Designer Children Chapter 7

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Designer Children Chapter 7

Chapter 7

“You’ve got a lot of fucking explaining to do, lady.” Mark, ever his cheerful and charming self, addressed Ms. Daniels with a sneer.

Ms. Daniels replied sweetly, “Little boys shouldn’t say such naughty words. Now, I trust you’ve all learned your lines?”

I took in Ms. Daniels’ form again. She wore a conservative blouse with a skirt that reached just below her knees. Her pert heart-shaped ass was again on full display as she turned around to scold Mark. The bags underneath her eyes were gone, and her skin in general looked smoother. The extra weight around her middle was gone, leaving smooth, clean lines beneath her blouse. Her breasts sat higher, although the blouse concealed any cleavage. She appeared rejuvenated and her eyes seemed to almost dance in their sockets, taking in the entire world- a world she had seemingly created. I felt reassured- I still found her attractive; however, nothing stirred below or anywhere else for that matter.

Unsurprisingly, Mark shouted, “We aren’t playing this fucking sick game of yours. Do you get off on this or something? Watching a bunch of kids play out your fantasy?”

Hermie, who stood next to Ms. Daniels, said, “Sebastian, don’t you see how lucky you are to be on my show? Out of all the little boys and girls in the world- you were picked! Doesn’t that make you feel all warm inside, mmm…I know I feel so happy knowing you are here! You’re a very special boy- you and your friends, Sebastian.”

I had returned to the central meeting area, absolutely defeated. I figured that Ms. Daniels had seen me through the camera, because as I returned, the cameras followed me. I took in the conversation, but did so with the same gusto as fresh road kill. Once again, this body had failed, even with my understanding of the tool and my attempt to use my body as leverage. It was weak, soft and useless.

Mark replied, “Fuck, no! I had a career-”

Ms. Daniels interrupted, “You had nothing. You and thousands of others, had nothing. None of you would have succeeded in this business. You would have continued pursuing something, that shining star- forever out of reach.”

I had a snide line, but with my confidence so thoroughly battered, the words never came. Devon said, “Listen, you bitch! Me and Mark talked. We aren’t doing this. I don’t know why you think we are going to agree to any of this shit. You stole our lives. They weren’t perfect, yeah fine, but we weren’t face to face with a fucking grinning hippo spouting these shit lines. And we weren’t kids!”

Ms. Daniels shook her head, towering over us in her high heels, “I’ve given all of you a second chance at stardom. If you do as I say, you will have the opportunity to reach heights you never thought possible. Those of you who do not follow instructions will face the consequences.”

I managed to squeak out, “But, why- why us? I don’t understand. Why not just use real kids?”

Ashley blurted out the answer, like the know-it-all student who didn’t raise their hand, “Well I suspect it has to do with the new law passed in California. About six months ago, the Fair Work Equal Pay bill for child actors passed unanimously. It’s supposed to protect child actors, putting more pressure on studios to offer a better work life balance to their young actors. It’s also supposed to pay them based on how much the show is making. They can’t be offered a tiny contract and then the show they are in is a multi-national hit. It is also supposed to mean a stricter watch regarding working hours.”

Ms. Daniels beamed, “What would Kaylee do without her smart-as-a-whip big sister? Since you aren’t real kids, I don’t have to pay you a cent. I just have to feed, clothe and house you. It costs about 50K for each of you per year. I’ve run the numbers a few times. Hermie the Hippo will make multi-millions every year. Not only that, but unlike real children, you have years and years of acting experience. You have a knowledge of the business- the procedures, the terminology. It will make shooting far easier. I can also work you, say 12 to 14 hour days. We’ll churn out the first season in two weeks.”

Ashley frowned deeply, “But this is insane! You’re basically saying we are your slaves. Y-You can’t do this! What makes you think you can do this to people? It’s inhumane.”

Ms. Daniels smiled gently, although it was predatory, her eyes flashed, “The four of you were nothing. You are the lowest form of life in this city. You take jobs from those who are willing to work more hours and for less pay- our hard working immigrants from south of the border, and, more importantly, you waste the precious time of studio executives and casting agents. You don’t realize it, but none of you had a chance. Not even remotely.”

She cleared her throat brusquely, “And now, you are wasting my time.”

Ashley said, “I was just waiting for the right role! I had a legitimate chance. My acting professors said that I had real talent. All the productions I was in were successful.”

Ms. Daniels shook her head and peered down at Ashley like she was barely worth her time. “You wasted your looks on roles meant for ugly girls. Virginia Woolf? Really? You would have required extensive makeup. A biography of Marie Curie?” She laughed, a vicious biting laugh. I looked over at Ashley, and her anger had drained away, leaving a frightened child.

Ms. Daniels continued, “You should have been posing for swimsuit calendars or kissing action heroes, but instead, you decided to seek out character and period pieces. But now, you’ve got another chance. I mean if you can avoid the whole child actor syndrome, the drugs and booze, maybe- just maybe you’ll choose right. I could see you in a resurrection of Baywatch. You know it was the most popular show in the world at one time? ”

Ashley took her head in disbelief, “Y-You’re full of shit! The industry doesn’t work that way! It can’t!”

