Designer Children Chapter 27

Designer Children Chapter 27 by OneShot20XX ([email protected])

“I’ve yelled at her. I’m not proud of it.”

“Kat, there’s a difference between shouting at a child and terrorizing her. You should have seen the look on her face. It’s something my-“

“You are not your dad. You made a mistake.” Kathryn’s voice wavered and then she said reluctantly. “We are going to- we are going to make at least a few of them.”

Thomas laughed awkwardly, “We are going to make a lot of them. It seems like no matter what the books say, hardly anything works.”

It was Saturday morning and Thomas and Kathryn were having breakfast, while I listened at the door. With my lightweight frame, it was easy to sneak around the house undetected.

Kathryn replied, “I talked to my sister about Kaylee’s behaviour and how she treated me yesterday. Emma and Sophia, never ever speak to her that way. I don’t know what it is, but it looks like she wants the help, and then she pushes us away.”

Thomas sighed lightly, “I don’t know either.”

Both of them sounded incredibly frustrated, and I hadn’t even been in the house a week. I should have been more satisfied that Thomas had also clearly been affected by my behaviour, but a part of me felt bad. I should have despised them both, wanted to make their lives a living hell, but the heaviness in which they spoke sent pangs of guilt through my little body. Suddenly, I felt something soft and furry rub against my leg. Midnight’s unexpected appearance caused me to let out a surprised yelp, which immediately gave away my position.

Thomas barked, “Kaylee! Are you listening at the door?”

I said sheepishly, “Uh. No?”

More heavy sighs penetrated the door from the kitchen. Moments later the door swung open, and I was pulled into the kitchen. Kathryn said, “Kaylee, it is impolite to eavesdrop.”

I replied, “What did you want me to do exactly? Go back upstairs and wait for you to finish, just because you might be talking about me? Not happening. Besides, I’m fucking hungry.”

Considering the amount of sighing happening in the kitchen, I was surprised that Thomas and Kathryn hadn’t both passed out from the massive amount of air they were expelling. Thomas frowned and took off his glasses, tapping them gently against the table. He didn’t so much frown as contort his face in disappointment, his bottom lip practically enveloping the top. “How many times do we have to tell you not to swear, Kaylee? We don’t use words like that in this family.”

I shrugged my shoulders, “I’m thinking maybe twelve times. Maybe thirteen. How many times has it been?”

A tiny grin appeared on Kathryn’s face. “Agatha did say she was too smart for her own good.”

Thomas glared at Kathryn and returned the glasses to his face, “Kat! Don’t encourage her. I bet you wouldn’t be laughing if she was doing it to you.”

Kathryn lightly cleared her throat, “No, of course not. But I guess it’s up to us to help to guide her. She obviously needs to be challenged. She needs a creative outlet. But I agree we need to do something about the swearing.”

I joined Kathryn and Thomas at the kitchen table, and Thomas slid an omelet onto the plate in front of me. As always, I gobbled my food, my wannabe parents told me to slow down, and then I retreated to the couch on the second floor to read. I still wanted an Xbox, and at this point, I would have even accepted a stupid Wii, but at least I still had the Sherlock Holmes books. The Clarissa mouse detective novel lay on the coffee table, and while I felt a tiny tingle urging me to pick it up, I was able to ignore it.

Midnight attempted multiple times to sit on my lap, but each time, I managed to slide him off by shifting my hips back and forth in a semi crab walk. As I settled into the book, I heard footsteps on the stairs, and then a gentle thunk on the coffee table. Thomas said, “Kaylee, Saturday is cleaning day. Kathryn and I are expecting you to help too. I’d like you to start by folding this laundry.”

When I was a kid, I was expected to clean my room, but that was mostly a losing battle for my mom. I had never picked up a duster or swept anything. Even my apartment, I mostly just cleaned the surfaces, wiped the kitchen counter and cleaned the bathroom. Laundry involved the machine in my building that worked only half the time and then stuffing it into drawers. If there was one thing I actually enjoyed about being a kid was that I didn’t really have any responsibilities. I didn’t have to work, getting yelled at by ungrateful, rude customers, coming home smelling like three different kinds of onions, so because of this, I actually scoffed at Thomas’ suggestion.

Thomas said firmly, “Kaylee, you are living in this house now. It’s only fair that everyone pulls their weight. I know you can’t do some things because you are a kid, but you can certainly fold and put away your laundry.”

I raised a brow, “Oh really? And what are you going to do? Got another grant thing to write?” I was starting to believe that Thomas used the grant excuse to get out of doing work. Like, who was so clueless they couldn’t fix a rotten step or a door slightly off its hinges?

Thomas replied matter-of-factly, “Sweep the upstairs hallway and all the bedrooms. And clean the upstairs bathroom.” Why the hell would he agree to do that? Part of the reason why I hated the prospect of growing up and becoming a woman was that I would be forced to do what Eve did, which was to pretty much clean the whole apartment. Greg did the dishes when Eve cooked, but beyond that, Eve was the only one who ever picked up a broom. It was definitely like that growing up too. My dad fixed cars, cooked on the barbeque, but he certainly never cleaned the house. It was a fact- guys definitely had it easier. I wasn’t sure why it was like that, but it’s all I had ever known, and I accepted it.

I ignored Thomas and proceeded to bury my nose further in my book, completely blocking the man from view. A moment later, the book was snatched away, revealing an exasperated Thomas, whose face was red and whose eyes bore into me angrily. “It’s time for you to drop this Hollywood attitude, missy. You are going to understand that you will not, under any circumstances be getting away with this type of behaviour. Now, you can have this back after you’ve finished folding the laundry.”

The man was still obviously upset about what I had said to his wife. For someone who looked like he couldn’t bench press the metal bar that holds the weights, the man had a surprising strength to him. Still, I looked at him with clear challenge, my mouth turned into a tiny grin, “Well, maybe I don’t want it back.”

Thomas quickly retorted, “Then, you can just go to your room until it is time for lunch.”

I shrugged my shoulders and then started off toward my room. On my bedroom door, my wannabe parents had hung what looked like a homemade stuffed version of my name, patterned in cute pink block letters and sitting on an equally fluffy looking cloud.

Thomas said pleasantly, clearly trying to get back on my good side. “Do you like it? We got it specially made just for you, Kaylee. It only just arrived yesterday.”

The words popped almost immediately into my head and completely bypassed my seemingly non-existent filter. “It’s pretty.” It was, as loathe as I was to admit it, looking like the logo to my own TV show or something.

Thomas said, “I’m glad you like it. Kathryn and I want to do everything we can to make you feel like this is your home now. But that also includes taking part in the weekly chores. And uh, it will be fun too. Don’t you think it will be fun to help?”

It shouldn’t have been, but like the fucking vegetable washing the other day, the prospect of helping, once it had been explained, did seem like a lot of fun. Doing the things that Kathryn and Thomas were doing would make me feel like more of a grown up too. It was fun to pretend, but this was real, and somehow that was more fun. I turned from my bedroom and took an experimental step toward the laundry basket.

Thomas motioned toward the laundry, “Good girl. Here, I’ll even show you how to fold the clothes. It’s not hard.”

Like a dog, I immediately perked up at the words ‘good girl’. Deep down inside, beneath the layers of what remained of my fractured masculinity, something stirred. A great lumbering beast, with twin pigtails and a bouncy, happy smile, heard those words and devoured them, but it was a morsel, and the beast wanted a never-ending feast. It was too late by the time I realized the happy smile was plastered on my face.

