Designer Children Chapter 16

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Chapter 16

“I’m going to murder you. In your sleep.”

“It’s really not that bad, Ryan. And we don’t have much of a choice.”

Eve ran a brush through my long blond hair, removing the bangs from my eyes and then proceeded to hold it all in place with a hair band. The accessory was black, and while that would have been tolerable, the little flowery pom-pom that sat atop the band was not. I watched her place the object on my head with a mixture of embarrassment and fear. Humiliation was one reaction, but the feeling of comfort I got from Eve’s attention filled me with eventual dread.

“Did you fucking buy this for me or something?”

“Ryan, you really need to stop swearing. If we’re going to do this- you’ve gotta be Riley. And no, I didn’t buy it for you, Jessica’s niece left it here.”

I exhaled loudly, feeling my slim shoulders sag. “Why do I have to wear this? What was wrong with what I was wearing?”

Eve replied, “I’ve seen how her granddaughters dress. Shorts and a sweaty t-shirt aren’t going to cut it. If we are going to convince her that I’m not a completely incompetent mother you need to dress and act the part. Don’t go over the top. Just, you know, a nice simple apology, and most importantly, a thank you for what she did to help you.”

I asked, “Do you want me to fucking curtsey for her too? This is bullshit. I-I don’t…”

I felt my mouth droop into a frown, my emotions fluctuating wildly, like a roller coaster suddenly thrown into reverse. I looked up and Eve’s features had softened. Her caramel skin was radiant, her eyes welcoming, and her mouth formed a gentle smile. Her expression screamed, “Tell me what’s wrong, baby girl, and I’ll make it better.”

I pulled away from her, stomping my feet in the shiny black shoes that Eve was making me wear. I hated the little straps that went across my stockinged feet. I had worn a similar outfit in the studio with the same dress. I cursed myself for bringing the dresses and shoes from the studio, but I didn’t have any other outfits outside of the sparkly blue butterfly shirt and jeans. Still, it meant that I could avoid a shopping trip with Eve, which would undoubtedly have crushed my male ego even further.

Eve’s expression changed slightly, her mouth growing tighter as she spoke, “What’s wrong?” There was unbelievable tenderness in her voice. I wanted to spill my guts to her about my entire life- every fear, every single concern about my future, my fleeting masculinity, but deep within my mind something still felt wrong about it. Alien.

I had never even been that open with my own mom, what the hell made Eve so special?

I shouted, “Stop it, just fucking stop it! Stop trying to be my fucking mother. I don’t know what kind of sick fantasy you are playing out here, but Mrs. Daniels did the same fucking thing to me in the studio. It was all this bullshit, trying to get me to be her little girl, but only because the doctor was fucking with her head. At least she had an excuse, what the fuck is yours?”

Eve sighed gently, “I’m sorry, Ryan. You’re right. I’m not treating you like I should. But it’s kind of hard because I feel like you’re way more vulnerable- your body language is more obvious now. You hid things really well before your change. And you never really talked about what was bothering you. What was really bothering you.

“I’m not trying to make you into a little girl, and I’m not trying to be your mom. I understand that it’s important for you to be Ryan Sullivan. But I guess what I’m saying is, I kind of feel like I’m actually seeing the real Ryan for once. And it’s nice. I think that’s what it is.”

I lowered my voice. I knew we were alone in the apartment, but it was as if all my past girlfriends, the assholes from Halo and my dad were in the room. They couldn’t hear what I was going to say. I said, “Whenever I’m close to you, and you act all nice…I feel really weird. It’s not like I’m attracted to you-“

Eve interrupted with a smirk, “Heaven forbid.”

I cleared my throat, “I don’t know what it is. But it’s fucking with my head. Making me have these feelings. About you.”

Eve nodded slowly, “I get it, Ryan. I do. I’ve been having- well I’ve been having kind of the same feelings. I really try hard not to treat you that way, but between my job and the fact that I love kids, I just fall into it sometimes. I’m just not the kind of person that can turn away from someone in need.”

She looked around the room, her eyes falling on the smashed controller and the hammer, and then darting back to meet my own. “Look, if I start getting all mothery with you I give you permission to tell me to fuck off. But only in private. Deal?”

I nodded, a slight smirk gracing my face as Eve moved toward the door. Before exiting the apartment, I hastily pinned my father’s overseas service medal to the dress.

***

“Hi cutie! Where are you going in your Sunday best?”

Something happens to women when they get older. Beyond the sagging breasts and skin, the ridiculous hair-dos and unflattering clothes, they develop an almost unhealthy obsession with children. It probably has something to do with their children leaving, but many of them become baby crazed, the same way some people act around puppies or kittens.

Case in point, my Great Aunt Ruth, who used to smother my cousins and me against her massive sagging rack, kissing us and leaving our faces smeared with lipstick. The old woman in the elevator reminded me of my great aunt, all the way down to the brightly-coloured pants, the overpowering flowery perfume and the permed hair. Did they all visit the same hair salon or something? Was there actually a place called Grandma’s World that sold such ugly clothing? For as much as I disliked Mrs. Feinstein, at least she dressed in a way that wasn’t standard issue for a retirement home- one that screamed, I’m old and I’ve given up.

Already emotional from the day’s battles and my injury, I wasn’t prepared to handle being the target of affection for a clone of my Great Aunt Ruth. It was one fucking floor. Why did this woman have to get on the elevator at the same time as us?

Sensing my disdain and perhaps seeing the way my eyes flashed in anger, Eve quickly interjected, “Uh. Sorry. She’s kind of in a grumpy mood today. I’m afraid she’s not going to be very talkative.”