Ms. Daniels reached down and lightly ruffled Ashley’s hair, “It does child, and in fact, it’s much worse than when I first entered the business. Case in point, surely you’ve noticed recently that there have been many, many remakes and a rehashing of old ideas? Robots, turtles, giant lizards. Oh and let’s not forget vampires. Absolute staples. Hollywood is risk adverse and with the economic downturn, even more so- so only the best ideas are chosen and the best actors chosen to fit the roles. It’s all about making as much money as possible. Nothing else.”

Devon shook his head, “Explain Adam Sandler movies then. Really, those are the best fucking ideas?”

Ms. Daniels replied, “In some instances, and this is rare, no matter how bad an idea is- people will still flock to it. Also, you’ll notice that in the films where he deviates from a familiar premise he sees far less success at the box office.” She turned back to Ashley, “My point is the same though, what is tried and true never, ever fails in this business. And you don’t cast a buxom young woman as a scientist of any kind. Audiences won’t believe it.”

Ms. Daniels said firmly, “Children, I’ve said enough. We will be on the bell in a few minutes. I trust you know your lines?”

I knew that on the bell meant shooting. I had paid attention in my acting classes, just not regular school- unless a teacher managed to engage me fully.

Mark walked up to Ms. Daniels, and despite the fact she towered over him, he adopted an aggressive posture, balling his fists and firmly clenching his jaw. “No. Fucking. Way. You can’t force us to shoot this show.” He looked to me and Ashley, “You guys are with me, right?” It wasn’t so much a question as a command. The little boy’s fierce blue eyes radiated power.

Before any of us could answer, Ms. Daniels spoke, “It’s very simple children. You can follow my instructions, or you can be erased from existence.”

Despite Mark’s bravado, even he faltered with Ms. Daniels’ bold statement. Again, I managed to squeak, “You’re going to kill us?”

Ms. Daniels laughed, “No! Heavens no. I could never do that. Not to my little darlings. No, you’ll be regressed further. You should know that in the testing stage of the serum you were given, the adults who were reduced to the toddler stage lost all their memories over a very short period. Usually a few weeks.”

Ashley said, “But that makes no sense! You’d go to all this trouble to change us into children, and then just erase us? It seems counter-productive.”

Ms. Daniels smiled and put her hand on Ashley’s shoulder, “Yes, but there are thousands more struggling actors in this city. All of them with stars in their eyes and willing to take any role, even one on a children’s show.”

She finished, her eyes showing a menacing glimmer, “You see, you can be easily replaced.”

She cleared her throat and looked down at us with a hawk-like glare, as if we were naughty, spoiled children, “I am guessing that only Madison really knows her lines.”

The now younger looking woman shook her head slowly, “I think all of you need to become fully immersed in your characters. You need to become them. That way the lines you speak won’t just be pages in the script, they’ll be natural extensions of your real selves.”

She looked at Mark and Devon, “Sebastian, you and Louis are best friends. But Sebastien can be a big cry baby sometimes, especially when he doesn’t get his way. Louis tends to be the leader of the two with Sebastian relegated to the background.”

A smile formed when she addressed Ashley and me, “You two are doing wonderfully so far, especially you Kaylee. You are getting into the part. Oh, you definitely fight like sisters. But I want to see you two play together. Kaylee, after all, wants to do just about everything her big sister does.”

She walked toward the elevator, “Oh, and call each other by your names! Your real names.”

Her heels clicked on the studio floor, “Your only names.” Hermie stood next to us, shoulders gently slumping. Seconds, later the hippo returned to its mistress.

***

“Are you going to mope all day, Kaylee? Come and play with me. Musica said you can play if you apologize for using those naughty words.”

I was lying face down on my bed, arms at my side, with my nose pressing into my pillow. When I didn’t answer, Ashley approached my bed, she whispered, “You look just like a kid who didn’t get her way. I mean if I could show you what you looked like, I know you wouldn’t be doing that. You have to stop letting it get to you. You’re letting this eat at you, and look what it’s doing- you’re acting more and more like her.”

I narrowed my eyes, which felt heavy in my head. I knew that a flood of tears threatened to escape, but I had so far kept them at bay. “Fuck off, Ashley.”

Ashley frowned, but she didn’t show anger, just disappointment. “Kaylee, you shouldn’t say those words.” She leaned in and whispered, “Ryan, I know this isn’t easy for you, but Ms. Daniels, she’s insane. Just think of Kaylee as a character you are playing, but get into the role without losing yourself. We have to do what she says. We do, Ryan. She’s literally fucking, crazy. I don’t know how she convinced Dr. Travers to work with her. Maybe those psychos are married. Either way, you know what you were saying- about no one remembering you? Well don’t you think it would be worse if you actually forgot who you were? All the memories you have of Ryan Sullivan, that no one else has- your private moments- all of it gone. Do you really want to risk that?”