I was being attacked on all sides- the desire for praise and to receive that praise by helping, circumventing my usual defences. Greg and Eve never really praised me for anything. I mean they wouldn’t have thanked me for something completely mundane or said I was a good girl, not if they wanted to continue breathing normally. Mrs. Feinstein wasn’t one to heap praise either, but when she did, I reacted similarly. It was obvious, however, that since I arrived in Twin Falls, and I was really being treated like a child, I was regressing. The same thing had happened in the studio even before Ashley’s memory wipe.

Realizing that I could avoid further issues by actually doing as Thomas was asking, I quickly moved over to the basket and let him demonstrate to me how to fold. Considering how easily my emotions turned from calm stream to raging tidal wave capable of drowning all of humanity, I knew I needed to be cautious. I didn’t want another incident like what happened in the grocery store.

“Okay, I get it. Now, promise me one thing. Just let me sit here and fold this and don’t say a word. I don’t want to hear how good of a job I’m doing. I’m folding stupid laundry, not like curing cancer or something. Deal?”

Thomas peered down at me. He first looked flabbergasted, with his head twisting and his right eye twitching slightly. Eventually though, he smiled. “Deal.” He even reached out his hand for me to shake.

That morning, I saw Thomas in a new light. As I folded the laundry, the man, who probably could afford a cleaning person, swept around my feet and dusted the bookshelves, and deep within, the mind of a little girl percolated with ideas and new understanding.

***

“Kaylee. Kayley, honey. It’s time to get up.”

I grumbled and attempted to bury my head in Elsa’s face. My legs pulled up into my body, forming a protective cocoon against intrusion. What the fuck did Kathryn want? Normally, they just let me sleep.

“Kaylee, come on, you don’t want to be late for your first day of school, do you?”

My eyes fluttered open, or rather they shot open with the speed of a bullet leaving its chamber. The sun peeked into my room, causing my eyes to retreat, the lids providing protection against the intensity of the rays. I knew what day it was, but I had tried to put it out of my head. Kathryn and Thomas hadn’t stopped talking about it, mentioning how much I would like it. How many friends I would make, and of course, what I would learn.

There was an inevitability to my transition to Twin Falls Collegiate and in general, a return to school life. For a man who spent most of his adolescent and adult life running from his problems, here I had no choice. I couldn’t work or run away. If I had been a teenager like Ms. Daniels, then I could have become a runaway, but six year old girls didn’t run away. A teenager wouldn’t be asked a million questions, although paramount among them, where are your parents, when are you are parents coming back, and do you want me to help you find your parents. To the outside world, I was weak, needing protection, the structure of school, after school care and constant supervision would soon become routine.

Going to school wasn’t a battle I could win. I was going, whether I liked it or not, but I was going on my terms.

I felt Kathryn’s hand on my back as my entire body attempted to retreat under the covers, worming away rapidly from the offending hand. Kathryn chuckled lightly, “You know if you keep wriggling like that, you’ll fall right out of bed.” Her voice was firmer as she spoke, “Now, it’s time to get up. And here look at the dress I got you. Isn’t it pretty? I have a couple new ones I got you, just for your first day.”

Again, like a dog that listens for sit and roll-over, my attention was piqued at the mention of the dress and the fact that it was pretty. The words had taken permanent residence within my mind now, cementing themselves as part of what was becoming common vernacular. My imagination immediately kicked in, picturing voluminous ball gowns with long gloves and puffy sleeves.

Kathryn said, “Come on now, I promise that you’ll look like a little princess.” This word too had entered my vocabulary. Previously, I had used it in a derogatory sense, especially toward Greg, who insisted on wearing rubber gloves while he did the dishes. Now, however, it was something that a part of me strived to be. I understood that princesses, real princesses were rare. And actually becoming one was a near impossibility, but the little girl who was waking up inside me desperately wanted to be one.

Moments later, the covers were pulled unceremoniously from my slight body. I felt soft material brush against my cheek and when I opened my eyes, I was greeted by an overeager Kathryn and a dress that looked to fit the image of the preppy Kaylee Patterson perfectly. Gentle ruffles formed what almost looked like a small rectangular theatre with four shiny silver buttons at the centre. The material was thick, almost like thin curtains, but it still had a softness to it. My eyes widened with my face lighting up in what could likely only be described as delight as I saw the skirt portion. It was pinkish semi-translucent with white polka dots, and this fact seemed to raise my spirits, making me desperately want to try it on.

This joy, splayed on my features like one of the bikini models on the cover of my dad’s old car mags, caused Kathryn to have some sort of facial orgasm. She beamed, and her body filled with such energy that she looked like a teenager again.

Kathryn said, “I knew you’d love it the moment I saw it, Kaylee.”

Fear began to creep into my mind as I realized how quickly Kaylee was materializing. If I was going to survive, if Ryan was going to survive- I needed to do things my way, and that included choosing how I dressed. Most of my clothes were preppy as fuck, but they didn’t scream, “Oh my god, that little girl is the cutest thing ever in the history of life.” It bothered me too that it was similar to prep school outfits I had seen but never worn while I went to school in Germany.

Kathryn said excitedly, “I’ll do your hair too. Then, we’ll take a picture of you in your dress and post it on Facebook so everyone can see it!”

I shook my head rapidly, tearing my gaze away from the dress. Words bubbled to the surface, but instead of fierce opposition, I only managed to squeak, “I-I don’t want to wear that.”

Kathryn said, “What do you mean, honey? I thought you loved it.” Without waiting for me to answer, she asked, “Is it because it’s the first day of school? There’s nothing to be scared of, Kaylee. You’ll make lots of friends.”

I said firmly, “I don’t want any friends.”

Kathryn frowned, “I don’t think you mean that, Kaylee. You’re probably just nervous. Does it feel like little butterflies flying around in your tummy?”

I ignored Kathryn and scampered out of bed toward my dresser. With a quick heave and a grunt, I forced open the overflowing bottom dresser drawer and started riffling through the clothes.

Kathryn said with clear disappointment in her voice, “If you don’t like that dress, there’s others in your closet.”

I turned and glared at the woman, “Why is it so important to you that I wear a fucking dress? Do we need to get Agatha on the phone?”

Kathryn cleared her throat awkwardly, likely trying to fill the silence that grew as she determined her response. “I-It’s not. You can wear what you like, Kaylee. But please hurry up. I don’t want you to be late for your first day.” I had a feeling that considering Kathryn’s temperament, she didn’t want to be late either. Hunger pangs pinched lightly, so I decided to forego my clothing selection until after breakfast.

As I ate, I couldn’t push the dress from my mind, how I would look in it, and what others would say, those magic words that sent a little tingle up my spine- how I wanted to hear them. Everything in my drawer seemed boring compared to the ruffles and the pretty shiny silver buttons. After breakfast, I trudged back to my room, intending to choose something from my drawer, but immediately upon entering the room, my eyes darted toward the dress, which Kathryn had likely strategically hung from the handle of my closet door.

“Kaylee, how come you aren’t dressed yet?” It was Thomas. He was wearing a suit, whose jacket hung loosely over his narrow shoulders. He said, “You’ve been up here for twenty minutes. Now choose, or I’ll choose for you.”

