nostrils, which emitted rainbow coloured smoke that smelled like strawberries.

The hippo’s body, as expected, was bulbous, but it had a huggable quality, like Santa Claus. While some might have believed this, I did not. I was frankly terrified of its very presence. The hippo wore no clothing, and thankfully, wasn’t anatomically correct. Finally, peering down at us was a pair of massive unblinking eyes. Like the eternal smile, the eyes too attempted to display a joyful spirit, but for me- it was nothing like that.

The creature would have been comforting to most, almost like a life-sized stuffed animal, but it might as well have been a terrifying creature built from the nightmares of a million children. I knew this was likely one of our captors, so my fear was well placed, but as I took a survey of the expressions of the others, I was irritated when I saw only Mark showing a measure of fear. Ashley stood steadfast, while Devon did the same. Why did I have to be such a coward?

“Hiiiiiiii boys and girls! I’m Hermieeeeee! You must be Madison, Kaylee, Louis and Sebastian! I’m so haaaaapppppppy to meet yoooooooou!” The hippo spoke as if he were speaking to children, with an exaggerated patronizing intonation. I expected that it was to get the attention of children, but the tone of voice just filled my tiny frame with rage. I wondered if real kids would find Hermie’s voice equally annoying.

Devon said, “Yeah? Well the feeling isn’t mutual, you fucker.”

Hermie reached out a rubber arm toward Devon, gently chiding him with a fat sausage-like finger. “That’s naughty language, Louis. Once I yell “Action!” and the cameras roll, you will need to clean up your mouth, young man.”

The hippo did an awkward pirouette and then struck a gallant pose, with its head pointed toward the bright studio lights and one finger raised to the sky. “You’re so lucky to be on my show, boys and girls! We’re going to learn so much, and we’re going to teach children around the world how to be nice, how to share, and most of all, how to have FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUN! Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Like a warm hug from your mommy or daddy!”

Ashley said, “Listen, we’ll do as you say, but I want to contact my friends and family. I want them to know I’m OK.”

Hermie replied, “But Madison, all your friends are here! Silly girl, they know exactly where you are! Look there’s Louis, Sebastian and Kaylee. And me too! We’re all really good friends. As for your family, well they’ll get to see you on TV! How lucky for them! Right?”

Mark turned to Ashley, “This motherfucker is crazy as shit. There’s no reasoning with him or anyone else in here.”

The hippo’s outstretched finger chided Mark, “Sebastian, I’m sorry but that language isn’t nice. You need to learn that it hurts you and others when you say words like that. You may have heard your parents say it or maybe your older brother or sister, but everyone knows that it’s wrong. So here’s what I want you to do. Feel down deep inside you and pull out all your anger. All the things that make you mad or sad, and when you feel it coming out, like a bubbling silly pot, you say OOPSIES!”

Mark stared at the creature incredulously, despite this, Hermie continued, “You’ll realize that you can be so much happier if you don’t say bad words. Because everyone around you is smiling! And then, you realize, so are you!”

Ashley furrowed her brow, “I’m really not sure that’s good advice. Kids should learn to verbalize what is bothering them. They shouldn’t just forget it with a silly catch phrase. Won’t those same things continue bothering them?” I could hear what sounded like another voice from Hermie’s head, but it was garbled.

Hermie, and his eternal smile, peered down at Ashley. “But it’s nice to just forget your problems. Wouldn’t it be nice, Madison, if all those bad thoughts just went away? Like magic? Annnnnd poof! Gone! Wouldn’t that be wonderful to know you’ll never have to deal with them again? I bet if you try what I suggest, you’ll be smiling soon after! You’ve must have a problem you want to just poof away, right?” Ashley shook her head in complete disagreement.

Devon said, “Look, I’m with Mark. This is fucked up beyond belief. Let’s just ignore this thing and look for a way out of here.”

Hermie said jovially, while tilting its head from side to side. “Little one, I see you hiding there behind Madison! Please don’t be scared of me though! I’m your friend. You can trust me.” My eyes widened as the lumbering hippo approached me.