The old woman warbled, “Nonsense! What does such a pretty little girl have to be sad about on such a beautiful day? Why by the looks of it, I’d say you’re going to a birthday party. Am I right?”

Before leaving, Eve had hastily wrapped a box of Christmas chocolates that she never got around to eating. I almost made a joke about her weight, and the fact that she probably got three other boxes like that, but it was surprisingly easy to rein in what would have been an obvious joke. Was it the fact that Eve was being so nice to me, or was it something else?

I held the present in my arms, the shiny gold wrapping glittering gently even in the dim light provided by the elevator.

Eve smiled and nodded, “Yes, that’s right, we’re going to a birthday party.”

Even as the elevator came to a stop at the ground floor, the old woman continued talking. She also maintained a distance that said the conversation wasn’t over yet. “I remember when I took Sally to her first birthday party. She had the cutest pink number on with a bow at the back and her hair in pigtails. She kind of reminds me of you, cutie. She was nervous to go because it was the first party where I left her alone. I have to say though, that your party dress is even nicer than hers was. I bet you can’t wait to show all your friends how pretty you look in it!”

Eve and I exited the elevator, while the old woman waved happily, “Have a good time at the party, cutie!” The elevator door closed, slowly descending and taking with it the Great Aunt Ruth look-a-like.

Eve said, “That was good, Ryan. That’s exactly what you need to do with Mrs. Feinstein. Just hold it in.” She laughed, “I really thought you were going to tell her off- the way your mouth and eyes scrunched up, kind of like when you had that really bad sushi. Hey- Ryan, are you listening to me?”

I wasn’t. She had continued speaking, but she might as well have been in another room entirely because the sound was muffled, like someone had stuffed my ears with cotton baton. The reason for my complete lack of interest in her words was tied to one thing- my reflection.

Just outside the elevator was a massive mirror. Reflected in the mirror was a little girl wearing a black and silver sleeveless dress. A soft white sash cinched at her waist, while a skirt billowed outward, bringing to mind images of the extravagant ball gowns of fairy tale princesses. The metallic dots lining the skirt portion caught the light of the brighter lobby, causing each dot to sparkle like a tiny star.

The more I thought about it, and the longer I peered at myself in the mirror, the more I realized the woman was right, I was pretty. And the dress- it made me feel even prettier. Like a worm burrowing through an apple, the word seemingly hollowed out my brain, and while I should have been concerned with this partial lobotomy, it didn’t matter because- I was pretty.

Eve said, “Ryan, what are you doing?” There was concern in her voice. When I didn’t listen to her, I felt myself being tugged away from the mirror.

The instant I was away from the mirror, my stomach turned, the little smile that had formed vanished, as a sickly feeling spread throughout my body. Similar to the effects of a night of binge drinking, my whole body suddenly felt weak and my mind seemed like it was filled with a multi-layered spider web world, and I shook. I could feel a panic attack coming.

Eve lowered to one knee, bringing herself to eye level with me, “Ryan, what’s going on? I’ve never seen you look at yourself- well I mean you used to look at yourself like that- but not since your change.”

I quickly gathered my courage, attempting to squelch my panic and rebuild my walls. “It’s nothing. Just drop it.”

Eve replied, “I’m not asking you to tell me everything- like you are sitting on a therapist’s couch or something. I just think that if I know, well I can help you. You aren’t in this alone.”

I said, “Until you start treating me like Ryan Sullivan, and not some little kid- I’m not telling you shit. I can’t trust you. You get all fucking emotional, and it messes with my head- and it’s not helping stuff.”

I would take this secret to the grave. Eve and Greg would never look at me the same way if they knew. If I managed to turn back, I would never live down the moment I had looked in the mirror and saw a pretty little girl. A little girl that wasn’t Kaylee or Riley. She wasn’t a made up character for a kid’s show or a construct to maintain a series of elaborate lies- no, the little girl was me.

Apparently, I had to avoid mirrors while wearing pretty dresses. Even after the realization struck me like a sledgehammer to the face, that such a thought even existed in my mind, I couldn’t remove it from my vocabulary.

Eve’s hair was pretty.

Were little girls really this one dimensional? Was I destined to become not only a little girl, but one who was a walking talking stereotype? Ironically, I would likely grow up to become Ryan Sullivan’s ideal woman, at least in body. The hottest girls often times have the most mental baggage, and I would have that in spades.

Eve grunted in an unattractive manner but said nothing more. I knew the look on her face. She was right, and she was waiting for me to announce it to the world. However, I wasn’t Greg. I wasn’t going to roll over like a neutered dog. My mind drifted to Duke. He was never the same after his operation. I knew it was my mom’s idea to get the dog fixed. It had to be. She hated how he used to sometimes hump the legs of her friends. He was a fucking dog though. It’s what they do.

It was easy to place everything on my mom, but I just never understood what my dad saw in her. Beyond the fact that she was overweight, she wasn’t an outdoorsy type girl. Even during our camping trips, she usually slept in the car, if she came at all.

Eve brought me back to reality with a gruff clearing of her throat. “You look like you are a million miles away. Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?”

I shook my head, “You know I’m not like your boyfriend right? Sometimes shit just sucks and that’s what it is. There’s no analyzing it or dissecting it. I was just thinking about something that pissed me off. I’m fine.” Again, I was treated with an almost grunt as Eve led the way toward Mrs. Feinstein’s apartment.