Musica chimed, “Madison, it’s not polite to tell secrets like that. It’s hardly like you to act like a brat!”

I sighed, “No…but look at the alternative. I never pictured myself in a role like this. Ever. Honestly, even Mr. Grant was kind of a stretch.”

Ashley replied, her eyes twinkling as she did, “You did such a great job in that scene. Even if I was trying to sabotage you, you still pulled the scene off like a pro, Ryan.”

I sniffed, gently rolling over onto my side to face Ashley, “I knew you were trying to fuck up my audition.”

Ashley grinned, “Yup.” Her face grew serious, her features stone-like and her eyes had a powerful intensity. “Now, look- I don’t like this either. I hate the idea that we have to play house for a madwoman, but we do. Because I don’t think she was bluffing. I mean I don’t know what they’d do with a bunch of toddlers, but we’d be erased if she’s telling the truth. I don’t want that for you and me. Mark maybe…”

I said, “We need to start working with the boys though. Like I know you hate Mark, hate him like you want to cut out his tongue- but if we keep fighting, we are playing into Daniels’ hands. We are acting like real kids.”

Ashley looked at me, her eyes widening, and her mouth hanging open slightly. “Right. Yeah, well I’ll see if I can get along with him long enough to avoid castrating him.” Her surprise quickly faded.

Musica chimed, “It’s time for free play! Kaylee, if you apologize and say you’ll never ever, ever, ever say another bad word, you can play with your sister too!”

Ashley peered at Musica and regarded her strangely, “Weird. She didn’t rhyme.”

I realized that Ashley was right, not only about Musica, but about my role as Kaylee, and Ms. Daniels’ lack of sanity. She had engineered a complex multi-layered plot to transform four adults into children, all for the purpose of making buckets and buckets of money. She likely wouldn’t have an issue with making us younger. She seemed to have no morals or ethics whatsoever. I was no angel as a young adult male, but I never enslaved anyone.

I slipped out of bed onto the floor and said with a plastic smile, “I’m sorry for saying those bad words. I won’t say them again.”

Musica shook with excitement as her body moved quickly up and down the tracks repeatedly. “Yay! What a good girl you are Kaylee, you’ll have so much fun at play, you’ll see!”

I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Ashley looked at me in surprise at first and said, “Do you want to brush Zoe’s hair? Or play Dream Phone?”

I looked at the pink box for the board game, which featured a gaggle of prepubescent girls fawning over a plastic cellular phone, which was about the size of a brick and quickly shook my head. I saw a pink Corvette. The word Barbie was written on it, but it was the only thing I could imagine playing with for longer than ten minutes.

Seeing me pick up the car, Ashley went to a large (for two little girls at least) pink suitcase and quickly undid the latches and revealed an abundance of Barbie dolls in various states of dress and undress. By this point, I had started driving the car around with my hand, and I even threw in some vroom vrooms for effect, figuring that is what a kid Kaylee’s age would do. I sped up, but quickly growing bored of playing on the floor, I decided to have the car drive up the wall. I was pretending the Corvette was a V8, six-speed manual transmission, 345 horsepower monster that could climb walls. I imagined that it was a spy car, something James Bond would use.

I had to admit that it was kind of fun using my imagination. With video games and television filling in all the pictures and sound in my adult life, I didn’t need to make up my own stories, so it was an interesting change to make up my own.

Meanwhile, as I peeked over to see what Ashley was doing, I could see she was meticulously setting up the dolls on a patio play set, complete with deck chairs and tables. It looked like absolutely no fun. I waited a few minutes, until she had everything in place and then shouted, “Look out! There’s an international drug cartel driving through, clear the area!” I imagined the scene from a typical action movies, screams, explosions and burnt rubber.

Instead of clearing the area, the dolls sat comfortably in their chairs, arms awkwardly stretched out, with no idea of their impending doom. With a loud VRRRRRROOOOOM the pink Corvette barrelled into the quiet patio party, sending the dolls flying and upturning the tables and chairs.

Ashley quirked a brow, “International drug cartel? Really, you think Kaylee would know what that is?” I could see she was desperately trying not to laugh.

I nodded, “Yes. Definitely. That is something all six year old girls know. It's the first thing every mother teaches their daughter.”

Ashley burst out laughing. Despite the violent play, Musica said nothing. It was obvious they were watching us through her or any number of cameras hidden throughout the room.

Ashley cleared her throat, “You really should play more like a real six year old girl.”

I said with a knowing smirk, “Is there a right way to be a girl?”

Ashley said matter-of-factly, “The character description states Kaylee is timid. And someone who likes following in her sister’s footsteps. She definitely wouldn’t be crashing into things like that.”

I shrugged my shoulders, “What’s the big deal? I’m playing. Isn’t that what they want?”

Ashley nodded, “Yes, but you aren’t acting like Kaylee. Here, help me put all the tables and chairs back.”

