Designer Children Chapter 20

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Chapter 20

I woke with a start, unsure if I had dreamed the last words spoken or if Eve had actually said them. Stretching my arms out, I quickly realized that instead of the somewhat lumpy faux leather couch, I was in Eve and Greg’s bed. The curtain were closed, but my phone, which rested by the bedside, quickly told me that it was early afternoon- nearly nine hours later.

My head buzzed in pain as a sliver of light crept through the thin curtains, which caused me to shut my eyes with the speed of a sprung mouse trap. I crept out into the living room and saw Eve sprawled out on my usual bed. However, unlike the couch in my former apartment, this one didn’t pull out. As I watched Eve sleep, a now familiar sense of warmth entered my body. I found myself immediately drawn to her, but the image of something else broke me from my reverie, nearly causing me to burst out laughing.

Greg lay sleeping on the floor in front of the couch. He looked tremendously uncomfortable, which caused me to stifle a giggle. My hand didn’t shoot up to my mouth or anything, but I felt a tickle in my throat. My imagination immediately took this information and dreamt up the notion that fairies were the cause of this, deftly trying to bring me to giggle while armed with feathers.

While pushing such ridiculous thoughts away, my mind took on a laser-like focus. Questions about last night had to be answered.

Whose idea was it to give me the bed?

Our living arrangements weren’t ideal. I was living out of one of Eve’s suitcases as I didn’t have a proper dresser. I had no privacy, except when I went to the washroom, and I spent each night on a couch that was more of a love seat. I was actually really surprised to wake up in the bed, considering I was the only who could sleep semi-comfortably on the couch.

It had to be Eve, but if this was the case, then she broke her promise to me- the same way she had last night when she stroked my back. She wasn’t supposed to treat me any differently, and there is no way in hell she ever would have given me her bed in order to sleep off a hangover. As traitorous as Greg had been in recently, he wouldn’t do it unless he thought it was absolutely necessary, like when he pried the whiskey from my hands.

I went back into the bedroom, intending to watch Netflix on my phone. I had been binge watching an L.A Noire detective series with supernatural horror elements. I started it after the disaster that was my last reading session with Mrs. Feinstein. I had to take my mind off of my lack of control and the fact that I was seemingly regressing, even though I was avoiding kids like…how I used to avoid serving kids at the Palace. I munched on a cold pop tart and settled in for the season finale.

But I couldn’t get into it. The events of last night kept playing in my head and the memory brought a sense of comfort and warmth. I put the subtitles on, trying to desperately lose myself in the drama, but my mind always returned to the familiar closeness.

It had been a long time since I felt like this. Hannah and my mom (when I was younger) brought out those feelings, and now apparently, so did Eve. I knew that the sensations were fabricated, that the serum had suddenly magnetized Eve, and I was flying toward her at break-neck speed.

And she had definitely called me “baby girl” last night. It felt too real to be a dream. It was her fault for being too weak to combat the effects of the serum. I flew into a sudden rage, my brain actually feeling like it was disconnected from a body that was struck with murderous intent. I was too small to really hurt her, but I could make her really, really angry.

So angry, that she wouldn’t want to ever rub my back or do anything for me ever again.

So angry, that she would never love me. And she would go back to treating me normally, like a guy who made jokes about her muffin top.

Next to the bed was a glass of water, likely put there to help me stave off dehydration. On the night stand lay Eve’s smart phone, the same model and make as mine.

I dumped it in the water, allowing it to fully submerge in the liquid. Then, I went back to my show, but immediate gnawing feelings of guilt kept me from enjoying it. I hadn’t even thought about the ramifications of the decision to destroy Eve’s device. All I wanted was for her to be mad at me.

I flipped from show to show, but I couldn’t get into any of them. Since pot, booze and girls were out, and I was scared that my reading ability had gotten worse, there was only one thing I could do. I quickly brought up eBay and bought a 360 controller, the same type that would fit my smaller hands. It was the last of my money. I would lose myself in violent video games. Mobile games were an option too, but they weren’t really made to be played for hours. I needed something that would just let me vegetate, allowing me to forget about feelings that were becoming more familiar by the day.

The dream where Eve played my mother was cemented in my head. Every time she did something nice for me, it would replay and the feeling would return. I had to burn them off like a lighter flame on a leech.

There was a knock on the bedroom door and then a sweet voice, ‘Hey, Ryan? I just wanted to check up on you. Are you feeling OK?”

I turned to look at the phone which remained sunken in the glass of water, guilt feeling like a hunger pang in my stomach.

I said softly, “Uh. Yeah. Better.”

The sweet voice answered, “Good. I just wanted to get my phone.” Eve didn’t wait for me to answer and quickly opened the door. The moment she saw the state of her device, she turned toward me not with anger, but with great sadness. Sympathy.

She shook her head slowly, “You are letting the serum win.”

I replied, sounding genuinely confused, “W-What do mean? How come you aren’t mad?”

Eve answered in a grim tone, “Because I know why you did that. It’s because of last night. I was just trying to be your friend, Ryan.”

I snapped, “Yeah, well I’ve never rubbed Greg’s back when he was feeling sick. I think you’re trying to be more than that.”

Eve shook her head again, “You don’t even see it do you? The broken controller? The way you can’t discern the difference between what you dream and what is real sometimes. The stupid drinking. And now this. You are acting like a child. And mostly a brat actually. Like the kids at the hospital who feel the need to pinch me or kick me when I give them medication they don’t like. They don’t see it as me trying to help them. No, they see it like I’m giving them something they don’t like and that’s all.”