Kathryn peeked her head in, “I don’t understand why she won’t just wear the dress I got her. You should have seen the look on her face when I showed it to her. She loved it. She looked like she did when she saw our car for the first time.”

Thomas shrugged, “I-I don’t know, Kat.”

Kathryn said, “That’s not exactly helpful. And with her independent streak, I highly doubt she’s going to let you choose her clothes. Besides, I don’t think she should take fashion advice from someone who still wears his uncle’s old suits. How come you won’t wear that suit I bought you, the charcoal one?”

Thomas leaned down and put his hand on my shoulder, “Please choose something quickly, Kaylee.” He looked back to Kathryn, “It’s just- it doesn’t feel right. The pants are too tight.”

Kathryn shook her head, “That’s the style, Thomas. Besides, they looked –really- good. You are swimming in that suit.”

Fighting the urge to wear the dress, I finally managed to choose a simple pair of khaki shorts and a polo shirt. Kathryn and Thomas both left the room while I dressed. At the bottom of the stairs, a Frozen-themed backpack awaited me, along with a Frozen-themed cloth lunch bag. These people had Disney stock- I was fucking sure of it. I sighed lightly and slung the bag over my shoulder, while tightly clutching my dad’s pin in my right hand.

“Okay. Kaylee. Smile! Time for the picture. We’ll take one on the first day of school every year. You’ll be able to see how big you are getting.” Kathryn excitedly waved her smartphone in front of me.

I sighed, “And you can show me off like some kind of new puppy to all your Facebook friends and all the aunts I haven’t met. I’m not really in the mood.”

Thomas said gently, “It’s just a picture, Kaylee. And I can tell you that it’s going to happen either way. I know Kathryn. You think I wanted to take fifteen different pictures in one pose for our wedding? So it can be a nice picture. Or it can feature the grumpiest little girl in the world.”

Kathryn grinned, “He’s right. But it’s because he kept doing this thing with his lip.”

Kathryn and Thomas attempted to get me to laugh, making silly faces and even sillier voices, but my lip didn’t budge. There was, after all, no joy in the moment for me- knowing that I was going to a place that could destroy what remained of my real self.

Thomas sighed lightly, “Well, I think Grumpy Cat has some new competition.” Kathryn and Thomas laughed, while I fumed internally. Kathryn attempted a few more pictures before herding me out the door toward the car.

***

Twin Falls Collegiate loomed before me. The building itself looked a little like a small castle, but it didn’t have the impenetrable feeling. No, clearly it was meant to be welcoming. It was similar to the boarding school I had attended in Germany, but instead of the grim outer layer with its fading brick and unwelcome grey walls, the school had multi-coloured bricks and chalk drawings clearly done by children- the stick arms and legs made it fucking obvious. The posts holding up the entry way were painted a bright yellow, while the turrets, which should have been imposing, melded with the sky in clear bright blue.

Both Kathryn and Thomas walked me to the door and then toward a classroom, which was the second door to the left. The halls bustled with activity, a strange dichotomy with parents wandering halls meant for children, some looking eager, perhaps pleased that summer was over- while others looked terrified, holding their children tightly by the hand, unwilling to allow them to reach this milestone.

Again, this day was an inevitability to me, so I went about the trip focused on the task at hand- keep Ryan Sullivan alive. I placed my dad’s pin in the pocket of my shorts, readying it for recess. My actions were systematic. I had thought this through.

The door leading to the classroom was covered in multi-coloured polka dots. Patches of glitter, haphazardly placed on each dot, shone brightly underneath the fluorescent lights. There was little rhyme or reason to how the sparkles were placed, which meant a lazy adult had scrambled to decorate the classroom at the last minute, or a child had completed the project.

Other parents walked their children into the classroom, but Kathryn and Thomas seemed ready to let me enter at my own pace. As more and more of the children entered the class, I started to feel anxious. The worry over how I would survive being surrounded by children all day, without stabbing my dad’s pin in my hand, was superseded by concerns that shouldn’t have existed within the mind of Ryan Sullivan. It was something I had felt for a brief moment when I heard the happy voices of Emma and Sophia as they skipped rope outside Greg and Eve’s apartment, but encircled as I was now by children my physical age, I worried that the pretty girls, many of them in dresses like the one I had refused, wouldn’t want to be my friends.

If I said something only Ryan would say, would they think I was weird? Would they want to play with me?

The bell rung, but instead of the clattering dring-dring, like a hundred old rotary phones ringing at once inside a metal enclosure, there was a sonorous almost soothing chime.

“Everything will be OK, Kaylee.” It was Kathryn’s voice, almost as calming as the bell.

The hallway had emptied quickly. I looked around, and outside other doorways, there were stragglers, but even they soon disappeared. My feet, however, wouldn’t budge. Thomas leaned down to eye level and said, “What’s wrong, Kaylee? Do you want us to go inside with you?”

I shook my head rapidly, fearing that the other kids would call me a baby for needing mommy and daddy. It wasn’t really fair that all the other kids knew each other, and I didn’t know anyone. Of course, such thoughts went directly against my plan of ignoring all the kids and hoping they would leave me alone, but the more I thought about it- the more it bothered me. And the more I thought about it, the faster my heart would race.

This should have been far easier. After all, I had been the new kid in school so many times, but there I was, hiding behind Kathryn, terrified to take a step inside the class. My carefully laid plan of being the aloof cool girl who doesn’t talk to anyone was unravelling before my eyes. Fuck. The other kids were going to call me a baby. Like in second grade when I cried because I didn’t get the right juice. The memory and the realization that I was acting like a complete child only exacerbated my anxiety.

“Kaylee?” A pleasant yet careful voice asked from the doorway to the classroom. While higher than one might expect for an adult, it lacked the sing-song torturous tone of Musica’s voice. Excited chatter filled the room ahead of me. Groups of children congregated, waving coloured cards back and forth. Girls shrieked and bounced forming multiple semi-circles. The boys did the same. Only a few broke the gender barrier, but mostly from necessity. All the children clearly wanted to be part of a group, and as I watched the excitement, the force that kept my little white sandals stuck fast to the floor weakened.

“Kaylee? Would you like to join us?” I looked up at the woman who was speaking and saw my new teacher for the first time. No other person other than a mental patient who had previously been a fashion designer would wear something as bold as a dress covered in big multi-coloured polka dots or a necklace featuring plastic apples, bananas and pears. The skirt itself flowed down to her ankles, the crudely sewn polka dots actually sticking out from the fabric as if the designer was attempting to create a 3D effect.

She had frizzy, kind of funny looking hair and thick fire engine red glasses. The woman was probably in her forties, but with how she dressed, it was hard to tell. In her left hand, she had a small pack of multi-coloured cards, which she proceeded to hold out to me.

Kathryn said, “Go on, sweetie. It looks like fun.” There was a certain eagerness to her voice, which I chalked up to impatience.

I tentatively reached out my hand, and the teacher, whose bright white name tag read Mrs. Carmichael, firmly placed them in my grasp. A quick scan of the cards revealed that they depicted a range of activities from different sports to dance to music.

Mrs. Carmichael smiled as her entire body seemed to bubble with enthusiasm. It was unfortunately contagious, and I found myself smiling too. The woman reeked of energy, and with an excited flurry, she directed me toward the classroom, “I think you’ll love this game, Kaylee. It’s really easy. Just pick out the cards that best describe the things you like to do, and then go and find a friend with that same card. It’s fun!” She punctuated her final words with a wave of her hands.