I fell backward, feigning death. “Here I’m playing dead. Let’s play murder scene. You can investigate the body and determine where the exit wounds are. Like on CSI.” I was actually proud of myself for how I had allowed my imagination to run wild.

Ashley replied with furrowed brows, “That is definitely not something a six and an eight year old girl would play. Here.” She went over to the table with the paper and pencils. She motioned for me to sit down, and she drew a crude M-A. Her tongue left her mouth, and her eyes stared down at the paper as she managed to form an ‘S’, followed by an H. I felt a measure of jealousy seeing her complete the ‘S’ with only some difficulty. I still couldn’t do an ‘R’. Ironically, I could probably write KAYLEE without issue.

She said, “Okay, since we both have trouble writing, we’ll do one letter only for each category. We’ll do three: car, job, and person you are going to marry.”

I said, “This sounds really stupid, but if I can avoid playing with dolls...” I had to admit, I wasn’t really acting like Kaylee, but I was playing with Ashley (Madison), my supposed sister, and I wasn’t calling myself Ryan. I figured Devon and Mark would doom themselves before me.

She grinned, “We’ll do you first. Okay, let’s see. Sports car, mini-van and garbage truck.” Ashley scrawled out a crude ‘S’, ‘M’ and ‘G’. Next. Astronaut, Famous Actor and Unemployed. And finally, who you are going to marry.” The grin on her face grew until it looked like it was going to split her face wide open, “Ashley. Megan Fox. The Lunch Lady.” She finished writing the letters meant to represent each word, while I looked on in abject boredom.

Ashley said, “Now choose a number. Here tell me when to stop.” She started making dots at the bottom of the page. I shouted stop, and she counted the dots, ending with a total of 7. She proceeded to count down from the M, crossing name and items off as she went. I sighed, as the girl’s enthusiasm was hardly contagious.

After frantic counting, Ashley stated, “Okay, you are going to live in a shack, you’ll be unemployed, you’ll drive a garbage truck and…you’ll be married to me.” Her statement caused me to smirk. The game seemed harmless enough, and I had to admit, I wanted my turn to really stick it to Ashley.

“Lucky you. Uh. So I guess it’s your turn now? So I get to pick what goes under the categories?” Ashley nodded, and I grinned devilishly. “Okay, so your car. A Subaru Impreza, a Bugatti roadster, or A Dodge Journey.”

Ashley blinked, “Wait which one is the bad one?”

I said firmly, “The Dodge Journey! No brainer. OK. For your job: bikini model, business executive, and mom.”

Ashley said, “You mean a homemaker? So the bikini model is the bad one, right?”

I smirked and continued, “You will marry either: me, Leonardo Di Caprio, or Mark.” Ashley stuck her tongue out at me in a very childish action. I couldn’t tell if she was just playing a part or legitimately upset. She said, “Leo is too boyish. Even now. I like Daniel Craig. Switch it. That’s the rule. You get one switch.”

I said, “How come I didn’t get a switch?”

Ashley smiled, “Because you didn’t ask for one.”

I took the pencil from Ashley and started making the dots on the page. She stopped me at nine. Ashley looked on in anticipation. I was thinking the game was better than setting dolls up on chairs. I did the counting, just as Ashley had done.

“OK. So, you are going to live in a mansion.”

I grinned and said, “You are going to drive a Bugatti. Sweet. You’ll be a bikini model. And…you’ll be married to Mark!”

I felt a bubbling in my stomach, the feeling moving to my throat, and then, I absolutely exploded in laughter. It was like I had eaten some terrible fish and been violently ill, except here, an absolutely high-pitched girly giggle burst forth. My hand flew to my mouth to stifle the sound, while my eyes widened to comical proportions. Ashley looked on in surprise.

Ashley being married to Mark was funny, but it shouldn’t have been uncontrollably funny.

I cleared my throat and said, “That game was really dumb.”

The problem was that a part of me really wanted to play again, to see all the potential futures available to us. It was at this point that I realized, the game hadn’t been the excruciating torture I expected. It had been kind of…fun.

***

Shortly after MASH, Ashley convinced me to return to the table and practice my letters. She explained that it would improve my fine motor skills, which in turn, would make it easier to grip and turn the screwdriver. After Ms. Daniels left, I went back to retrieve the tool, deciding to hide it under my pillow until the right moment. Maybe I could practice on Musica.

Musica chimed, “It’s time for dinner, girls! Maybe for dessert there'll be something with chocolate swirls!”

To my surprise, the superstar makeover closet moved aside, revealing the exit from our shared bedroom. Ashley and I shared confused looks, but we quickly made our way out. We met Mark and Devon in the hallway.

Devon said, “I hope this fucking means they are going to start giving us something other than sandwiches. I’m so goddamn sick of peanut butter and jelly.”

Ashley leaned in to whisper something to Devon. He gave her the finger, and Mark laughed. I assumed Ashley was warning Devon that he wasn’t in character. Ashley and I hadn’t exactly been in character the whole time either, but at least we weren’t swearing.