It was easy enough to find as she lived right underneath us on the main floor of the building. The other clear indicator was a crudely drawn picture taped to the front door. In bright red crayon, above a simple house with a chimney and a smiling sun, were the words “Grannie’s house”.

Eve knocked firmly on the door, while I fought a resurgence of nervousness with the knowledge that Mrs. Feinstein was behind the door.

“Just a moment!”

I heard the sound of metal on wood. As it drew closer, I sighed heavily, took a deep breath and became Riley, plastering a fake smile on my face.

Mrs. Feinstein opened the door with little fanfare. She did not look even remotely surprised to see us and ushered us inside without a word.

Eve said, “I’m sorry Mrs. Feinstein, I’m really afraid we’ve got off on the wrong foot. And it’s ...”

Mrs. Feinstein interrupted, “Two weeks after you moved in, you had a raucous party. I called the superintendent, who informed you that a neighbour had a concern with the level of noise coming from your apartment. Even after you were warned to stop, you continued until 11:30 PM. That was the moment we got off on the wrong foot, Miss ...?”

Eve replied, “Mendes. Eve Mendes. I didn’t actually know you were unhappy with that, but we didn’t break any laws ...”

Mrs. Feinstein did not merely interrupt- her words cut through Eve’s. Her mouth made a pitiful attempt to continue, but her tongue may as well have been removed by the old lady.

Mrs. Feinstein spoke slowly, each word deliberate, “I would have hoped- that with a young child, you would mature- faster than your peers. But from what I’ve seen so far, I am gravely mistaken. If you are here to convince me to reconsider my complaint to social services, it will fall on deaf ears. As for your gathering, you may not realize this, but this planet does not revolve around you or your friends. I was not placed here to bow to your whims to “party”, Miss Mendes. You say you were not breaking any laws- that’s no doubt true, but my granddaughters were staying the night, and Sophia was very frightened with all the yelling going on.”

Eve finally found her tongue, “I’m really sorry about that. I guess the party was a little loud at times. We did ask those people to leave. We had some people we didn’t expect. Someone put a sign in the lobby that invited pretty much the whole building. It took a while to get it under control.” Eve swallowed what was likely a pulsating, baseball-sized lump in her throat, “Anyway, Mrs. Feinstein we’re really just here because Riley has some things to say to you. She feels really bad about what she said. And she wants to say she’s sorry. We brought you a box of chocolate too.”

Mrs. Feinstein said curtly, “Let the child speak for herself.”

I opened my mouth to begin a mostly sincere apology, but like a viper, Mrs. Feinstein’s tongue struck first, “And where were you child, during this gathering?”

I was a consummate liar. As an actor, you have to be. I wasn’t highly educated like Greg, and I hadn’t even gone to college like Eve, but I understood the business of acting. I could hawk something I didn’t believe in- making people believe that the burgers at the Palace were more than just slabs of beef wedged between a bun with some fun ingredients.

For the audience or customers to believe your words, you have to say each one with sincerity- that is how drama or comedy is created and with it the suspension of disbelief. If my acting, like my lying, falters then it all falls apart.

I said smoothly, “I was staying at grandma’s place.”

Mrs. Feinstein scrutinized me the same way a forensic investigator might view a murder scene. Words started to form in my mind the longer she looked at me, words brought on by increasing anxiety. The words lunged toward my tongue with the aim of revealing my deception.

“Oh. Well that was a competent decision.” Mrs. Feinstein had turned her withered face toward Eve again, while I swallowed the words on the tip of my tongue. Then, I swallowed my sigh of relief.

Mrs. Feinstein then swivelled her head toward me. “Now child, you have something to say to me?”

I didn’t feel bad for lying to Mrs. Feinstein- I rarely felt anything after a lie, but a part of me wondered if she knew I was lying. Her expression never wavered- she was a disappointed school teacher with furrowed brow and tight lips. I was seen it a million times in school, but something about this woman almost pried the truth from me.

I looked down at my shoes, desperate to free myself from her gaze. “Look up at me as you speak, young lady.” My head shot back up, almost as if the woman held my limbs in check with phantom puppet strings.

I nodded slowly, “I-I wanted to say I’m sorry. For the words I used in front of Emma and Sophia.”

Mrs. Feinstein’s head nodded slowly, and while her disappointment had faded slightly, she still completed the motion sternly. I continued, “And I-I’m glad you were there. Because I was scared without mommy there.”

The old woman’s frown slowly morphed into a gentle smile, “I understand acting out, Riley. You were probably scared that you would get into trouble for breaking your game and the glass. Girls your age sometimes still don’t know how to express themselves appropriately in certain situations. That fear you felt came out in all those vile words.”

Eve said, “Again, I’m really sorry, Mrs. Feinstein. I’m so relieved that you were there for Riley.”

Mrs. Feinstein’s stern expression returned. The way she pursed her lips together made me think of an ant-eater. “That does not solve the real issue at hand. If you lack the funds for a babysitter, I would assume you also lack the funds for after school care. Am I correct in this?”

Eve nodded her head sullenly while Mrs. Feinstein continued, “Given this fact, your student debts and the amount of bedrooms in your apartment, I can see this isn’t an ideal living situation. And frankly, I’m very concerned for Riley’s wellbeing.”

Eve said, “Please, please don’t call social services, Mrs. Feinstein. I’m a nurse. I’ve seen how the cases can go. We’ll find a way to make sure she’s taken care of after school and when she’s sick.” Incredibly, she sounded sincere. She was a better liar than Greg, but she wasn’t exactly me.