I knew that acting like a child would lead me further down the path toward actually becoming Kaylee. It had happened to Mark and Devon in the studio, but with Ashley- it had to have been different. She was erased and transformed into Madison after a week at the so-called ‘camp’. She had been surrounded by children, just like I was. Is that all it would take for me? Could I participate in the classroom activities without losing myself further? I would keep my dad’s pin close at all times, but would I get it in time? The pin had saved me from Barbie brain before, but an entire class of kids? It seemed like an insurmountable task, and one where, like so many others things in my life, I would ultimately fail.

Still, I had held on this long, and I was the last left. As long as I knew who I was and kept enough of Ryan alive, I was still beating the serum. It didn’t matter that I knew none of the kids, and it certainly didn’t fucking matter if any of them wanted to be friends with me. I strode into the classroom with this attitude and joined in the simple game. Kathryn and Thomas said their goodbyes, but I ignored them. Thankfully, the game was harmless. In fact, most of what we did during the morning was completely harmless. They were ice breaker games and going over the classroom rules. There were things that excited the part of me that was Kaylee, but the excitement was never enough to sink fully within a childlike mindset, but I knew recess was coming. The laughter of children, swing sets and play structures, maybe even skipping ropes.

Eventually, the pleasant chime rang, but it might as well have been a siren, the sound perfectly representing the emergency situation that I faced.

“Walking feet, boys and girls!” This caused some of children to stop in their tracks, especially those who had raised their legs into a sprint toward the door.

Mrs. Carmichael walked over to the door and then watched as the class slowly made their way over to the brightly coloured feet stuck firmly to floor. Some of the students giggled as they tried to fit their small feet in the large feet stickers. Obviously, the feet were to help the children line up whenever they left the classroom. It seemed unnecessary, but then I had never tried to teach twenty five first graders, so what the fuck did I know.

We walked single file through the halls, and as we did, my heart pounded. I remembered how it was just with Emma, Sophia and their skipping rope, and how much I wanted to join them. What was I going to do with an entire playground? Thankfully, though, Twin Falls was small enough that the kids outside all seemed to know each other. No one tried to be my friend, and while I did feel the intense desire to go up and down slides, to play red-light-green-light or just to be confined within a group of kids- girls, I managed to fight the temptation with a few quick pricks from my dad’s pin. I smartly decided to put it in my pocket, so whenever the urge struck, I just had to push against my short pocket for the anti-stimulation.

We returned from recess in single file. Everything about primary school revolved around routine. It was clear that the children in the class thrived on it, and while I just went along for the ride, there was something oddly comforting about the consistency of the quickly established rules. I should have been more outraged at the sudden lack of freedom, but again, it wasn’t surprising. Children had to ask to go to the bathroom and for a drink of water. They were told to use inside voices and walking feet, and Mrs. Carmichael- she was a master of it all.

As the children talked excitedly about their play, and what they planned to do for lunch and after school (some even continued their games from outside), Mrs. Carmichael raised a hand and said, “Holy!”

Most of the children chimed back, “Guacamole!” With all eyes on Mrs. Carmichael, she said, “Okay, boys and girls, take your seats.” This was one of the first things Mrs. Carmichael taught the class, and while it was originally met with laughter, the children soon understood that at the end of each activity the hand was raised and the first part of the silly phrase was uttered. It worked perfectly to gain the attention of the children, and even I found myself at least standing at attention. This teacher clearly knew what she was doing.

The desks were two-by-two facing the board, but it wasn’t a regular chalk board or even a white board. Mrs. Carmichael wrote on the board with a special pen, even animating a bird to fly across the screen, much to the delight of the class. Even I found myself paying attention to the board more than expected.

Each of the desks had a cardboard nameplate. My seat mate was a little girl who wore a dress similar to the one I had refused. Apparently, all the parents in this fucking town shopped at the same place. Throughout the lesson, I found myself taking sidelong glances at the garment, wondering what it would look like on me. Unsurprisingly, what we were learning was beyond simplistic. The worksheets, similar to those I had finished at Mrs. Feinstein’s, only took time because I still struggled with certain letters. The only saving grace of the day was the fact that Thomas was coming to get me so I would miss gymnastics. He had some meeting at the university about something that I didn’t give a fuck about.

I survived my first day with only a few small prick marks on my hip. Surprisingly, the kids didn’t bother with me, seemingly content to remain within their own established groups. Without some emotional breakdown, like the one at the beach, I wasn’t vulnerable to their excited cries at recess. Recess was seriously only about fifteen minutes anyway. Although maybe it was longer? Either way, I took this day as an absolute victory. It was a battle in the war, but the longer I lasted, the more my confidence would grow.

Anxious parents entered the school after the final bell, their children, in some cases, launching at them like guided missiles. Thomas loped in, still wearing the ill-fitting suit, looking like he had some bizarre growth spurt overnight. He waved awkwardly and smiled, approaching with the uncertainty of a deer, seemingly ready to bolt away at any moment.

“Hi, Kaylee! How was your day?” He said his first words with more enthusiasm than expected, but he quickly dialed it down after that.

I replied, “It was fine. Let’s go.”

Thomas reached out his hand to grasp mine, but I pulled it away. The man looked momentarily saddened, his head drooping and chest sagging, but he quickly straightened his posture. “So, do you like your teacher? Did you make any friends?”

I shrugged my shoulders and slung the Frozen-themed backpack over my shoulder, “She’s OK. Can we go?” Thomas nodded and led me out to the car. It would be a short trip back to the house, but with all the questions, it would feel like a millennia.

Strapped safely into my booster seat, Thomas pulled out of the parking lot. I closed my eyes and let out a sigh of relief, both pleased with myself over the success of the day and glad that I was missing gymnastics.

Thomas asked, “You didn’t answer me about your friends. Did you make any friends?”

I replied, “Sure. Lots of them.”

Thomas said, “Your teacher mentioned that you sat by yourself during both recesses and at lunch. Are you OK, Kaylee? You don’t need to lie. It can be hard to make friends at a new school.”

How ironic, considering I was practically a master at that very thing, having started at multiple new schools. Whereas Ryan was boisterous, Kaylee was subdued and shy, a perennial wallflower.

Thomas continued, “Did you talk to any kids? Or try and play with them?” I could feel Thomas and his analytical mind, full of hundreds of parenting articles, going through a mental checklist to determine the root of the problem.

I said truthfully, “Well, there was one group of kids. They were playing Frozen. But I didn’t want to play with them.”

Thomas asked, “How come? I thought you liked Frozen.” He added with a hint of laughter, “Most of the time.”

I shook my head, “They came over to me, and they wanted me to be Olaf, but I didn’t want to be Olaf. I mean, who would want to be a talking snow man?” To be fair, there had been an argument over who was going to be Elsa, with three girls all wanting to be her, but since I was new, I was relegated to being a fucking magic snow man.

I mean, maybe if they had asked me to be Elsa, I would have thought about it. With sudden realization, I applied pressure to the pin in my pocket, forcing a tiny yelp from my mouth.

I watched the scenery pass, but instead of whipping by, it practically meandered. Thomas stopped at every single stop sign, actually stopped. In LA, people constantly ran red lights, just trying to inch their way into seemingly endless traffic snarls. So, I wasn’t exactly used to the two-point stops.

“You know this thing has a V8 engine. You could actually kick it into fifth gear sometimes.” The car actually had a sixth gear, but Thomas was barely going fast enough for fourth.