She reached into the glass and plucked out her phone, quickly wiping it down with a nearby towel. “I was actually coming in here to tell you some good news for once.” I looked at Eve hopefully, even as the gravity of her previous words had caused instant grim reflection. Was she right? I wasn’t exactly a person who really thought through my decisions. I had quit the Palace in a moment of anger, laid into Greg over Jessica/Monique- broke up with girls on a whim and even left home because I was pissed at my mom over the fact my dad died. I never even told my mom that I was going, just took off in the Mustang and headed to L.A.

Given this, how did I not end up like Mark and Devon?

Ashley.

And now, I had Eve, who was trying to help. Maybe I was seeing things wrong. Was it just the serum making me seek out a potential mother? I wanted- needed to speak with Tracy. She was the only one who could answer my questions about the serum and what it was doing to my brain. But there was no way that I was going to be allowed to speak to her, and our jail room conversation would likely be taped. Not to mention, walking into a police station as a missing person wasn’t the greatest idea either.

Eve said, “So I-“

“I’m sorry. You’re right. It’s just I have this weird feeling in my brain. It’s like I’m only seeing one way to look at things, and I just lose it. It’s like with the controller- I mean I guess I didn’t tell you this but before I hit it with the hammer, I heard Emma and Sophia playing outside, and I wanted to- I wanted to join them so badly. And I tried to force myself to play the 360, but all I could think of was skipping. It didn’t make any sense that I attacked the controller. I mean that’s what I wanted to use to drown out the girls. I didn’t think. There was this flash in my brain and then I’m just laying into the controller with the hammer.”

Eve added snidely, “To be fair, even before your change you often didn’t think. But I get it. I think the first thing you need to do is just try and calm down. Stop trying to be a macho asshole. It’s just getting you in trouble. That’s twice now. The same thing happened at the beach with you ogling those girls and then running head long into danger. If I hadn’t followed you to beach party, we might be having a completely different conversation now.”

I nodded, “I get that, but it’s hard for me because I feel like I can’t do anything the same way I used to. I can barely sit through a whole movie now without feeling bored. I want to try video games again, but I’m not even sure if that will work. And…you can’t tell this to Greg but I-I think I’m having trouble reading. I don’t know what to do, Eve.”

Eve reached out and put her hand on my shoulder. She had done the same with Jessica before and her others friends, even some guys. But, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was something else. The touch was so warm and gentle that the instant comfort it brought made me nearly pull away. “Well I think now is probably the best time to tell you about my news. I was speaking to the researchers yesterday during my shift, and they mentioned that they cracked part of the code in the data. They think that it is some kind of formula. I know that this doesn’t help because it’s not a cure yet, but in the short term, think of it like kind of encouragement not to-“

“Be stupid?”

Eve smirked, “Something like that.”

She added, “I’m not sure if playing video games all day is going to help. Other than taking your mind off of things for a while. I know you said that you don’t want to consider acting, but you are a creative guy, Ryan. You probably need some kind of outlet, which is probably one of the reasons your imagination kind of takes hold sometimes. Have you thought about writing? Your thoughts, feelings. It might help.”

I scoffed, “I’m not writing in a diary like some fucking teenage girl.”

Eve cleared her throat gently, “Patients who have undergone terrible trauma use writing as a form of therapy. It helps them put their thoughts together in a coherent way. I’ve seen it used by cancer patients, some of whom could ‘drop’ you. And you know it doesn’t have to be a diary. It could be creative writing. Anything to get what is going on inside of you out in a way that doesn’t leave my phone soaking in a glass of water.”

I replied, “I guess I could try. Uh. You really aren’t mad about the phone?”

Eve shook her head, “Not really. I dropped it in the toilet a few weeks ago. You remember that they are waterproof, right?”

I shrugged, “Well I wasn’t really thinking.” I turned away from Eve momentarily, trying to bury the memory of my childish behaviour. Another concern immediately took root however.

“Yeah. The other thing is. I’m kind of worried about what will happen in a few weeks. School’s over and Mrs. Feinstein’s been talking about having her granddaughters for more days. For full days actually. With school over, how are we going to make her think that I’m not here alone?”

Eve replied, “I’ve been thinking about the same thing. We can all talk about it later when Greg gets up. Brainstorm some ideas. I agree that it’s a problem.”

I nodded, “No more closed door bullshit?”

Eve said, “None. We can talk about the adoption too. You’ve got a choice in this, Ryan. If you don’t want us to adopt you, we can look at other options. The best thing for you now though is to try to maintain control. Fight your impulses. You might find that when you start putting your thoughts down that you can better understand yourself and what you are going through.”

I had expected a completely different conversation, one that involved a lot of screaming and threats. If anything, I was impressed with Eve’s calm demeanour. That feeling of warmth was still there, but now that I understood what Eve was trying to do, it felt different. Maybe she was really just trying to help?

***

The next day, I decided to follow through on Eve’s advice. I sat on my couch/bed with Eve’s laptop draped over my legs. While the computer wasn’t massive, it still felt like I was holding a small table on my lap, and as always, my feet dangled a few inches from the floor. I still hadn’t adjusted to my size. It was partly because in the studio, I used cups, plates and utensils meant for a kid. None of the chairs in the apartment allowed me to actually put my feet on the floor. Annoyingly as well, the sink in the bathroom had an old style basin with higher taps, meaning I had to get on my tip toes to reach it.

Of course the alternative was eating on plates, using a stool or sitting in chairs designed for children. Since that wasn’t an option, I would have to deal with the aggravation of living in an adult-sized world.