I glared and shouted petulantly, “I’m not scared, and I wasn’t hiding! And I sure as hell am not going to trust a dude in a rubber hippo suit.” I looked at Devon and Mark and nodded, “I’m with them. We should look for a way out of here.”

Hermie reached out his hand to me, “There’s nothing to be scared of. I’m not a stranger! You should never, ever talk to strangers though. They might take you away from your mommy and daddy! And some of them will want to hurt you. I don’t want that to happen to any of my friends, so please, it’s very important to say if one approaches you, “I’m not allowed to talk to strangers.” Can you repeat that boys and girls?”

Three of us shook our heads, while Ashley remained neutral, yet clearly conflicted. No one said a word. Ashley tried to establish eye contact with me, but I looked away.

Hermie said, “OK, I can tell my friends have a lot of mad, sad and bad feelings in their tummies today. We’ll keep our visit short. On the table, you’ll find the most important things in the world, more important than a treasure map, or the plans to build a super special rocket- no, on the table, are the scripts for our first five shows! I know my friends are all super smart, and they’ll get all the lines stuck in their head like gooey, chewy peanut butter. Right?”

The question was posed, but no verbal response came. Mark lifted one of the small chairs from the table and proceeded to strike Hermie in the shin. The action alone was not enough to topple the creature, but whoever was inside the suit yelped in pain. For a moment, Hermie looked unsteady as the thick tree-trunk legs teetered. Another chair shot from Devon sent the beast staggering, while a follow up from Mark caused it to fall to one knee.

Ashley shouted, “Guys! Guys! This is probably a really bad idea!”

Instead of heeding Ashley’s advice, I quickly left the sidelines and picked up a chair myself. It was unwieldy, swaying, in the opposite direction of my target. Hermie lifted his arms to block the ongoing chair shots, managing to pry the weapon from Devon, but a blow directly to the head from Mark caused the hippo to splay forward. I had still not managed to land a blow, finding it extremely difficult to handle the chair. Why were the boys having an easier time? It took a few moments, but I managed to figure out how to swing the chair properly. As I lifted the chair up over my head, preparing to strike Hermie, I felt it being roughly pulled from my hands.

Ashley shouted, “Ryan! Why won’t you listen to me? I told you that this is probably not a good idea. They aren’t going to go to all this trouble and just let us walk out the door after you three beat up some guy in a suit!” Mark and Devon looked at me expectantly. There was no way I was going to act like a pussy in front of them.

Despite my lack of weapon, I ran over to the fallen hippo and proceeded to kick the creature in the head. I assumed that the rubber suit would absorb some of the impact from the blows, but it would probably still hurt like hell. After a minute or so of what looked like a vicious gang-style beating from three elementary school students, Mark left our victim and picked up one of the scripts from the table.

He lifted it over his head and tore the first few pages. Devon followed suit, and despite the extreme disappointment painted on Ashley’s face, I joined in the melee. Eventually, bits of torn paper littered the studio floor as the three of us gleefully ruined the scripts. Hermie struggled to its feet, having difficulty with the ungainly legs attached the ridiculous costume. It took a few moments of struggling, mostly in the form of awkward rolling, but Hermie finally returned to two feet.

It shook the giant smiling hippo head sadly but said nothing.

I heard a dull scraping sound, like someone rubbing two rusty knives together. This was followed by the thrumming of a constant flow of water, tumbling down into a metal basin in thin droplets. Fear crept into my mind removing my bravery like a vicious wind extinguishing a proud flame. I looked at the assembled ‘children’ before me, and saw instant terror.

I dropped the remains of my script, while Ashley held hers tightly to her chest, still untouched- pristine.

Hermie said simply, “Run, boys and girls! Back to your rooms!”

I wanted to run, but I stood paralyzed by fear. Ashley reached out and took my hand, pulling me toward the safety of our room. I gripped her hand and never looked back.

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