Thomas replied, “We’ll get there all the same.”

“You aren’t going to get pulled over going ten over. Ten under maybe. Come on, you’ve got tractors passing you.”

Thomas snorted, “It’s not that bad.”

Suddenly, the car lurched forward, pulling heavily to the right. There was clearly something wrong with the alignment of the vehicle. I had noticed it before, but I just thought Thomas was a really shitty driver. Unfortunately, the slight veer caused the SUV to bounce over a deep pothole, causing both driver and passenger to shift uncomfortably in their seats. Thomas quickly regained control of the vehicle, but it was obvious something was wrong. The car kicked up gravel and shifted left and right. I heard a definite clicking sound coming from the front left tire, and it only grew more pronounced the longer we drove. Thomas slowed to a crawl and eventually pulled off to the side of the road.

Thomas left the car and walked around it, leaving me alone in my fucking booster seat. Moments later, I heard muffled yelling. I knew exactly what the issue was. The SUV had a flat, and Thomas, who couldn’t adjust a door hinge, fix a rotten step, tighten a shower faucet, likely couldn’t change a tire. The man was red faced and kicking up gravel, and likely swearing like the typical adolescent FPS player after getting one-shotted.

I unbuckled myself from the booster. There was a moment of surprise as I freed myself, realization that I could have fled the humiliating device at any point. It was likely Kathryn’s presence that kept my butt firmly planted to the seat. While I could move around in the car, I couldn’t open the door due to the child locks. I was forced to crawl to the front of the car to let myself out the passenger door.

“Kaylee! Get back in the car! It’s dangerous out here!” Thomas walked toward me as if trying to protect me from a nuclear bomb blast with his arms outstretched to non-existent traffic.

I said, “It’s not exactly rush hour, man. Just calm down. So you got a flat, just fix it.”

Thomas furrowed his brow, “There’s no cell service here. I can’t call anyone. And now I’m going to miss my meeting with the Dean of Social Sciences.”

I shook my head, “It’s not my fault you decided to live in a town with such shitty reception. But look why don’t-“

Thomas said, “Back in the car, Kaylee. I don’t want you running into the road. Here, take my phone and play a game while I try and figure this out.” I glared at the man as he handed me his phone. What was I fucking dog, bolting in the road after some squirrel? Frank had probably offered to show Thomas how to change a tire, but he likely made some excuse about writing.

Thomas was just like Greg in this respect- a poor excuse for a man, clueless about anything mechanical. And changing a tire wasn’t even mechanical. It was something everyone should know. Tired of useless know-nothing men, I hopped back into the car and quickly looked up a video on the phone titled, “How to change a tire”.

Thomas opened the driver’s side door, “Kaylee, here we’ll walk a bit and see if we can get some reception.”

I shook my head firmly, “I want to see you change the tire.”

Thomas frowned deeply, “I’m not good with this type of stuff. I’m sorry, Kaylee.” The look on his face was pure defeat, and his face actually reddened with actual shame. “It doesn’t mean you won’t be. I’m sure Frank- Mr. Milner could show you some things. If you are interested in learning.”

Nonplussed, I crossed my arms over my chest, “For a person who works at a university, you aren’t very interested in learning yourself. I watched this video. Come on, I’ll explain what you need to do, and you just follow.” I hadn’t actually watched the video, since there was no internet, but I needed Thomas to think I had. Few six year old probably knew how to use a tire iron or understood the required PSI.

Thomas looked uncertain. He removed his glasses and tapped them lightly against the side of his head, “I-I’m just not sure I can.” He cleared his throat, and his normally hunched frame was bolstered by sudden strength, “But I guess it can’t hurt to try. It won’t be the first or last time I embarrass myself in front of you.” This caused a little giggle to escape my lips, a tiny gasp of air quickly squelched.

I instructed Thomas to remove the tire iron from the back of the car. The spare tire was located in the same place, and he also managed to drag the spare to the side of the car. I looked at the damaged tire and lodged deep within was a sharp rock, the obvious culprit of the flat.

“Okay, now you have to place the jack under the car. Yeah, that’s it. Right there in that little lip.” It would have been a humourous scene, a little girl in pretty white sandals sitting next to her father, showing him how to jack up a vehicle. My tiny hands gripped the tire iron. I placed it in the jack and proceeded to crank it. Thomas took over and watched with fascination as the front of the car slowly lifted up.

“Wow, you got all of that from just watching a video, Kaylee? Unbelievable.” His eyes moved back and forth mechanically, as if trying to determine just how off the scale smart I actually was. He added, “You have an incredible capacity to learn, and the way you absorb information, it’s just-“

I pointed at the tire iron and said, “Okay. Fine. But this isn’t getting you to your meeting. Now comes the fun part. Time to get the flat off.”

Thomas frowned, “It won’t budge.”

I said with a smile, “This is the fun part. You’ve gotta kick the shit out of it, put all your weight down on it through your foot.”

By the time Thomas had the third wheel nut off, he was grinning from ear to ear, and also incredibly red faced. He wasn’t, however, the only one. I actually sincerely enjoyed my time with Thomas, who, despite his initial misgivings, was a quick study himself. It reminded me of the time I spent with my own dad, how he would show me how to fix cars, and the way, the very way I demonstrated to Thomas was how my dad had taught me.

Thomas, now breathing heavily after lifting the spare and tightening it, slid down the side of the car onto his butt. He continued smiling, even though obviously fatigued. “Um, thanks, Kaylee. You know for getting me to do that. I think maybe I’ll be able to do the snow tires this year without bringing them to Frank’s.”

I clambered back into my booster seat, a seemingly permanent satisfied grin plastered on my face. Seconds later, we were off, but as we drove down the highway, I felt the car gradually speed up. Thomas put his hand on the gear shift, bringing the SUV into fifth gear for what seemed like the first time. The engine hummed as the vehicle gripped the concrete.

It could have just been because Thomas was worried about being late for his meeting, but the firm almost crushing way a person grips the wheel when late was absent. He also wasn’t frantic like Eve, who thrust her head forward, rapidly looking up and down, acting like some hyper-vigilant bobble head. No, this was a man driving his car in the way it was meant to be driven and actually enjoying it. As the trees and road signs whipped past at an increasing rate, my lips remained curled in a smile.

***

“How come you have shoes like that?”

It was the first thing any kid had said to me in the classroom. When I had started at a new school, and especially if my class clowning wasn’t making me any friends, I naturally converged on other new kids. It was like a new kid safety net, but here in this tiny town, I was the only one. Apparently, and unfortunately, I wasn’t invisible, and my seat mate, a little girl with two long braids and another pretty dress had taken notice. This one flowed outward and was perfect for twirling. The kid was dressed like some kind of expensive doll, but I couldn’t help but again wonder what I would look like wearing the same thing.

Without waiting for me to respond, she said, “You can’t tie your shoes?” There was amusement in her voice. On her feet, she had a pair of little boots, neatly tied in big loops that draped over the side of the shoe.

Here, I figured she would ask me my name and maybe try and be my friend. I was quickly realizing, however, that not all kids were created equal. The desperation of the mousey Brianna, the inclusiveness of Sophia- it was all absent within this little mean girl.

I shrugged my shoulders lightly and answered, “Well you know it’s like cars, right? A different one each day.” The kids who attended Twin Falls collegiate obviously came from money. Everyone was dressed in a similar way, different variations of people either going on a boat, building a boat, going to boat-related parties- whatever it was- it was preppy as fuck.