I decided to write a five act play, or possibly a story. So many actors wrote screenplays, hoping that it would be their break into the business, but that wasn’t my intent. No, I wanted to let my creativity flow, which as Eve explained, would hopefully provide me a measure of control. I didn’t want to write a diary as that would force me to deal with the issues head on, which is not something I was familiar with. My growing imagination, beyond my poor impulse control, was likely the most dangerous aspect of my change, and one that threatened to send Ryan Sullivan into a world of make believe that would ultimately destroy him.

Interaction with children was risky, but actually playing with them, joining in their games, as I had at the beach, was deadly. It is obviously what happened to Ashley. She wasn’t the same after she returned from ‘camp’. I guessed that she had fought against it initially, but surrounded by so many children, it was inevitable that she would fall to the mob. So, if I could actually turn down the play because my imagination was sufficiently sated, it would hopefully allow me to really begin fighting the serum.

Along the same lines of the supernatural detective show I was watching, I set my story during the 1930s, a time of prohibition in the United States and rampant gangster-related crimes. It was the time of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and frequent reckless bank robberies. The twist, however, was the fact that someone or rather something was killing mobsters, but they weren’t dying from gunshots. No, many of them were found mysteriously strangled or frozen to death in areas where you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.

I smiled as I tapped away on the computer. My strokes were slow but steady as the story unfolded. The person investigating the unusual deaths was a private eye, hired by the police department. Since the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which saw dozens of mobsters brutally murdered, the public had grown weary of the crime families, worried that the violence would spill into the streets. Given this fact and coupled with the bizarre deaths, the police were cautious about revealing too much to the public.

I wrote practically non-stop for what seemed like hours. My imagination was restrained and controlled- it still had the power to develop characters, settings and plot, but it wasn’t off in some magical fairy tale land.

I ran across my first bit of writer’s block when I couldn’t decide on a partner for the private eye. The person would have to be linked to the supernatural somehow. Maybe a psychic? No, that had been done to death. I didn’t really want to introduce magical powers, but then…I had written myself into a corner with the victim who was frozen to death. Ghosts didn’t usually have powers like that.

A tiny smile grew on my face as I typed, “Elsa, Queen of Arendelle, trapped on Earth by a powerful magical spell, was known to Wally Sylvester. He had kind of a reputation for dealing with the strangest customers, and that’s why the police hired him to solve a string of the most bizarre murders Chicago had ever seen. She seemed like a real nut job, the kind they stick in the loony bin, but she’d helped him before. She had a reputation as an ice queen both literally and figuratively, and while he didn’t believe for a second that she could actually freeze anything, with one of the dead men found frozen stiff, she was both a suspect and perhaps one of the only people who could solve the murders.”

I raised a brow and said aloud, “What in the actual fuck? Did I just turn this into a Frozen fanfiction? For fuck’s sake.”

I deleted the entire paragraph and then introduced the psychic instead, deciding to ret-con the deaths and make them more believable. I couldn’t believe that the serum could just coopt my imagination like that. I continued writing, however; it wasn’t long before I grew bored, wanting to do something else.

I could have switched to a movie, but then I felt like I had something here. It wasn’t amazing or anything, but I was proud of it, but most importantly, it was something Ryan Sullivan wrote. So, I continued writing, but it became harder and harder to focus on the story…not becoming something else.

It started to bother me that Anna and Olaf, the magic talking snowman, couldn’t see their friend and sister any longer, so I wrote them into the story too. And gradually, it changed from being a gritty supernatural crime drama with elements of horror to Frozen 2: Lost in a new world. The entire second part of the story featured Anna and Olaf looking for the magical portal that transported their friend to a different time and place. Wally Sylvester, the tough-talking no-nonsense private eye became a little fairy girl that guided Elsa back toward her friends. The story looked like it had been written by two different people.

I slammed down the lid of the laptop, “Fuck me. This isn’t working.” Maybe Eve was right and I did need to get my feelings down. I just wasn’t sure how I could do it without sounding like some teenaged girl going through an emo or goth phase.

I was pleasantly surprised, however, when my thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the apartment buzzer. Even though I had only ordered the controller a day before, deliveries were sometimes very fast. Some big box stores even offered same day delivery, which was mindboggling considering twenty years ago people were still ordering things out of catalogues. I still remember poring over the Christmas Wishbook catalogue, circling all the things I wanted and then boxes arriving at the base sometimes weeks later.

I hurried to the door and unlatched it, not even bothering to look through the peep hole. Unfortunately, I wasn’t met by a delivery person holding a package. Instead, a smiling young woman, probably a few years older than me, stood at the door holding a clipboard. She was a little plain for my taste, but that could have been because her hair was tied in a severe bun, making the skin of her forehead look oddly stretched. She wore a neat suit, highlighting a pair of stumpy legs and a passable figure. I knew girls like this from the gym. They would come and do twenty minutes of cardio and then leave, thinking they would lose weight. Or they would do the easiest classes.

Still, despite this, her face and general package itself was attractive with fair skin and a light dusting of red in otherwise honey blonde hair. She smiled down at me in that way that adults did when they looked at children, which was half warm and half patronizing. I figured she was looking for money, so I quickly moved to close the door. Before I could, however, she gently placed her hand on the side of it. This caused her to switch the hand that held the clipboard which revealed a laminated badge with the words, “Child Protective Services- Bronwyn McDavid”.