There were still the three doors in the hallway, one at the far end which led to the studio, one to the right, which bore the marks from Ashley’s keys, and one to the left, which slowly opened. The four of us entered a small cafeteria. Laid out on a child-sized table were four plates and four glasses of milk, although there were two pink glasses and two blues glasses. Mark and Devon ran past us, each sitting at one of the places set with a blue glass.

I sighed gently and sat down at one of the two remaining spaces. While the coloured glasses seemed harmless, the fact that I was sitting there in front of a pink glass, wreaked havoc on my male ego. The simple plastic cup affirmed my new gender. A ridiculous colour had taken my adult mind and put it through the wringer. Why was I letting it bother me? Was it the giggling? The fact I liked Ashley’s stupid game?

Ashley asked, “What’s wrong? You don’t like chicken fingers?”

The meal set out before us would have made the menu of any restaurant that served children. In fact, the Burger Palace served almost the exact same meal, minus the regular French fries.

I replied, “It’s nothing.”

I looked down at myself, still clad in the same pink dress from before. The one with the twirl-able skirt. Why hadn’t I changed? The clothes I had worn yesterday were still on the bathroom floor. It had only been a few days. I was weak, and I knew I needed to reaffirm who I was- what I was.

Devon said with a mouthful of food, “OK, so me and Mark were talking. We figured that it’d be a good idea to know how we were all changed, and if we all had the same experience. You know? It might be a clue to how they did it. One of us might remember something useful.”

Ashley said snidely, “Wow. That’s the smartest thing you’ve probably ever said.” She took a sip of her milk, while Devon glared at her.

Mark said, “Shut the fuck up, bitch. You seriously piss me off. You think you’re better than us? I bet you’re the first one to fucking lose it. You know in the room. You probably even use the night light. Fucking pussy. You don’t let her do that, right Ryan?”

I interjected, “Guys, this isn’t helping. I agree- we should do what Devon suggested. I’ll go first. For me, it happened while I was super-manning this chick against the wall. I started feeling like I had the flu, started burning up and losing my strength.”

Mark asked, “What’d the bitch look like? Was she fucking hot, did she have big tits? Come on, man, don’t hold out on us.”

In the time honoured tradition of the men’s locker room, where stories of sexual escapades flowed like water from the many showers, I remembered how they went. Were all of them true? Absolutely not. Were they fun to listen to? Hell yes. It was a massive game of one-up-man-ship. Who could go the longest, use the craziest position, or who could pick up the freakiest girl- the one who was willing to do almost anything. That would be Monique in my case.

Devon and Mark looked at me eagerly, while Ashley shook her head slowly. This is how I could reassert my masculinity, despite the pink-striped dress I wore.

“Double Ds. Perfectly shaped. She was a short stack, so like whatever she wore, they were just popping out all the time. She’d put her phone in there. Nice and tight. No sagging.”

Devon looked at me skeptically, “No way were they real.”

I grinned, “No, but they still felt fucking amazing. Anyway, so this chick and me, we’ve been going at it hardcore for like forty minutes. Every position you can think of she’s willing to try. She gets this look on her face and she pulls out my chest hair, and she’s sucking my face so hard I’m breathing through my nose.”

Devon and Mark listened, engrossed in the tale of my sexual prowess. My eyes darted toward Ashley, and I wasn’t surprised when I saw a look of absolute disgust. Her pretty features were scrunched into a seething mask. Her jaw clenched, as she ran her tongue over her teeth. Her eyes met mine, but the roiling, angry sea I expected was missing, in its place, a timid brook. Despite the lack of anger, however, her disappointment was obvious.

I continued with the story, pleased that I received the desired reactions from all those at the table. “So I ram her against the door, and she’s screaming in my ear, scratching my fucking back and biting my neck. I’m propping her up with one arm, and I’ve got a hand on her ass. And it’s like this perfect thing, not fat but nice and plush. And I’m-”

Ashley interjected loudly, “Sorry to interrupt Totally Untrue Tales of the Playboy Mansion, but I thought the point of this was to tell us about the symptoms. And how you first felt them.”

Devon and Mark shot Ashley disapproving looks. Mark took it a step further, “Fuck. Let him finish, bitch.”

While it may have seemed silly to focus on a pronoun, the fact that Mark had used ‘him’ instead of ‘her’ healed my shattered male ego. He had lumped Ashley and me together previously, calling us ‘the girls’, but now, I was back to being one of the guys. I said, while wearing a cock sure grin that must have looked strange on Kaylee’s face, “So I’m pounding into her, and she’s cutting up my back, but I can’t even feel it, and-”

Ashley stood, her head jarring to the side, huffing as she left the table.

I knew that I would pay for it later in our bedroom, but for now, I would enjoy the fact that the two little boys sitting across from me saw me as their equal.

***

“What’s up with you? Did you have a crush on me or something? Is that why you didn’t like me telling that story?”