Mrs. Feinstein nodded her head, “You clearly understand the gravitas of this situation, Miss Mendes. You can’t leave your daughter alone. Yet you are struck by a paradox, a need to earn a living yet also a responsibility to see that your child is safe. However, I have the solution.”

A tiny grin crept onto the old woman’s thin lips, which gradually transformed into a bright beaming smile. She took on the qualities of every loving, apple pie baking, hug giving grandmother, the thick veneer of austerity smoothed by one gentle slap of her knee, “After school, I’ll watch Riley. I’ll see to it that her homework is done and that she doesn’t spend the time in front of the television. Oh and of course my granddaughters will be there every Monday.”

My own grandmother (on my mom’s side) seemed like a very nice person, but I rarely saw her outside of Thanksgiving and/or Christmas. I never got to know her. She was always closer to my cousins, who didn’t have to move almost every year.

I looked to Eve in shocked silence. As nice as she appeared at times, Mrs. Feinstein could be absolute steel. Plus, she still kind of looked like a witch…

Mrs. Feinstein said, “You don’t need to decide immediately. And I understand, you may have some trepidation, but as I explained, I was an educator for many years.”

She added knowingly, “And I’m willing to do it free of charge. I admire that you were able to complete your education despite your teenage pregnancy. And with you just starting out, I can see you are having difficulty and this has led to some…questionable choices. You clearly love your daughter, but you cannot continue to leave her at home alone.” The sternness returned to her voice. It wasn’t cold, but more like a teaching tone. Or lecturing.

“Speak with your husband about it.” Mrs. Feinstein’s expression softened as she turned toward me with that same grandmotherly smile, “Are those for me?”

I nodded dumbly and the woman took the wrapped box of chocolates from my hand. “Thank you, Riley. I hope to see you soon.” Eve took my hand and pulled me from the apartment.

***

“You know if you got more exercise maybe your pants would fit better. You seriously take the elevator for one fucking flight of stairs?” We stepped out of the elevator onto the second floor.

Eve said nothing. Usually, I would see a measure of hurt on her face as she came to the realization that I was right. It had been so easy to push her buttons in the past, but something had changed in her- unless, it was something that changed in me?

Once we were inside the apartment, Eve said calmly, “I know you are mad at me, Ryan. You have no idea how easy you are to read. You always go right to my weight when you are pissed at me. This is the only choice we have.”

Before waiting for me to respond, she added calmly but firmly, “Unless you want me to sign you up for the after school program at the hospital. It’s free for hospital employees. They even put on these little plays sometimes. All the kids look so cute.” A tiny victorious smile formed. I’d seen the expression before plenty of times, but aimed toward me, it was a rare- Greg on the other hand… He probably saw it once a day.

Words formed in my mind, but instead of the complex process of filtering, being cautious of showing weakness, I blurted out, “But she’s a witch!”

The miniscule smile disappeared from Eve’s face replaced by immediate concern. “What?”

I looked at Eve, my eyes bugging out and my jaw dropped, “I-I meant you know, she’ll make me act like a girl, and I’ll have to wear a dress every time I go up there. And her fucking grandkids will be there sometimes. That’s dangerous.” I put a strange emphasis on the word ‘dangerous’, my pronunciation of the word turned it into an unintended question.

Eve said calmly, “It is. I’m not going to deny that, but I don’t see another way around it. If she calls social services, and we don’t take her up on her offer then I look like a terrible parent. Worse than I am now.” There was a hint of sadness in her voice- something that shouldn’t have existed. Her entire posture altered, with suddenly sagging shoulders as a deep sigh burst from her body. It screamed failure.

I shook my head, “What the fuck, Eve? What’s your goddamn problem? You’re not the one who has to spend every afternoon with a fucking fossil. And her granddaughters- if I have to spend hours with them- well it’s going to fucking suck. Plus, Emma is really bossy.”

Eve turned away from me momentarily. When she turned back, she was calm again, “It’s not all bad. You remember when I said I gave that data you brought back from the lab to the hospital’s research department? Well they got the green light to put the theory into practice. From what I’ve heard, they are also sharing the data with universities that specialize in gene therapy. ”

“Sure, and while all that’s happening I’m stuck in a room with someone who probably doesn’t even own a fucking TV. And homework? I don’t even go to school, Eve. How the fuck is that going to work?”

Eve replied, “It’s pretty easy. We just look up some math and spelling exercises for your age group, and you bring the worksheets with you. As for the little girls, when they are around you, just focus on how there’s some brilliant people working on a cure for your condition. Remember that and you’ll get through it.

“And please try and get along with Mrs. Feinstein.”

***

I watched as Greg unwrapped a bouquet of roses. He set them gently on the kitchen table. I was watching TV, languishing on the couch with a bowl of popcorn resting on my belly. I had changed my clothes, not wanting to spend another minute in the dress. The offending object was tossed into the deep depths of the bedroom closet, hopefully never to be seen again. Although I figured, Mrs. Feinstein would want me to wear one when I went to her place…but I would deal with that when the time came. For now, it was easier just to bury the dress under a pile of coats.

I smirked, “What the fuck, man, you looking to get laid tonight, or did you piss her off or something?”

Greg replied, “She’s had a tough day. And from what I’ve heard so have you. You want some flowers too?”

I looked at Greg in surprise, my eyes wide and unblinking. I quickly snapped out of it, “Fuck you. At least I’m not a pussy sucking up to a girlfriend who will never suck him.”

Greg said, “And you’re just a little shit pushing away the only two people that want to help you. Eve was really worried about you today.”