The little girl said bluntly, “You had the same shoes yesterday too.” She grinned and narrowed her eyes, “Are you a baby? Can’t tie your shoes? I learned in kindergarten.”

I replied caustically, “Listen, you little fucking bitch, unless you want a pretty black eye, leave me the fuck alone.”

In a sing-song voice, the little girl said, “Mrs. Carmichael, Kaylee said some bad words!”

Mrs. Carmichael walked over, “Yes, Ava, I heard.” The teacher walked over to a chart and put a sad face next to my name. “Kaylee, you know the rules. It’s not polite or very nice at all to use words like that. If you’re a good girl for the rest of the day, I’ll take it off.”

Of course, Mrs. Carmichael hadn’t noticed that Ava was teasing me, so no sad face for her. I stewed in my seat, and then I realized that I didn’t fucking care about happy or sad faces. Or at least I shouldn’t. As a lesson about number sequences continued, Ava said quietly, “Baby can’t tie her shoes.” My first instinct should have been to punch her in the mouth. We were both little kids, so I wasn’t exactly picking on someone bigger than me. Instead, however, her insult seeped deep within, filling the crevices of self-doubt that had formed in my mind and giving rise to Kaylee’s burgeoning personality. I retorted loudly, “Am not a baby!”

Her words shouldn’t have hurt as much as they did, but there was absolute truth to her statement. I couldn’t tie my shoes. In the studio, I had always worn slip-ons, Velcro or buckled shoes. With the loss of all muscle memory, it would be a slog to learn. I inwardly cringed at potentially having to ask Thomas or Kathryn how to tie my fucking shoes. Maybe a YouTube video?

Mrs. Carmichael said sternly, “Kaylee, please stop interrupting the lesson. And Ava stop teasing Kaylee. Everyone learns at a different pace.” I was surprised, but thankful, to see that the teacher went over to the behaviour board and placed a sad face next to Ava’s name. I felt instant satisfaction that stayed with me for the rest of the day.

There was no business meeting for Thomas, so I wouldn’t be saved from gymnastics again. Once school ended, a bubbly brunette in a skin-tight leotard picked myself, Ava and another girl up from class and marched us enthusiastically toward the gymnasium. For what amounted to a small-town school, the gym was impressive. Again, Twin Falls had money- that much was clear. The gym was laid out for a gymnastics course with balance beams, a vault, bars, a trampoline and mats scattered everywhere. There were even rings, which no six year old would have the upper body strength to use. Of course, we weren’t the only ones using the equipment. Our small group was soon joined by other children, all led by leotard wearing teenage girls. The brunette who had led my group to the gym handed a small package to me, containing, unsurprisingly, my own leotard.

“No! I don’t want to! Let me go!”

“It’ll be fun, you’ll see, Conner.”

“No, you can’t make me!”

I watched as a frustrated blonde girl, probably about fifteen, slowly pulled a little boy by the arm toward me. Ava and the other girl had presumably gone to get changed. I recognized him from my class, and as one of the boys who sat and watched the six-grade boys play football every recess. Kid obviously wanted to play, but he was too young. And now this poor bastard was stuck taking gymnastics.

“Kaylee? It’s Kaylee, right?”

The brunette was trying to get my attention. I nodded dumbly as I watched the blond pull Conner toward me. The brunette said, “Kaylee, go put on your leotard please. We’re going to start soon. It’s going to be so much fun!”

I sighed lightly and considered my options. Fighting the teens would lead them to telling Kathryn or Thomas that I wasn’t being cooperative, and it could further impact my screen privileges (fuck as if I had started calling it that?!), meaning that I wouldn’t be able to see if Eve had answered my e-mail. At the same time, gymnastics was so fucking girly. I had images of tiny girls competing in the Olympics, their bodies lithe but boyish, twirling ribbons and prancing to shitty music. I knew the difference between regular and rhythmic, but the latter had burned itself into my mind, and it was how I saw it in general.

It didn’t matter that what I saw unfolding before me was actual athletics and challenging athletics. It didn’t matter that the older gymnasts were performing back flips on the trampoline or practically flying through the air after releasing a bar suspended probably six or seven feet in the air only to land perfectly on the ground in a triumphant pose. None of it fucking mattered, because it was for girls.

Conner said, “I’m not wearing that. You can’t make me.”

The blond said, “Who’s your favourite superhero, Conner?”

Conner replied, “Spider-man. Why?” The little boy looked at the girl suspiciously.

The blond said, “He wears a costume, right? Well to be able to move around and do all those cool moves, he can’t wear normal clothes. Look, I even have some red shorts you can put over your outfit.”

The brunette added with a smile, “You’ll be a Spider-man in training with us, Conner. You’ll even get to climb a wall.”

Conner said, “Really? Just like Spider-man?”

The girls nodded, “Yup! Just like Spider-man.”

A few seconds later, Conner headed off into the boys’ changing room, leaving me impressed with the level of manipulation exhibited by the teenage girls.

The brunette said, “Kaylee? Hurry up now and get changed, you don’t want to miss any class, right?” That was it? She just assumed that I would be all OMG I can’t wait to do this gymnastics shit? What, just because I was a girl?

The girl added, “Look at how cute Ava is in her leotard, Kaylee. And Addison. And look at mine, it has pretty sparkles on it. If you listen today in class, I’ll tell you how you can put some glitter on yours to make it really pretty.”

I groaned inwardly and stomped off toward the girls’ change room, not because I wanted my leotard to have pretty sparkles but because participating meant retaining screen privileges. If I could figure out a way to unlock the KIDS mode on my phone, then I could check my e-mail any time I wanted. That meant actually having access to it though.

I returned a few minutes later, wearing something similar to a one-piece bathing suit. It was, of course, bright neon pink, looking like I had been attacked by sentient, angry bubble gum. Maybe a slight exaggeration. Still, at least I wasn’t Conner. He had on a pair of small red shorts that revealed his thin legs, and a skin-tight tank top that made him look more ballet dancer than super hero.

“You look stupid too you know.”

I blinked, not realizing at first that I was smirking at the boy. “I’m pretty sure you’ve taken that prize. And you know they were lying to you, right? You aren’t old enough to do any of that stuff.”

Conner replied, “Shut up. Why don’t you just go be with the stupid girls?”

I shrugged, “I don’t like Ava, and I’m pretty sure I don’t like gymnastics.”

Conner shook his head, “No way. You’re just lying. You just want to stay here and make fun of me.”

The blond and the brunette said excitedly, “Conner, Kaylee! Come and join us!”

While there was clearly a gender divide between us, which created a strange almost reverse magnetism, I still felt an affinity toward the boy. I realized as well, that I disliked Ava more than I initially thought. This fact would not leave my mind, so rather than go over there. I said, “I like Spider-man too.”

Conner blinked slowly, “I don’t know any girls that like Spider-man.”

I said, “Well you do now.”

Nothing the instructors could say would pry us apart. For the next forty five minutes, we went over the entire Marvel cinematic universe, and while I was talking to a six year old, I at least found someone who liked something I did. Conner was actually pretty cool for a little kid, and he knew a shit ton about Spider-man and the Avengers.

“Hulk would just throw a tank at him.”

Conner replied, “Yeah, but Spider-man is really fast. And he’s got lots of powers. He would see it and jump.”