I tried my best to hide both my surprise and the sudden fear I felt, but it was impossible. Akin to a gut punch, all the air left my lungs, and I struggled to breathe. My left hand began to shake so much that I was forced to hide it behind my back.

Ms. McDavid leaned down and smiled gently, “It’s OK. There’s nothing to be scared of. I’d just like to speak to your mommy or daddy. I have a few small questions for them. You can tell them that a Ms. McDavid from Child Protective Services is here to see them.”

I stared blankly at the woman. It was obvious that the government would find us eventually. Eve was right in that they probably knew where I was staying after I escaped from the studio, but I was completely unprepared for the reality of this fact, staring at me with a smiling face and a clipboard.

I blurted out, “They’ll be back soon. In five minutes. They just went to the store.”

The woman raised a brow, “Oh? Well that’s OK. I can wait for them. While we wait, can I ask you a few questions please? Oh, and what’s your name, cutie?”

I managed to squeak out, “S-Sure. It’s um…Riley.” I was hoping that I would be able to send a quick text to Eve to let her know she needed to get her ass back here, commandeer a fucking ambulance if she had to, but the woman didn’t budge from the door. I knew letting her in would probably look really bad, since I shouldn’t have even answered the door in the first place.

I said quickly, “Can you just wait a sec? I need to tell my mom I’m talking to you.” Ms. McDavid nodded, and I rapidly texted Eve, telling her to get home ASAP. Still, why the fuck did I have to open the door? At least I managed to come up with an excuse that would make me look mature enough to stay by myself for the time it would take Eve to get home.

I returned to the door, and unfortunately, Ms. McDavid hadn’t left or died of a heart attack. She looked at me expectantly, but matched with the gentle smile, I had a hard time wishing too much for her death, despite what she represented. “So, how come you aren’t at school today, Riley?”

I replied, “My mom took me out for today. We’re supposed to go to the splash park with the big slides.”

Ms. McDavid smiled, “Sounds like fun! Now, I don’t want you to be scared, Riley. But there’s been some concern that your parents are leaving you home alone. It’s not a bad thing. And they can, but I just need to make sure you are safe. So I’m going to ask you some questions. It doesn’t mean anyone is going to be in trouble necessarily. It’s all to keep you safe, you know what that means, right?”

My eyes filled with what probably looked like murderous rage. It wasn’t the government coming to collect their creation, no, it was a social worker following up on a complaint. The only person I could think of was Mrs. Feinstein. She had threatened to tell before, and now, I was positive she had made a formal complaint. I couldn’t understand why, especially because I had been staying at her place, and we had been getting along really well.

I brushed away the instant feeling of anger as best I could, trying to address Ms. McDavid with a face that didn’t scream go-the-fuck-away. Her questions would be the equivalent to free climbing, scaling the face of a cliff with no supports or tools. One wrong foothold or failed attempt to latch onto the next step would mean death, or in my case, an investigation which could lead to my removal from Greg and Eve. I couldn’t ignore the sudden thumping of my heart and the tiny ache at the prospect of the latter.

I nodded in response to Ms. McDavid’s question, and she quickly asked a follow up. “If there was a fire in the apartment, would you know what to do, Riley?”

I said proudly, “Yeah. There’s a fire extinguisher under the sink. I’d grab that and put it out.”

Ms. McDavid lightly tapped her pen on the clipboard, “Hmm. I see. You don’t think it would be better to run to a neighbour? And depending on the type of fire, the extinguisher might not work. It’s better to leave the apartment, tell an adult, and they will decide how to handle the fire. OK, sweetie?”

I frowned and nodded begrudgingly. Ms. McDavid looked at me thoughtfully, “Don’t worry, sweetie. There’s no wrong answers. It’s not like a test at school. You’re doing fine. And I’m glad your parents showed you how to use the extinguisher, but it’s best to let an adult put a fire out.”

“Now if there is a fire in the apartment, but there’s smoke coming from under the front door and the handle feels hot to the touch. What would you do?”

I said, “Well I’d use the fire escape. Climb out the window.”

Ms. McDavid nodded, “OK. And where is the fire escape? Can you show me?”

I nodded and led the woman into the apartment, bringing her to the window. She tsked gently and inspected the window, placing her hands on it and forcing it open with a slight grunt. She slowly shook her head and looked down at her clipboard. From what I could tell, she was going down a list and likely checking various boxes after each question. I came to the realization that I wasn’t doing very well so far, and my nervousness returned in the form of rapid breathing and shaky hands. I thought that I had answered the question smartly, but it didn’t matter if I knew what to do, it was obvious I wouldn’t be able to open the stubborn window.

Ms. McDavid’s bottom lip stretched forward as she tilted her head slightly, “Are you OK, Riley? Just let me know when you are ready to continue.” I nodded sadly, again hiding my hand behind my back.

“Good. I don’t mean to upset you. I know these questions can be difficult. But again it comes down to making sure you are safe. I don’t think your mommy or daddy would want to see you hurt, sweetie.”

“If there was a fire or something else that happened that made you feel afraid, who would you call? You know what an emergency is, right? Who would you call in case of emergency? And let’s say you can’t reach your parents.”

I replied, “Well there’s a lady that I stay with after school. I would go see her.”

Ms. McDavid nodded, “Okay. Good. But if she wasn’t home, who would you call?”

I shrugged my shoulders, “I guess my mom’s friend Jessica. She’s stayed with me a few times, and she’s nice.”