I scoffed, while popping a handful of popcorn into my mouth, “The only thing she cares about is fucking mothering me. It’s sick, man. She treats me like a kid. And when did you actually grow a pair?” It was true. Greg rarely stood up to me. He was easily cowed with a few words usually. Yet, something was changing in our relationship. I desperately needed to regain the ground I had lost.

“Since I realized that Eve is just trying to help you, and you are treating her like shit.” Greg’s voice was surprisingly firm, and considering he towered over me, I was momentarily intimidated. My stomach jumped, the pit suddenly entering my throat as if I was in a high-speed elevator or a rollercoaster in the midst of an impossibly steep descent.

Was I actually scared of Greg? Even if it was only for a second, it was one second too long. Greg couldn’t occupy a higher position than me. It would throw off the whole dynamic of our relationship. It would mean that Eve would get her way in every argument. I’d be going to bed at 8 o’clock and sitting in a car seat within a week.

I spoke, but there was hesitation in my voice- a strange wavering had infected my speech, “I’m trying to get along with her, but she is acting really fucking weird. I have to push her away- because she’s trying to be my fucking mother. We need boundaries, man. This isn’t going to work if she starts treating me like her daughter.”

Greg sighed lightly, “I’m not saying that how you are treating her is right. But I kind of understand what you mean. The frustration in her voice it’s- it’s not the same as it was when you first moved in. There’s this sense of failure. Before, she really didn’t care what happened to you. I mean she didn’t want you dead or anything, but now- I agree. I don’t know how to talk to her about it without pissing her off.”

“Keep in mind too. Eve’s mom expects a lot from her and her sister. Eve’s mom is really critical of how her sister parents and I just think ...”

I shook my head furiously, “But she’s not my fucking mother.”

Greg nodded, “I know. I don’t understand what changed exactly. Just try to be a bit more understanding. She does legitimately want to help you.”

I huffed, “Yeah OK. I’ll be understanding of a person who wants me to be her perfectly behaved daughter. Your girlfriend is going fucking crazy. That’s the only explanation.”

I bit down hard on a kernel, feeling a slight tinge of pain in my tooth. The wiggle had been there for a few days, but I had done my best to ignore it. Now, however, it was impossible to ignore the drinking straw-sized hole where there was once a tooth.

Thankfully, it was one of the bottom teeth. I feared that I would lose the second middle-top tooth, creating a lisp that would infuriate me while delighting adults who would fawn over the gaps, gushing about how adorable I sounded.

I spit the tooth out, and it clinked against the side of the metallic popcorn bowl. Greg frowned slightly, but said nothing.

“I’ll try and be nicer to her, but if she starts wanting to braid my hair and sing me lullabies, we have her fucking committed, OK?”

Greg nodded, unable to hide the smirk on his face.

***

The next day, I reported to Mrs. Feinstein’s after ‘school’. Armed with a handful of age-appropriate math and spelling worksheets, I knocked gently on her door. I figured that Mrs. Feinstein was so old that she probably wouldn’t hear. It would buy me a few seconds reprieve from the torture that was an afternoon with someone born before cable television even existed.

Eve insisted that I wear the same dress I had worn the day before. She said some bullshit about Mrs. Feinstein being from a generation that expected adults and even children to dress formally. It was bullshit because I knew that Eve liked seeing me in the dress. And she wasn’t laughing, no- there was pride in her eyes. The kind of pride you see in the terrifying eyes of pageant and stage mothers- a breed I had seen many times during my amateur and professional acting career.

If this continued, we were going to have to have an intervention.

Despite my feeble knocking, I heard the familiar sound of metal on wood or parquet rather. When the door opened, I couldn’t hide my surprise.

Mrs. Feinstein wore a wry smile, “Young lady, do you think you are the first student of mine to dilly-dally outside of the classroom?”

My mouth, which was opened wide in surprise, moved to speak, but Mrs. Feinstein got in another word akin to a boxer striking an already dazed opponent. “Come in, come in, Riley. Make yourself at home. I understand that your father will be here to pick you up at six. Until then, you can sit and complete your homework. After that you can choose a book to read. I’ve got many picture books that I’m sure you’ll enjoy.”

Mrs. Feinstein led me to a small table with two chairs. It looked like a typical kids colouring table. The surface was covered in little scribbles of various colours, and there were different compartments holding crayons and markers.

Now that I was in the apartment proper, I took a moment to look around. There were little doilies on the coffee table. Paintings of women and men in suits and dresses having a picnic or travelling along really old looking brick roads in carriages. For a former teacher, I wasn’t surprised to see three bookshelves, completely stocked with reading material. Magazines, children’s books, novels and incredibly, one of the largest collection of mystery novels I had ever seen. I stared at the bookshelf in near awe.

“After your homework, Riley.” The voice was firm, but there was a hint of joy.

I hadn’t done much reading since my change. Movies and video games are easy escapes because of the immersion they provide. I can get lost in a game or a movie plot, and my viewing often allows me to turn off my brain. With reading on the other hand, it is more difficult to keep my mind from wandering, from settling on the realities of my situation.

I set down to work, while Mrs. Feinstein read some ancient-looking coverless book. My handwriting was still slow enough that it seemed as if I was actually doing homework like a normal six-year old. The worksheets being simple subtraction and addition with some incredibly easy vocabulary I still blew through them quickly.

“All done?” There was a measure of surprise in her voice. She immediately cleared her throat, obviously trying to cover up her mistake, but the damage was done- she thought that I was stupid.

Her voice was uncertain, as if she were carefully making her way through a minefield, each word was a step around possible destruction- or in my case an explosive tantrum. “I-I apologize for that. I didn’t mean that-“

I said, “I’m stupid?”