I nodded, “Okay, but the Hulk is way stronger.”

Conner said, “Yeah. Definitely. But Spider-man wouldn’t try and be stronger. He’s really smart. He’d do something to turn the Hulk back into a person.”

Excited shrieks permeated our discussion, and I turned my head, watching as parents started slowly filtering into the gymnasium. Cries of “Watch me!” “Watch this, mommy!” “Look what I can do, daddy!” filled the space.

“Wow, great job, Ava! You’re really improving.” My head jerked in the direction of a well-dressed woman clapping her hands together at the sight of Ava slowly making her way across the balance beam. Instant jealousy punctured my thoughts, especially as a disappointed Kathryn also entered my view. I desperately wanted that same approval from Kathryn, but I was broken from my trance by Conner.

“You’re cool, Kaylee. Do you want to play Avengers and Spider-man at recess?”

As attractive as the offer was, I knew that I couldn’t. I would end up the exact same as Devon and Mark. Talking about it was one thing, but letting myself be drawn into a creative world where my imagination could take over was infinitely more dangerous.

“Uh. Sorry. I can’t.”

Conner asked, “Because the girls will make fun of you? For playing boy games?”

I nodded slowly, “Something like that.”

Conner shook his head, “That’s not fair.”

I nodded, “No, I guess it isn’t.”

By this point, Kathryn, who looked none too impressed, had made her way over. She said, “What do you mean she didn’t participate at all?” The blond girl shook her head and said, “Callie, I told you not to tell her that.”

Callie (the brunette whose name I now knew) said, “Mrs. Sharp told us to mention it to the parents, so they can talk to the kids. We can’t force them, and maybe they don’t want to do gymnastics.”

Conner asked, “Are you going to get in trouble?”

I nodded, “Yeah, probably.”

Conner said, “I wanted to take karate.”

I smiled, “Yeah, me too.”

***

“Well maybe the instructors are right. You have lived with her, right? Forcing her to do anything isn’t exactly easy.”

Kathryn replied, “That wasn’t part of the deal. We are paying for this, Thomas. She’s not doing karate, so the only other option is dance. Why do I have to be the bad guy with this stuff? The deal was that she does gymnastics and then we see about the karate. She does the winter break dance class. I don’t want her in some after school care where she just ends up watching movies the whole time. She needs an activity.”

Thomas sighed, “I’m just saying we have to approach this diplomatically. If she really doesn’t want to then we might have to look at alternatives.”

Kathryn said, “But she didn’t even try it. Her instructor said she sat there talking to a little boy the whole time.”

Kathryn looked at me disapprovingly, and if she had a pair of glasses that dipped onto her nose, she would have looked exactly like the elder Mrs. Feinstein, “Kaylee, until you start to participate in the classes, you aren’t getting your phone back, and you won’t have any screen privileges. Do you understand?”

I said more petulantly than expected with a firm stomp of my foot, “But that’s not fair!”

Kathryn replied, “What isn’t fair is that we are paying for something, and you won’t even try it out. You are breaking our deal.”

Thomas interjected, “Kaylee, please just try it out, OK? You might really like it. Let’s say you give it a shot for three classes, and you do everything your instructor asks you, and then if you still really don’t like it, we’ll talk about something else.”

I nodded and sighed lightly, “OK.” It’s not like gymnastics would screw with my mind to same way playing with a doll or kids my age would. I just couldn’t get it out of my mind how much I hated Ava. She was just…so mean! If she hadn’t been in the class, then maybe it would have been easier. Plus, I expected that Conner wasn’t going to last too much longer in the class, so I would lose my talking buddy.

Thomas smiled, “Good.”

***

Unsurprisingly, Conner wasn’t at gymnastics the next day, and thankfully Ava was absent too, so I was able to participate. I felt a sense of satisfaction as I started to creep across the balance beam for the first time. Callie was next to me, ready to catch me if I fell, but my heart jumped, filling with pride as I reached the half way point. Surprisingly, the class was a lot of fun, and as I watched the older girls especially, I began to imagine that was me, twisting and turning in the air, launching myself over a vault and landing with precision.

While I managed to get my screen time privileges back, a larger issue loomed. By Friday, while I had survived my first week in the classroom, I was bored out of my mind during recess. Not to say that the classroom wasn’t mostly boring, but at least Mrs. Carmichael was an engaging teacher. The worksheets were still beyond easy, but my slow writing made me fit in with the others. As for my problem, since my wannabe parents carefully controlled my cell phone, I couldn’t take it to school, so I was left watching children at play on a constant basis. With that, came a growing almost desperate desire to join them- one that even jabbing a pin into my leg couldn’t halt. Worst of all, Ava and her friends, who often skipped, were becoming an attractive target. I couldn’t understand it, but Ava’s pretty dresses and intricate hair-dos, and the way she talked, and the cute shoes she wore- it made me want to be her friend. She was so cool, especially her clothes. So, while hating her, I also wanted to hang out with her. Fucking girls made no sense.

I knew it was the serum, pushing me toward a group that would suffocate my remaining masculinity. Still, I had a plan that would hopefully distract me from this growing obsession.

“Hey, maybe you could bring a ball, instead of just watching them play all the time?”

Conner replied, “Well I guess I could.” As with most recesses, Conner was watching the six graders play touch football, with the odd tackle when the teachers weren’t watching.

I smiled, “Good. Bring one on Monday, and we’ll throw it around.”

Conner nodded, “OK. How come you want to play football? I thought girl-“

I interrupted, “Don’t finish that thought. Because I like it? That’s all you need to know.”

Conner grinned, “You’re cool, Kaylee. You’re not like my older sister. All she cares about is stupid One Direction. And how much she wants to meet them. And probably marry them.”

I nodded, “Your sister sounds lame. Now, who do you think would win between Spider-man and Superman?”

***

“If Callie can’t babysit then we shouldn’t go. We can just stay in, catch up on Game of Thrones and Walking Dead- have some wine.” Thomas added the last few words with a goofy grin plastered on his face.

Kathryn shook her head, “I agree that Callie would have been best. She’s got Kaylee participating and actually enjoying gymnastics, but she’s not the only babysitter in town. I talked to Alexis, and she’s willing. And I’ve told you before that watching TV is not a date. Everything I’ve read says that we need to make time for ourselves too. And while I like doing those things with you, it’s not the same as a night out. Besides, if we stay in, you will just make an excuse to work.”

Thomas replied, “You know the deadline for the Iverson grant is coming up. That’s 10% of the university’s funding alone.”

Kathryn frowned, “You are driving yourself crazy with this, Thomas. I have read over the application, and it is absolutely sound. The university will get the money.”

Thomas said, “Alexis wouldn’t exactly be my first choice, and Kaylee- can be- well a bit of a handful.”

Kathryn nodded, “I know. But if we give Alexis clear instructions everything will be fine. She might be disinterested as a cashier, but she has babysat her little sister many times. I talked to her mom, and she seems to think Alexis will do fine with Kaylee. I admit that I was a bit hesitant at first, but ringing up groceries isn’t the same as taking care of kids.”

Thomas sighed lightly, “If they burn the house down, I’m blaming you.”

Kathryn laughed, “Sure. OK. I’ll accept that blame.”