The woman looked down at her clipboard with a smile and made what looked like a check with her pen. It made me think that I had finally answered one of the questions correctly. I wanted to tell her that there were, in fact, right and wrong answers. Too many wrong answers meant an investigation with a likely result. I would be just like Ashley, likely forced to stay at the daycare program at the hospital, and by the time September rolled around, I would be ready, and likely excited to go to school.

The next few questions had to do with first aid, and considering my injury, I knew exactly where they were. I went through the steps to properly dress a wound and what to do if I drank poison. The test would have been nearly impossible for a real six year old, unless they had been extremely well trained, and other than the first two screw ups, I thought I was knocking it out of the park.

“Okay, Riley. Pretend I’m the person who answers the 9-1-1 calls. You need to tell me your full home address. Including the postal code.”

Considering I didn’t drive any longer, and I had barely left the apartment, I couldn’t remember the street sign. I frantically looked around for an envelope with a bill on it, something that would tell me. I mostly navigated using landmarks. I had never paid attention to the address here.

Seconds later, however, I had a Eureka moment. I grabbed my phone and quickly opened Google Maps, setting the GPS to ‘Find My Location’. I showed it to Ms. McDavid with a smile.

The young woman grinned, “Well you’re a little smarty aren’t you? You should know it off-by-heart though, just in case you can’t use your phone. Still, I’m impressed, Riley.”

She looked down at the clipboard again and then returned her gaze to me, “Great. Well I have one last question for you, Riley. Do you ever get really scared when you are alone? Like you hear a noise, and you aren’t sure what it is. And what happens when you are frightened or nervous when you are alone? How do you deal with those feelings?”

I nodded, “Well sometimes. I usually just call my mommy or daddy, or I call Mrs. Feinstein and she lets me stay with her until they get home.”

The pen again struck a clear checkmark over the page. I felt that I had passed the test, especially with the most recent answers I had given. I sounded like a mature young lady who had been very well trained by her parents.

Ms. McDavid nodded, “A small follow-up question, Riley. Do you know what overwhelmed means? It’s like when you have a very strong feeling, it can be fear but it can be happiness too. But let’s say it makes you scared in this case. Do you ever feel like it’s too much, that you are overwhelmed staying by yourself?”

I shook my head, unsure what sort of response the woman was fishing for. “No. And like I said, if I was, well I’d stay with Mrs. Feinstein or I’d ask Jessica to come over and be with me.”

Ms. McDavid checked her watch with a slight frown, “How long do your parents usually leave you alone for?”

I shrugged, “Well it depends. Not very long.”

Ms. McDavid nodded, although her smiling face had been replaced with one of disappointment. Her mouth drooped into a frown, while she chewed her bottom lip. “Have they ever left you alone for a whole day? And I know you might not understand exactly what I mean, but let me explain. Let’s say you eat breakfast with your mommy, but then you don’t see her until you wake up the next morning. Are there days like that?”

I nodded, “Sometimes. Usually, I go to school and then I go to Mrs. Feinstein’s after that. But then my dad comes home from the restaurant to stay with me. Mom works as a nurse so if she leaves in the morning I only sometimes see her before bed. But I never spend the night alone. Ever.”

The woman looked down at her clipboard and began writing furiously. She continued writing, pausing only to provide what she likely believed was a reassuring smile. “Now, with school ending in the next few weeks, what is going to happen then? You said your dad works at a restaurant. And your mom is a nurse. Are you going to be staying with Jessica or this, uh, Mrs. Feinstein?”

I nodded, “I think so. Probably both of them.”

The door opened in flurry, with Eve, her purse and legs and arms entering like some failed mad scientist experiment in clockwork motion.

“Uh sorry. *huff* I’m so *huff* late. Traffic was terrible.” Eve practically threw her purse across the room, before moving to the kitchen table and sitting down. Ms. McDavid calmly followed her. I figured I would be told to go to my non-existent room, but Ms. McDavid actually invited me to sit at the table.

Ms. McDavid looked firmly at Eve, who was still wearing her nursing scrubs. “So you came from work, miss?”

Eve nodded, “Mendes.”

Ms. McDavid frowned gently, “It’s interesting because your daughter told me that you were at the store. And only a few minutes away. Now, in situations like this, I actually like to conduct the interview with the child present. This is a good learning opportunity, for her as well as yourself, Miss Mendes. I’m pleased to meet you. My name is Ms. McDavid.” I was shocked how quickly the social worker turned from pleasant but firm to tough-as-nails bitch as soon as Eve walked through the door. She had gone from casual Friday with shoes optional to power suit and heels with football player-sized shoulders pads.

Eve gently cleared her throat, “Uh. I-I’m sure. Um. That’s fine, Ms. McDavid.” Eve was worse than a deer in the headlights, in fact, she was acting more like the aftermath, entrails, gore, bone splattered, no longer animal but simply parts- dead, deaf, dumb and blind.

Ms. McDavid nodded slowly and then briefly looked down at her clipboard. “There has been some concern that Riley may not be ready to stay by herself for extended periods of time. As you know, there’s no specific legal age when a child can stay at home in this state, but it’s important to note that this is discretionary. In very, very few cases would I suggest that a child her age stay alone for any length of time. Most twelve year olds are mature enough, some ten year olds, but I can’t think of any case where someone Riley’s age was home by herself for longer than a half hour. And keep in mind, these were cases where a child was seriously injured.”

“Riley told me that you were at the store, and you were coming back soon. She said the reason she is out of school is because you were going to take her to the water park. Is this true?” The questions were no longer friendly. I had seen enough detective shows to know when someone was being grilled. If this were a business meeting, it would scream hostile takeover.