There was baggage attached to my words as memories of the international prep school filled my mind. Greg and Eve were better educated than me, and in fact, so were half the actors I met. A lot of them went to school first as a back-up plan.

“Child, I’m sorry. I absolutely did not mean anything by my words.” She hobbled toward the table and leaned down to inspect the worksheets, “I can see you are a very bright girl. But then I knew that already- I just…expected more of a battle with you. Especially the way you dawdled by my front door. I do not, by any stretch of the imagination, believe that you are stupid.”

I shrugged my shoulders, “Yeah. Whatever. Look, I’m only here because my parents are making me.”

Mrs. Feinstein’s firmness returned with a gentle tap of her cane, “You are here because this is what is best for you. This is the safest option, considering what happened to you yesterday. How are you? Are you in any pain as a result of yesterday’s incident?”

I shook my head slowly, “Eee- mom checked on it before she went to work today. She said it’s healing, and there’s no glass in the wound.” I reached down and pulled at the stockings on my legs. They were incredibly annoying how they always bunched up. The dress, however, was the most irritating, since chairs made the poofy skirt rise up, forcing me to push the material down so it wouldn’t impede my writing. While it was impossible for me to call the dress ugly, I still felt incredibly uncomfortable wearing it.

I had a fear that I would suddenly be laughed at, called a pussy or a fag. However, this was mixed with a genuine concern that I would actually come to like dressing this way. To me, it was a battle in the war against the serum. The apprehension usually dissipated when I came to the realization that I really kind of hated wearing dresses, even if they were pretty.

I might as well have been wearing razorblades covered in barbed wire…although maybe that was a slight exaggeration.

“You hate wearing dresses, don’t you, Riley? Your mother made you wear it, didn’t she?”

I blinked, was this woman a mind reader? I replied, sounding clearly surprised, “H-How did you know that? And yeah, she figured cause you are- well you taught at that school you’d want me to dress this way.” I wasn’t about to say it was because she was old, which is how Eve had explained it to me. I wasn’t that stupid.

Mrs. Feinstein laughed gently. It wasn’t exactly musical, but it wasn’t the cackle that I expected either. “I taught at a finishing school, which instilled in young ladies the importance of proper manners, etiquette and decorum based on various situations. However, I was also a strong proponent of education rights for girls. I was instrumental in shifting the focus from a finishing school to a proper learning institution. While it was a finishing school, I made certain that the young ladies who attended received instruction in world, state and national history, arithmetic, and vocabulary.”

“In that time, I met many young ladies like yourself who did not enjoy wearing the standard Prescott uniform. I sympathized with them, and I could see that it impacted their studies and their enjoyment of the school. The dress code was eventually changed, but only shortly before my retirement. So, when I see you with such distaste, being forced to wear something that may impact your studies, I think back to those girls I met in a similar position.”

“So, Riley, do not wear a dress thinking that it will please me. It will not, and the fact that you are forced into it- well I might have to have a chat with your mother.”

Like a grim, grey sky suddenly pierced by the sun’s light, the dour expression I wore upon entry into the apartment was gone. I felt a wide smile grow on my face. “Really? That’s kind of- sick.”

Mrs. Feinstein raised a brow, “I beg your pardon?”

“Um- nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

The old woman nodded and looked down at my worksheets, “A perfect 100%. Very impressive, Riley.”

A warm feeling shot through my body, leaving pleasant pin pricks in its wake. By the time, the sensation reached my brain, a smile had formed. It wasn’t like the wide grin from moments ago, but a gentle, proud smile. Shit. Was I really happy to get praise for simple math and spelling three letter words? Despite this realization, the sensation did not dissipate easily. In fact, it grew when I looked up at Mrs. Feinstein.

The old woman wore a tender smile, and coupled with her previous words, the pride swelled within me to a point where my chest felt close to bursting. Amazingly, I hadn’t been this happy, nor this fulfilled since my change. In fact, I don’t think I was even that proud when I made Monique scream two times in one night.

I had spelled sat, hat, cat, and mat, but I felt like Megan Fox and Kate Upton had just agreed to a threesome with me.

“Although your penmanship could use some work, Riley. I should have you practice your letters, but since you did such a terrific job on your worksheets, I think a little reward is in order. Would you like to go to the splash park? My granddaughters love going there. Your mother gave me a key, so we could fetch your swimsuit if you like.”

Like a gunshot, the word ‘fun’ was blasted into my brain. For five seconds, I was incapable of any other thoughts, my mind rapidly filling with images of the splash park. Wearing a swimsuit I didn’t own, I frolicked in the sprinklers, screamed in joy and surprise as a massive bucket of water drenched me from head to toe. There were other children around me, but I didn’t see the danger they posed to my adult self.

I saw only playmates.

“No, I don’t really feel like it. I think I just want to stay in and read.”

Mrs. Feinstein’s wizened face showed surprise, but instead of forcing the issue, her face settled into what was becoming a familiar smile. “Maybe we’ll go when my granddaughters come next week.” She pointed her cane toward the bookshelves, “The children’s books are on the bottom shelves.”

I wasn’t sure if there was a certain danger in reading books meant for children. Movies like Frozen left an indelible mark on my brain, bringing about a desire to devour as much Frozen-themed paraphernalia as possible. Were the books harmless, simply words on a page, or would they stoke my suddenly furtive imagination? I flipped through a couple, noticing that most of them weren’t even chapter books. They also had an abundance of brightly coloured pictures.