Ashley’s laughter filled the room. It was musical, tinged with amusement without a hint of malice. “Don’t be silly, Kaylee. We’re sisters! Plus, I thought you liked Michael? Didn’t he share his lunch with you last week? You were telling me that you wanted to hold his hand at recess yesterday.”

I narrowed my eyes, “You’re pushing it.”

Ashley smiled sweetly, her eyes fluttering innocently, “So you don’t want him to be your boyfriend anymore? You said he was so nice when he gave you half his chocolate chip cookie.”

I shook my head, “I’m starting to think maybe I’m right.”

Ashley approached me and said, “Kaylee, here I have to tell you an important secret.” She leaned in and said, “Have you got brain damage? Seriously. I’m wondering if you have been in a serious accident. What the hell would make you think I liked you? Was it the complete look of disdain, or how about the looks of disgust? You know the one, right? Where it seemed like I was literally surrounded by a pile of rotting garbage.”

She continued, “Yeah. I thought you were cute, like you were my type. But I couldn’t get over the constant bullshit streaming from your mouth. And I mean constant.” Her voice raised above a whisper, “I’m angry because I thought I could trust you. But I can see you care more about what used to be between your legs and impressing those idiots than you do about me, or yourself for that matter. What part of act like Kaylee don’t you understand? You have to know they were monitoring us when we were eating. What if they decide to make all of us younger because you think you need to prove yourself to two jackasses?”

Ashley’s expression softened, but the hard look in her eyes remained. “So how did the story end?”

I cleared my throat lightly, “I felt this burning in my arms, and I couldn’t keep her up any longer. I-I dropped her. On her ass.” The admission slowly deflated my previously ballooning male ego.

Ashley’s expression never changed. Her hard eyes bore into me, judging my every move, seemingly my every breath. “And what about Jessica? I’m guessing that wasn’t Jessica.”

I replied, “No, Monique. I was going to see Jessica two nights later though. And look, I’m tired of your tone here. I’m not on trial. Just admit it, you hate men. And the only reason you are even speaking to me is because we’re stuck here together, and you don’t want me to drag you down with me.”

Ashley’s voice raised in volume, now well beyond a whisper, “It’s all about trust, Ryan. I don’t hate men. I just can’t trust 99% of them. You included apparently. I thought you were different from Mark and Devon, at least in getting to know you these past couple days. But you’re really not different at all, are you? You still think with your dick, even if you don’t have one anymore.”

She continued, “What would have happened if you and Jessica really hit it off? You end up going out, getting married and having kids. And two days before you were going to meet the woman you might marry you were banging Monique against a door.”

I shook my head repeatedly, “Guys don’t think that way. I was just working off some stress. Monique doesn’t know Jessica. So what’s the problem?” The only guy who did think that way was Greg. Maybe I should have introduced him to Ashley.

Ashley said, “The problem is that you can’t be a good guy and do that kind of stuff. If you really cared about Jessica, and really wanted to be with her, you wouldn’t be having sex with other girls two days before your date. It’s kind of the same thing going on here with us. In here you do pretty well. But then when you’re around Mark and Devon, you’re- you’re a big prick Ryan. It’s like you’re making a date with me, I’m trusting you, and then you’re screwing around behind my back, like you did to Jessica.”

She added, “How you act in here and out there could be the difference between what saves Ryan Sullivan or what makes Kaylee, a real, living breathing person.”

I said, “But what’s the point of this? Are they going to turn us back? Undo all the damage they’ve done to us? The idea I got from Daniels is we are going to shoot this show, and that’s it. What then? What if by agreeing to do all this, by becoming our characters…that we actually become our characters? Then we’ve lost.”

Ashley replied, “We don’t know any of that. What we do know is that Ms. Daniels has threatened to make us even younger if we don’t cooperate. We can’t fight them physically, so we need to fly under the radar. I’ve done this my whole life, and it works, Ryan. You and the boys, you’re going into this like you are still full-grown men. You can’t. The only way we even have a chance is to do what they say.” She leaned in and whispered, “We have to make them think they’ve won. Hopefully it means they get complacent. That’s when we strike. You keep practicing your letters, and that screwdriver will be way easier to use next time. I used to do it all the time to babysitters. You make them think you are a little angel, and then when they are on the phone with their boyfriend, you get ice cream. SO much ice cream.”

I couldn’t help but smile at Ashley. She had effectively diffused a tense situation. “So Little Miss Perfect has a dark side.”

I wasn’t even upset with her for coming up with a smart idea because honestly, it made perfect sense. If Daniels was crazy enough to do this us, she was probably equally crazy when it came to regressing us further.

Ashley replied, “And sometimes I’d get sprinkles. Seriously though, does this make sense to you? Do you see that Mark’s method is kind of like trying to go in guns blazing without any guns? I’m convinced those two are going to screw up. So we should-”

I sighed lightly, “Learn our lines.”