Eve nodded slowly. All she had to do was agree with everything I told Ms. McDavid. Then, it would be nearly impossible to show I lied. “Yes. But I think she was confused. I said after work, right, baby girl?” I nodded.

“And which one were you going to bring her to?”

Eve blinked, “Uh. I guess the one off 64. It’s the closest.”

Ms. McDavid replied, “Uh huh. OK. So part of what I’m trying to do here is to figure out if Riley is mature enough to stay by herself. That means emotionally mature in that she can handle being alone, but also, advanced enough that she can understand directions, provide details, and make smart decisions. I have to say that you’ve taught her very well. She knows more about first aid then any elementary student I’ve ever spoken to. Although, she could use a refresher on fire safety. I don’t like the idea of her using a fire extinguisher by herself. She should always tell an adult when she feels she’s in danger, and if there’s a fire, she should immediately leave the apartment. Your fire escape is also not easily accessible to her. I suggest you replace that window with one that Riley can more easily open.”

The young social worker furrowed her brow gently, “However, I have to say that I’m very concerned about a few things. For one, Riley opened the door without asking who I was. And she let me in the apartment without asking you. I expected that she would have me talk to you first and then give the OK.”

Ms. McDavid turned to me and said gently, “I’m not trying to get you in trouble, Riley. Maybe you thought it was OK because I have a badge. But you shouldn’t have opened the door in the first place. It’s very dangerous to open the door for strangers. And even for people you know. And, you can’t let anyone into the apartment unless you’ve spoken to your mommy or daddy first, OK, sweetie?” I nodded sullenly. Why couldn’t it have been the fucking delivery guy with my controller?

She turned back to Eve, “Would you consider your daughter mature for her age?”

Eve nodded rapidly, “Absolutely. Yes.”

Ms. McDavid said, “Do you ever have trouble with her around the house? Any behaviour problems at all? Times where she hasn’t done what she was told?”

Eve shook her head, “No. Not that I remember. I mean she is six. She doesn’t like to go to bed on time. She’ll talk back, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen working in the children’s ward at the hospital. I’d say she’s a pretty normal six year old.”

Ms. McDavid began writing frantically. I wasn’t sure if Eve was acing the test or not, but fevered writing seemed like a bad thing, but with me, simple checkmarks were the goal.

“I’m sorry, but I need to take all of this down. I’m still listening if you have anything to add, but it’s very important that I capture our conversation, Ms. Mendes. Does your daughter have any serious allergies or a medical condition that might make it dangerous for her to stay alone?”

Eve again shook her head, “No. Like I said, she’s very normal. I mean she ate some eggs when she was a baby and flared up, but we had her tested recently and the only thing she tested high for was pet dander. Dog and cat. She doesn’t have any medical conditions.”

Ms. McDavid raised a brow, “Does she get overwhelmed easily? I have to say that when she opened the door for me, the poor girl looked terrified. She was shaking like a leaf. I would say that her breathing was erratic also. She doesn’t have asthma does she?”

Eve shook her head, “No.”

“One final question, Ms. Mendes. Has Riley ever hurt herself while she’s been alone in the apartment? And if so, did she tell you immediately?”

Eve paused and then calmly said, “No. And if she did, I’m sure she would tell me.”

Finally, Ms. McDavid lowered her pen. She looked at me with a smile and then addressed Eve sternly, “By all accounts, your daughter is remarkable. Her speech and comprehension is off the charts for someone her age. She’s a beautiful little girl and highly intelligent. So, I’m going to ask you a simple question. Do you want to risk leaving your child home alone for extended periods of time? I don’t want to scare you Ms. Mendes, but you are taking, in my professional opinion, an unnecessary risk. Riley is very mature for her age, but she’s simply too young to stay by herself. I’ve seen it before in children her age, and while I’m not a doctor, I think she suffers from mild to potentially severe panic attacks. Leaving a child alone who suffers from these types of attacks is very dangerous.”

Eve frowned and looked at the social worker with narrowed eyes, “I’m not sure what you are getting at here, but I think if she had them I would notice. I’m a trained nurse.”

Ms. McDavid replied, “Ms. Mendes, I’m sorry if I upset you. I’m not trying to be difficult with you. I know that Riley may enjoy spending time with your friend and this woman in the building, but there are alternatives. I’m not sure if you are aware, but the state is now offering a number of affordable child care options during the summer.”

The social worker locked eyes with me, her face morphing from austere to pleasant in milliseconds, “You’ll get to play with kids your own age, Riley. There’s games and lots of activities. And even,” she paused for dramatic effect, “circus school. Would you like to learn how to juggle, sweetie? Or ride a unicycle?”

Eve said, “I don’t think my daughter would be interested in that. She enjoys spending time with Mrs. Feinstein and my friend Jessica.”

Ms. McDavid’s features tightened as her brows raised. “The issue here is not what she would enjoy the most- it is what is best for her. Now, Ms. Mendes, you’ve lied to me several times during our discussion. So I have a hard time believing that Riley will be staying with your friend or this,” her eyes darted toward the clipboard, “Mrs. Feinstein for as long as you say.”

Eve began to slowly grind her teeth, “How exactly have I lied to you?”

Ms. McDavid replied, “I’d rather not do this in front of your daughter. If you would like to come to my-“

Eve glared at the woman and bared her teeth, similar to a snarling dog. Of course, I’d never tell Eve that. Well now. Before, I would have been all over the insult, equating her to an angry bulldog. I couldn’t tell if Eve was upset at being called a liar (which she definitely was) or if she… Would she care in the end if I was sent away? It was hard to admit, but at the thought, that tiny ache returned to my heart.