As I was flipping through the titles, a sense of childlike wonder descended on me. It was exactly the same feeling I had when Mrs. Feinstein suggested the splash park, but it was more subtle. Rather than a shotgun blast, it was a gentle, pleasant buzzing, a soft voice whispering ‘fun’.

Concerned that being exposed to the children’s reading material would negatively affect me, I looked instead to the vast selection of mystery books.

“I’m not sure your parents would approve of you reading the novels in that section. There’s a fair bit of violence and subjects that aren’t really suitable for children. It’s wonderful that you want to challenge yourself, but we can find something a bit more appropriate.”

I said firmly, “I know what all that stuff is. I know what killing is, and I’m used to blood and guts because of my dad’s games. Those books you pointed out are for little kids. I want to read something else. And I’m not talking about Nancy Drew.”

Mrs. Feinstein wore a wry grin as she spoke, “You remind me of when I was a girl. My father used to read Sherlock Holmes books in the evening, and I would beg him to let me sit on his lap and read aloud. He eventually agreed, bless his heart. Our first book together was Hound of the Baskervilles. I had nightmares about the hound, but even that wouldn’t stop me. I would close my eyes sometimes as he read, but it was so exciting. I loved those times.”

She winked, “Maybe we can read just a little. But you tell me if it gets too scary.”

While I enjoyed mafia and gangster novels, I was a huge fan of mysteries in general. When my mom took away my video games (which was often enough), I would read my dad’s old Hardy Boys books. So, when Mrs. Feinstein began reading the Hound of Baskervilles, she had a captive audience.

After the first chapter, Mrs. Feinstein asked, “Would you like to read a little too, Riley?” I nodded and slowly read the first few sentences. I figured if I read slowly it wouldn’t arouse any suspicion.

Mrs. Feinstein exclaimed, “Incredible! Riley, those were some very difficult words. Do your parents read to you at night? I must say, you are a very advanced reader. I can understand why you wouldn’t want to look at picture books.”

I quickly realized my mistake. A six-year old wouldn’t know how to pronounce half of the words I had read. I couldn’t exactly tell Mrs. Feinstein the truth however. “Yeah. Since I was a baby. I guess reading has always been kind of easy for me.”

Mrs. Feinstein asked excitedly, “Have you ever been tested? You could be gifted, Riley. If that’s the case, you could probably switch schools. Would you like to go to Prescott Academy? Emma and Sophia go there.”

I shrugged, “I-I like my school.”

Mrs. Feinstein replied, while a strange energy filled her body. Her stooped posture straightened, and her eyes brightened considerably. She suddenly looked ten years younger, “I wonder if some of your behaviour and the acting out, if it’s because you aren’t being challenged. Prescott Academy has a gifted program recognized the world over. Do you act out in school too?”

I said, “Sometimes. I guess you can talk to my mom about it.”

Mrs. Feinstein nodded, “I don’t want to push you into something you don’t want, Riley. So yes, I think it best at this point to speak to your parents about it. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I will write a glowing recommendation for you. On reading level alone, you shouldn’t be in the 1st grade.”

Again, it wasn’t something I should have been proud of, considering I had a high school diploma, but a great sense of satisfaction filled my being. My body felt lighter than air as pride swelled within my chest. As this happened, coupled with how she had treated me earlier, I began to see Mrs. Feinstein in a different light.

It was a light that no longer cast shadows and one that debunked the mystery of the witch in apartment 106. There was no wickedness in her features, the hooked nose and prominent chin were gone. She was human, but more importantly, she wasn’t actually that bad. Other than when her granddaughters were visiting, the afternoons with her apparently weren’t going to be torture.

Expecting to continue reading, I was surprised to see Mrs. Feinstein turn away from me. When she turned back, she focused on the novel, licking her finger and quickly turning the page. A deep sigh escaped from her, and she read aloud, adding great emotion and power to the words.

It was easy to imagine the moors, a massive moon casting light on the swampy terrain, while fog swirled, forced to dance by the wind like a mass of apparitions. I was fully engaged in the mystery of the hound, thankful that I hadn’t felt even a tinge of fear. After all, it was a kiddie party compared to most of the movies I watched.

Time moved, but it didn’t pass in seconds or minutes. Instead, it passed in words, paragraphs and chapters. I closely followed the mystery, trying my best to determine who-done-it. Mrs. Feinstein, being a former teacher, had a crisp and very clear voice. She actually play acted the characters, changing her voice to suit each one. However, I noticed her brow furrow at certain points during the story. Her mouth drooped gently, and she would at times, fidget with the pages.

Was she having trouble seeing? She already wore extremely thick glasses. They were attached to a shiny silver chain that draped behind her neck. I wasn’t about to ask her if she going blind, so I left it at that.

Eventually, Greg picked me up, and I was surprised when I didn’t immediately want to leave.

Mrs. Feinstein smiled, “We’ll continue the book tomorrow, dear.”

She added, “Oh, and if you could please take a look in your apartment, Emma has lost her favourite doll. She may have left at your place yesterday.” I nodded.

Greg gathered my backpack and worksheets, thanked Mrs. Feinstein and then led me out the door toward the elevator. Once we were in the elevator, he spoke, “So I didn’t see any blood stains. Everyone still has all their limbs. I guess it wasn’t too bad?”

I nodded slowly, a little smile forming, “Yeah. It was alright.”

***

It was morning the next day. I woke to the sound of the DVD menu for Godfather Part 1. The movie was long, but normally I could stay up for the whole thing. The wedding scene was the last scene I saw before falling asleep. That was…less than halfway through the movie.