Ashley smirked, “I already know mine, but I’ll help you, little sister.”

I glared at Ashley, but she winked at me and smiled. I realized that she was simply playing her part. Her plan would likely work as long as we didn’t start really to believe we were sisters who went to the same elementary school.

I replied, “Um…I-I’m.”

Ashley grinned, “I thought you said you were good at adlibbing.”

I squeaked, “I don’t have a name for you. And big sister sounds dumb.”

Ashley replied, “How about Her Royal Highness the Brilliant Princess Madison?”

I raised a brow, “How about…not? I think I’ll call you stupid head. Or Maddie.”

Ashley deadpanned, “Maddie is fine.”

***

Two hours later, I felt comfortable that I knew my lines. Ashley suggested that I review them in the morning with her, and considering we had nothing else to do, I tended to agree with her. I planned to stop playing the Gameboy and focus entirely on my letters and other activities that would improve my fine motor skills, even if it just meant cutting paper over and over again. Despite my physical age, I had seemingly grown up in the time spent with Ashley. My inability to run from my predicament likely played a role in my increased focus and maturity too, but Ashley would probably say it was all her.

As in the previous days, the lights went out at exactly 8 PM. The darkness blanketed us, but it offered no warmth, only a constant fear of the unknown. I wasn’t certain what lurked in the room overtaken by the night, but my mind fabricated terrifying images- ones that sent doubt into my adult mind. Doubt that what I was imagining, perhaps existed and breathed through a four-nostril snout. I would not allow myself to use the night light. As much as Ashley told me that Devon and Mark’s approval didn’t matter, I still measured myself against them. Of course, they could have been sleeping with a night light too, but they would never admit it.

I closed my eyes and almost instantly, the images faded. My eventful day had exhausted my body and mind. My failure with the screwdriver coupled with the threats against us, the near constant stimulation in the bedroom during play and the memorization of three episodes worth of lines- all transpired to send me quickly to dream land.

I woke perhaps hours later, but considering the saccharine yet grating sing-song of Musica was not the culprit, I knew it wasn’t morning. Above me, I heard whimpering. It sounded like Ashley was crying into her pillow. I didn’t have a lot of experience comforting people. I wasn’t a robot, but when faced with a surge of emotion, I felt awkward more often than not. When Greg came to me after a fight he’d had with Eve, basically bawling his eyes out, it took everything in my power not to call him a giant, deluxe pussy.

I managed to distract him with a co-op game of Halo. Thankfully, we didn’t have to talk about anything, and once he got into the game, it was basically forgotten, at least by me. With my mother, it was completely different. When she cried, I just ignored her. What the hell was I supposed to do? Console my own mother? I missed my dad too and worried about him, but crying did nothing, except make her look weak in my eyes.

On the flip side, my dad never talked about what bothered him. I could tell that he had misgivings about his missions at times, especially when we invaded Iraq. The only emotion I got from my dad was anger, and it was usually deserved. I was probably being a little shit (his words, not mine).

So, as Ashley tried her best to muffle her cries, I tried to go back to sleep. I figured that she would eventually just fall asleep herself, but after probably twenty minutes, I realized that she wasn’t going to stop. Stranger still, despite her not being my actual sister, I felt a connection to her and a bizarre sympathy that had been absent previously.

Yes, I felt bad for people, but not usually enough to do anything about it, except distract them, like I had with Greg. This body, while opening me to a world of childish emotions, had also placed within me something else. Perhaps it was because Ashley was the only one who was nice to me here, but I actually wanted to help her. Maybe there was something in the give-and-take relationship we had developed, which replaced the take-and-take I had with pretty much every girl I had dated.

I clambered up the ladder, and by the time I arrived, Ashley had already turned to face me. I said, “Uh. Hey, I’m just- I’m here to…I” I tried to put into words my reason for climbing the ladder, and for all the many layers of bullshit that I used to peddle to women and men alike on a daily basis, I couldn’t put on the act- I couldn’t play the role of the man who plays an actor in real life.

Thoughts flitted in my head, like girls on a dance floor, but each one of them was a ‘grenade’- wholly unattractive options to deal with Ashley’s misery. Why the hell was I up there? Should I just tell her to be quiet, to stop being a little whiney bitch about whatever was bothering her?

I was completely unprepared for the mass of little girl that assaulted me. At first, I thought she was angry, thinking I was there to poke fun at her, but her arms quickly encircled my soft body, desperately holding onto me, as if I were a piece of driftwood she clutched to save herself from a bloated soggy end.

My eyes widened. I felt the girl’s warmth, but also, her tear-stained face and slightly runny nose. She pressed her head into my pajamas. She was trembling, although her skin was not cold. Something had terrified her. I didn’t think it was possible for adults to display such fear.

I laughed awkwardly, the exact same way I had when Hannah told me she had decided to leave for a college five hours away. I didn’t know how to react to it. Hannah and I had dated for almost two years, and she was the closest thing I had to a real friend. I laughed it off, telling her that I’d make it big in LA, then I’d come get her. She could be my trophy wife. To me it was funny, but it was clear, she’d outgrown me. Our teenage indiscretions, racing around in my mom’s car didn’t mean much to someone with a future.