Ms. McDavid sighed, “There is no waterpark off 64, and if there was, it would be closed because of the drought. That is forgivable as you could may not have known that. But you outright lied about an injury that Riley suffered. I’ve spoken to others in the building, and there was an instance where Riley was left alone, and she was seriously hurt.” Feinstein. I was going to fucking kill her.

She added, “And while I cannot diagnose your daughter, a psychological profile conducted by a doctor can. Do you really want to put her through a bevy of tests? I will also have to complete a full investigation. For what, this strange obsession that I assume is some form of free-range parenting? I have a legal obligation to ensure that your daughter is safe. All of the other issues we discussed, how she answers the door, the fire escape, all of them can be fixed. But I cannot legally allow you to leave her at home if I have reason to suspect that she has an undiagnosed medical condition.”

The young woman sighed, “I’m very sorry about this, Ms. Mendes. Your best option is to enroll Riley in one of the state-sponsored day programs for the summer. I really don’t want to have to go through with an investigation. I have the forms with me, and I can even stay while you fill them out in case you have any questions. Based on your income, it might be less than 10$ a day, depending on what Riley’s father makes.”

Ms. McDavid offered Eve a small reassuring smile. It was obvious why. Eve, the former bulldog, had been reduced to a declawed and toothless cat. Her shoulders slumped as her eyes stared at the floor. “We can fill the forms out tomorrow if you like. Talk to your husband about it and then please give me a call in the morning.” The woman deposited her card on the kitchen table. The same table where I had beaten Greg in every single drinking contest we ever had.

Ms. McDavid rose from the table and then leaned down in front of me, “You’re going to love the day camp, Riley.”

***

“So we’re going to fight this, right? I mean I can’t obviously go to that camp. It’s basically exactly what happened to Ashley. In a week, the Ashley I knew was gone.”

Eve shifted her eyes to avoid my gaze. She was the equivalent of a boxer who gives up before the bell, not even willing to throw a single punch.

“Fuck, Eve! This is bullshit. All the big words to me about not giving up and the first time the shit hits the fan, you crumple. You’re like a fat girl’s willpower in a room full of cheesecakes. Overwhelmed and powerless.”

Eve shot me a dirty look, but she refused to bite. “I have to make some calls.” Following this, Eve went into her bedroom and closed the door.

I yelled, “Oh, what? We’re just done now? Fuck you, Eve! I can’t believe I ever trusted you. I thought we were supposed to talk about this shit together.” I emphasized my point with two quick stomps of my feet.

Still in a rage, I bolted from the apartment and headed to Mrs. Feinstein’s apartment. That fucking bitch had turned the feds on us. I knew it was her who had made the complaint. She was the only one who knew that I had been injured. During my time there, I thought we got along well enough, and lately, she hadn’t mentioned anything about her complaint. She had obviously changed her mind.

I scrunched my little hand into a fist and used the fleshy portion to bang as loud as I could on the door. The flesh on wood made a pathetic plinking noise, like a pebble hitting a massive oak tree. My mind, at this point, was moving a billion miles a seconds. Deep within my nestled brain mass, I could almost feel a switch going off, followed by a blinding flash. All logic, all reasonable thought fled from my mind as I sat down on the floor and proceeded to kick my feet at the door. My feet hitting the door made a satisfying thump with each kick.

So lost in my anger toward the door and Mrs. Feinstein, I failed to realize that seconds later, I was actually kicking air.

“Child! What in the world possessed you to create this terrible racket!? Are you hurt? Is there an emergency?”

The moment I heard Mrs. Feinstein’s voice, I jumped to my feet and screamed, “You fucking, wrinkled dried up old bitch! You made your complaint anyway, didn’t you? After you promised you wouldn’t!” I was surprised that as much anger as I felt toward the woman, such vile rage spewing from me, that I was almost equally saddened. Hurt.

Mrs. Feinstein swung the door wide open, and then pointed to the lazy boy rocker with her cane. It was the same chair where we had read so many chapters of Hound of the Baskervilles. “Sit.” It wasn’t a polite offer of tea or even a firm suggestion- it was a command. While she hadn’t had to discipline me since our initial meeting, I quickly fell into line with the return of her steeled tone.

The flash returned in my brain, and I felt a sudden wave of fear. Trouble. I was in so much trouble.

I quickly shook away the thoughts. No, I had a reason to viciously verbally assault this woman. She may have sealed Ryan Sullivan’s fate.

“I’m going to ignore your vile words for now, young lady. Because I am more concerned with what brought you here to make such a strong, and might I add, groundless accusation. Now, speak. What is this nonsense?”

I replied, staring at Mrs. Feinstein with a boiling hatred. It wasn’t simply a pot whose water had overflowed. No, it was the angry remains, the seething droplets that sizzled in a pot nearly drained of liquid. In the old woman’s face, however, I saw great confusion and sadness. This fact dowsed much of my anger. “Child Services came. They made a big deal about me staying home alone. The woman said it’s because someone complained. And somehow they found out that I’d been hurt. You were the only one who knew that other than my mom.”

Mrs. Feinstein sighed deeply. She sat down on the couch opposite to me, her shoulders and seemingly her entire body caving in from some unseen pressure. “My granddaughters. Granddaughter in fact. After your injury, I’m sorry to say that for approximately a week and even two…Sophia made a point to tell everyone that she was a hero. She was so proud of herself, how she had brought me to help you. I was the one who put it in her head. It’s all very innocent. I’m very sad to hear that it has led to this.”