I rolled off my couch-bed, which ironically was the exact same couch where I passed out after an incredible night of partying. Greg was still sleeping, and Eve was working an overnight shift, so it was going to be toast instead of eggs. I was still extremely lazy when it came to cooking, so toast with peanut butter was the best option. Either that or cereal, but Eve bought nasty corn flakes without any sugar.

It was odd to actually eat a breakfast that consisted of something other than black coffee, but I hated the taste of it now. A week ago, I had even convinced Greg to buy me a flavoured coffee, but even the caramel couldn’t cover up the awful bitter tasting mud. I desperately wanted something sweet for breakfast, but Eve was on a diet kick and trying to explain to Greg why I wanted sugared cereal would be difficult.

It was all thanks to a commercial I had seen recently, where a cartoon elephant falls into a bowl of Pinkie Puffs, finding he has turned pink. And for some reason, I desperately wanted it. I had to have it. Why? Well, there was a Frozen mix and match cut-out puzzle on the back of the box. Plus, I wanted to see the milk turn pink. That seemed fun.

I shook my head repeatedly, trying to pry the memory of the commercial from my brain.

“I should just stick to Netflix. There’s no commercials on there.” And once again, I was talking to myself. I thought about the fact that Dr. Travers’ research was now in the hands of people who would probably be willing to help. With this fact, I was able to slowly halt the craving for the cereal.

I returned to the couch with my breakfast, intending to boot up the Xbox, so I could watch something bloody and especially gory on Netflix. In the process, however, I stepped on something, which caused me to emit a sudden high-pitched yelp. I peered down to locate the offending object and saw an outstretched plastic hand.

I hadn’t looked for the doll, but apparently, it wanted to be found. Thinking nothing of it, I pulled the doll from under the couch and set it on the coffee table. Fear gripped me, as I realized just what it was. It wasn’t just a generic Barbie doll. No, it was Emma’s Elsa doll with ice skates.

And, I really, really wanted to play with it.

Fuck. Why did I have to step on that exact spot? Why couldn’t Greg or Eve have found it? I looked about frantically, trying to determine what to do. I picked up the doll, intending to toss it in the garbage. I couldn’t risk playing with the doll for an extended period of time. I definitely couldn’t go to Greg and ask him to get rid of the doll for me. He would think I was a massive pussy.

I never got to the garbage. Breakfast completely forgotten, I looked at the doll in fascination. Elsa wore the dress she created with her magic, while her hair was free flowing, tumbling down her back in loose gorgeous curls. The dress, like the one I wore yesterday, sparkled in the morning sun. On her feet, she wore a pair of old-fashioned skates. I didn’t know much about hockey, but they definitely didn’t look like hockey skates. They were pale blue with an intricate flower design by the blade, and that made them girly as shit.

I remember Ashley playing with the exact same doll in the studio. She said she was going to share it with me, but she never did, and I was stuck with a dumb figure-skating Anna. However, now- now it was my turn.

I could even keep it. If Emma’s parents could afford to send her to a private school, they could afford to buy her a new doll. Of course, I’d have to hide it from Greg and Eve- they’d make me give it back. My mind did not flow in a logical direction, instead zigzagging to the different results, all of which ended with me keeping the doll.

I looked at the plastic doll, which was the size of a typical Barbie, and my imagination, like an unsuspecting grocery bag caught in a strong gust, suddenly soared. Like the studio, when I played with Ashley, when time stood still, and we only stopped for lunch, my adult self was buried under a mountain of childlike delight- which probably amounted to Ryan Sullivan laying under a massive pile of chocolate chip cookies. The desire to play had an innocence attached to it, as such, it was almost impossible to see fault or the danger in my actions.

The alarm bells still rung, but they were overcome by the power of my imagination and the deep desire to play with something that had been previously denied.

I took the doll to the bathroom and quickly shut the door. I set the doll on the floor and carefully pushed it forward, watching with glee as it slid across the floor without falling. Because of the way it was designed, it actually looked like Elsa was skating across the floor. I had fun with this for a few minutes, but I thought Elsa might be lonely, so without another doll to play with, I took an empty toilet paper roll from the garbage.

My imagination at this point had fully taken over, placing my mind within the fairy tale kingdom with ice queens, endless winters and most importantly, talking snowmen. The pen that Eve used for her Sudoku puzzles drew a careful, yet still somewhat crooked mouth on the roll. The same pen was used to draw crooked circles for eyes. Pleased with my creation, I smiled broadly, setting toilet paper roll Olaf at the edge of the bathtub. He could now watch Elsa as she skated.

Now that there were two characters, however, they would obviously need to speak. I hesitated for a moment, realizing that my quiet play would soon have a voice, but I bubbled with excitement, actually holding my hands together and pressing them firmly to my chest. My breakfast lay, as always, uneaten on the coffee table.

Elsa, Queen of Arendelle said happily, “Olaf, watch me skate!”

Olaf, magic-talking snowman said, “Sure, Elsa! I love to watch you skate! It’s so fun!”

Gone was the bathroom, replaced with a private ice skating rink positioned on top of a mountain. The ice stretched for miles, the surface glistening under soft moonlight. Olaf cheered excitedly as Elsa skated across the ice, pushed by some unseen force.

My enjoyment of the little scene reached a fevered pitch and seconds later I couldn’t control myself as my arms began flapping. A giggle burst forth, a tittering musical sound akin to tiny jingling bells. It was a sound that Ryan Sullivan had never made.

I was so engrossed in my play, I didn’t hear the door open, but I did hear the footsteps a second later.

It was Greg.



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