She wanted me to come with her, to take the money my mom had given to me for school and get an education. The money was actually part of the life insurance payment we got from the army after my dad’s death. Despite having the money to go, I told her college wasn’t for me, I’d learn how to act by doing it, absorb the craft through the sights and smells. Basically get through it like I had school- bullshit and give up if it was too hard. That’s how I approached work, relationships- everything.

Ashley sniffed, “A-Are you laughing at me?”

I shook my head vigorously, “N-No! I’m just- I’m bad at this.”

Ashley asked, sounding clearly confused, “How can you be bad at this? Just sit there and let me hug you and stop laughing.” Her grip around me loosened, as she seemed to reconsider whether I could actually provide what she needed.

I nodded, “I really am. Look, my girlfriend from high school, her cat dies, right? She comes to me crying, and I’m like laughing. I think it’s sad, and the cat was alright, but I’m just thinking- why’s she crying over a cat? It’s a cat. So I’m feeling sad for her, but I’m laughing cause it’s a fucking cat.”

Ashley released her grip entirely, “And then what did you do?”

I replied sheepishly, “I suggested we take a drive. So we park, and I’m thinking, well she agreed- this is the place where it happens, and she’s already kind of hugging me, so I go for her bra.”

Ashley burst out laughing, although the laughter was punctuated by occasional snorting, “Oh my god. That’s it. Your gender. It’s over. It was a nice million plus years, but sorry, you’re shipping out tomorrow.”

I said, “Okay, okay- yeah it was stupid. But I thought it’d take her mind off of it. You know- her stupid cat.”

I asked, eager to change the subject, “Did you have a nightmare?”

Ashley replied, “Yeah. But it’s nothing.”

I shrugged my shoulders, “Okay. But I mean- you seem to have a lot of trouble sleeping. Did you sleep better with the night light?”

I heard Ashley sigh in what was an impenetrable darkness as even the gentle glow of Musica’s pilot indicators was absent tonight. “Honestly yes, and I’m not really ashamed to admit it. Even as an adult, I always slept with a little light in the hallway. I never had the door closed either. I told myself it was for the bathroom, to light my way.”

She said bitterly, “You can call me a pussy if you want. Or weak or whatever. I don’t care, Ryan.”

I felt my teeth gently bite down on my lower lip. “Well…you’re not a pussy. Just maybe you could face what’s bothering you. You know try and fight it. I know for me I sometimes see monsters in the dark. I just close my eyes and tell myself they aren’t really there.”

Ashley said with a steely quality to her voice, “The problem is that I’ve seen real monsters, Ryan. And it’s all coming back. I don’t have the defences anymore to deal with it. I lay in bed and I just think about it over and over. I used to do what you do. But it doesn’t work anymore.”

I watched as the silhouette of the girl’s head gently dipped. “I feel the same way about my fears, they kind of overpower me sometimes. Like I’m worried, you know that people, even you- you’ll just see me as Kaylee.”

A deep sigh enveloped Ashley’s small body, “Fuck, Ryan- this isn’t about you and your gender identity. Is this what you did with your past girlfriends? Sometimes you just need to listen. I’m trying to tell you something here. Stop thinking about yourself. I’ve listened to a long list of your problems during the time we’ve been here. This isn’t about being a man or a woman, it’s just about being a good person.”

I cleared my throat gently, managing to squeak, “Sorry.”

Ashley reached out and took my hand in hers. “I know you are scared about it, Ryan. But I’ve helped you as much as I can. You know the bathroom stuff. And if we have to grow up like this, I’ll help you with even more bathroom stuff.” I made a face, shutting my eyes and sticking out my tongue, but Ashley couldn’t see it. To the uninitiated, it probably looked like Kaylee had just sucked on a lemon for the first time. Even though I couldn’t really see it, I had a feeling Ashley was grinning.

She added, “I’ll teach you everything you need to know.” I shuddered, and again, I just knew Ashley was grinning from ear to ear.

I said, “Okay. I’m sorry. I’ll listen to what you are trying to say.”

Ashley replied, “I-I’m not ready to tell you. At least I don’t think I am. Can you just trust me, you know as a friend, that I need the light?”

I shrugged my shoulders. A part of me wanted to tell Ashley that she was displaying weakness, a weakness that could eat away at the remains of her adult mind, but I also saw the only person who had shown any kindness to me during our ‘stay’ here. I was also partially annoyed that she wouldn’t divulge her secret. Why wouldn’t she tell me? Was she worried I would blab it to Mark and Devon?

I climbed down the ladder. When I reached the bottom, I flicked on the glass dancer lamp, and fumbled around for the night light. The night light, shaped like a cartoon lady bug, plugged easily into the outlet. I flicked off the lamp and climbed back into the bottom bunk.



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