She added, “I made a point in trying to fib a little. Especially around the ladies in the park who gather around the picnic tables. I don’t go in for idle gossip, especially when it affects someone I care dearly for. When the ladies brought up you staying alone, I mentioned that- well your mother was just around the corner.”

I glared at her, “I don’t believe you. You just- you’re lying. You’re just a shit disturber.”

Mrs. Feinstein furrowed her brow and gently tapped her cane on the floor, “I can assure you that I am not. I am actually quite reasonable. I never made the complaint, Riley. I understand that you are upset, but I should not be the target of your anger. Your head is probably buzzing like it’s full of bees right now, but take a moment, take a deep breath and think about what I have said. Have I done anything to make you think otherwise? Since you began coming here in the afternoons?”

I wanted to remain furious, but it was difficult due to the calming effect of Mrs. Feinstein’s words. I grumbled and said, “I guess not. I mean, well I guess I’m sorry. I kind of overreacted.”

Mrs. Feinstein nodded, “A tooth extraction of an apology but I’ll accept it. I will speak to your mother about this issue. I can act as a reference for Child Services. I’ve been meaning to speak to her actually because I still haven’t found out what she intends to do with you over the summer. I don’t mind of course keeping our regular afternoon socials, but I’m planning on taking some vacation in July. Three weeks actually. Sophia and Emma are both going to be in camps, and then they’ll be staying with me for a whole week in August. Poor Sophia is starting to think you don’t like her. Your parents always seem to be home whenever I have the girls.”

I frowned, unable to control the gradual shift forward of my lower lip. It formed what I assumed was a gentle pout. “Three weeks?”

Mrs. Feinstein smiled, “I’m sure your parents have all kinds of fun things planned. Maybe you’ll get to see your grandmother. I don’t mind being the surrogate of course, but didn’t you say you stayed with her when your parents had that raucous party?”

Three weeks suddenly seemed like an eternity. It would mean that I couldn’t stay with Mrs. Feinstein and avoid the summer camp, but it also meant…I wouldn’t see her for three whole weeks. I was equally saddened at this thought and terrified, knowing that if I was forced to attend the camp, I would fall victim to the serum. When I returned, I would be more than happy to play with Sophia. We could play Frozen together, just like Ashley and I had done. Memories from the studio flooded back, but instead of the piercing metallic thrum and the darkness with teeth that loved to feast on little children, I remembered simply being lost in play with Ashley. I felt a sudden warmth in my chest and tiny prickle at the back of my neck.

I quickly brushed the thoughts away. Mrs. Feinstein looked at me with a wry smile, “Of course, it doesn’t mean we can’t finish the Hound of the Baskervilles before I go.” She reached over to the coffee table and pulled the book onto her lap.

I grinned and nodded, clambering up onto the couch to sit next to Mrs. Feinstein. She asked, “Does your mother know you are here?” I shook my head.

Mrs. Feinstein reached over to her telephone. “Hello, yes. Ms. Mendes. I wanted to let you know that Riley is here with me. Yes. You’re welcome, goodbye.”

Mrs. Feinstein opened the book and began reading, however, only a few pages in, she stopped. “Riley, dear, can you read for a little while? I’m having a little trouble concentrating.”

I frowned, looking down at the pages like they were an impossible to solve math problem.

Mrs. Feinstein said, “I promise I’ll continue in a few minutes, child. My head it’s just buzzing a little right now. You’ll do fine with your reading. Just go slowly, and if you come across a word that proves too difficult, I’ll jump in. These kinds of challenges are part and parcel with learning to read.”

I stared grimly at the page, fear gripping my body, forcing my shoulders down with immeasurable weight. Incredibly, the words came into focus, and I was able to rapidly decipher the patterns associated with each one. I read an entire chapter by myself, and while I shouldn’t have been proud- I was. I suppose I had a reason to be proud both as Riley and Ryan. Whatever demoralizing side effect of the serum that had sapped my ability to read was gone. I concluded that it must have been a one off, the result of a constantly battered mind.

After finishing the chapter, I returned to the apartment in high spirits. I was surprised how quickly I had forgiven Mrs. Feinstein. In a way, it was her fault. She had called Sophia a hero, and then the girl blabbed to a bunch of gossiping old ladies, but I couldn’t stay mad at her. In fact, I still felt bad for swearing at her. The memory of her wrinkled face drooping into a frown, her eyes sagging in their sockets, her body itself seemingly shrinking, withering away, it stayed with me.

It was almost as if I was actually starting to care about her. She wasn’t some one-night stand that I could have my fun with and forget about. But what was she? The grandmother I never really had? Simply a light in what has been a dark tunnel perpetuated by the serum?

A friend.

And one I didn’t ask for rides from or insult, or feel the need to engage in pissing contests with. She gave me confidence, and while her granddaughter’s action had suddenly forced a number of objects in my path, I still felt supported by her. She brought about similar feelings of warmth, without the baggage brought on by Eve’s mothering.

It was like somehow everything would turn out fine. That’s what I felt when I was around her. It made me consider, as I walked back to the apartment, telling her my secret. We would have another ally, another person to take up the cause against the serum, the corrupt government- the entire sordid web.

I opened the door slowly, feeling heartened after my time with Mrs. Feinstein, I was ready to try again with Eve, minus the swearing and childish behaviour. The support and encouragement I received from Mrs. Feinstein gave me hope that Eve would do the same.

“Hi, Riley! It’s nice to meet you.”

Sitting next to Eve on the couch was Jessica.



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