I groaned, the reality of the situation quickly striking me like a brutal blitz that tears through the defensive line and concusses a quarterback. This wasn’t Mrs. Feinstein or Jessica looking after me, no this was the quintessential- the cliché- the teenaged girl as babysitter. I was a living breathing Nick at Night sitcom. I could, however, take advantage of the situation, especially with Thomas and Kathryn out. A plan quickly materialized.

Kathryn said, “You be good for Alexis, Kaylee. Do everything that she says. And if you are good, you and Alexis can watch a movie. And since it isn’t a school night, you can stay up and watch the whole thing. Sound good?”

I nodded, a little smile forming on my lips, “Very good.”

Kathryn smiled, “Good. Maybe you and Alexis can watch one of the Disney princess movies. I’ll leave them out.”

I replied excitedly, “Maybe we could watch Frozen!”

Kathryn raised a brow, “I thought you-“

Thomas interrupted, “Get with the times, Kat. This week is a Frozen week.”

***

“You’ve got our cell numbers. The number for poison control is on the fridge. The fire extinguisher is under the sink and-“

Thomas interrupted, “Relax, Kat. Everything is going to be fine. You’ve already gone through it once. And Alexis is a responsible girl. We are going to be late for the movie.” Once the babysitter had been confirmed, Kathryn returned to her anal Feinstein-like personality, worrying about every little thing. Apparently trusting the babysitter meant explaining everything a million times. Still, Thomas’ words halted Kathryn the same way a 12 gauge can stun a grizzly at 50 yards. I had seen it before. In bear country, you always want to carry a shotgun, and my dad stopped one in its tracks as it approached. He wounded it only, striking at the shoulder, and thankfully, it took off.

“Ryan, you wound and then you kill if it comes any closer than 50 yards. Put the slug through the head. It is your only chance.”

I imagined what Thomas would do when faced a bear. He would probably shit and piss his pants as it batted him around like a cat playing with a mouse, tearing and clawing at his flesh. Either that or he would hide behind Kathryn. And in terms of defending himself? The slight recoil from a 9MM would probably put Thomas flat on his back.

My dad taught me to respect nature as much as he taught me to fear it. When he saw me taking pot shots at ducks in a pond, he slapped the stupid out of me with the back his hand. Hunting was about the challenge- not how many you can bag in a day or a week. Every shot you took had to have a meaning- a purpose. It wasn’t about spraying and praying. And you had to show respect. You didn’t shoot chicks or hatchlings. And as for the fear, well I certainly learned that with the bear.

Kathryn quickly slung her purse over her shoulder and moved toward the door. She looked back toward Alexis, “Remember, Kaylee is to stay off our laptops. And she shouldn’t stay up past 9:30. She gets grumpy if she stays up too late, so only one movie.” For a movie, anywhere except the boat club or country club, Kathryn and Thomas were way overdressed. Thomas was seriously wearing a fucking sports coat, but it was Kathryn, but most specifically how she was dressed that caught my attention. A dark blue floral print skirt reached to just below her knee, while a frilly white blouse revealed trim, yet pale arms. A pearl necklace and matching bracelet adorned her wrist, while her long blond hair coyly hung over one shoulder. It was the pinnacle of preppy fashion. Alexis, on the other hand, was wearing a pair of light blue jeans and a polo shirt that gently hugged her slim frame. Her hair, dyed a deep almost crimson, was neatly tied in a ponytail. Like Kathryn, she wore jewellery, but it was a single charm bracelet that dangled with hearts, unicorns, puppies and what looked like ice skates.

Thomas gently cleared his throat, “Oh and have fun.”

Alexis smiled and said, “Don’t worry, Mr. and Mrs. Patterson. Kaylee and me will have lots of fun tonight.”

Kathryn said, “Bye, sweetie. We love you. Be good for Alexis.” Fuck, she was trying too hard with this affection bullshit. I hadn’t even been her adopted daughter for two weeks, and she was treating me like she was my birth mother. I hadn’t even called her mom. She turned to Alexis and her mostly wrinkle-free face scrunched into a Feinstein-like mask, with furrowed brow and stern, firm mouth, “And you don’t hesitate to call or text us if anything goes wrong or if you have any questions. Anything at all.”

Thomas added, “Not anything. Just if you have any concerns.” I noticed that Thomas, at least over the last few days, had started to warm up to me, and he wasn’t a crazy helicopter parent. Sure, he was obviously following the books and articles, but he wasn’t trying to hold my hand crossing the street, telling me to look both ways, applying sun screen in a way to protect me from lava spewing from an active volcano.

Alexis nodded, “Gotcha. No play by play.”

I shrugged my shoulders, waved and within a few moments, it was only myself and Alexis, my teenaged babysitter for the evening. Unlike Jessica, Alexis hadn’t brought any crafts, toys or games, and I was frightened to admit that I was slightly- very slightly disappointed by this fact.

Alexis asked enthusiastically, while leaning down and clasping her hands together, “So, what would you like to do tonight, Kaylee? Do you want to start the movie? I could make us some popcorn. Or you could show me your room. I heard you have a really cool room.” Unlike Ashley, I didn’t have much experience with babysitters. Even though I was an only child, there were always kids at the base and other moms willing to watch me. To be honest, I don’t remember my parents ever really going on any date nights. They went to a few football games, and maybe the odd gun show, but my mom was never into that stuff. I didn’t really like to think of my mom and dad having some romantic life either. It’s not like they were very affectionate, so it was likely pretty rare anyway.

I replied, “Well I’d like to learn how to tie my shoes.”

The enthusiasm was sucked out of Alexis like a tire punctured by a gun shot. She was rapidly deflated, “Um. Ok. Well I can show you how to do that. How come you don’t want your mommy or daddy to show you?”

It was a good question. A matter of pride- a showing of weakness, simple embarrassment? Alexis was a perfect stranger, someone who I would see at the grocery store, but nothing beyond that. Kathryn and Thomas were my fake parents, playing a role devised by Ms. McDavid, and I didn’t want to give them something that would fit so well with the part I was expected to play. I don’t remember how I learned how to tie my shoes, but I’m sure my parents had taught me.

It really was simple though, they weren’t my parents. Never would be. And thinking of them that way would cloud my thoughts, pushing me away from the genuine feelings I had for Eve, and where Kaylee Patterson, shy yet smiling little girl was a reality.

I nodded, “Because I want you.” That was an acceptable answer for a six year old, and one that Alexis easily bought, especially with the wide smile that formed on her face, revealing a set of braces with pink elastics throughout. The girl had large eyes and a smallish mouth, so with her unnaturally bright red hair colour, she looked like a living breathing cartoon character.

I quickly brought Alexis a pair of Frozen shoes that Kathryn had bought for me. The shoelace tips glistened like ice, while happy snowflakes danced among the Anna and Elsa on the side of the shoe. I mean at least they were blue, but they were still girly as fuck.

Alexis smiled and slipped the shoe on my socked foot, “Okay, so you pull the tongue up first. Then, you get a good grip on the laces and pull them tight. This part’s tricky, but I’ll show you how I taught my little sister.”

I sighed inwardly, the humiliation of the moment resting heavily on my mind. While it bothered me that I couldn’t tie my shoes, it bothered me even more that every kid in my class could. As much as I would have liked to ignore my feelings, it also made me really mad when Ava called me a baby. I mean she was a fucking little kid, so I shouldn’t have been affected by it, but she was right- I was the only one who couldn’t do it.

I was a baby. Little Kaylee couldn’t tie her shoes.

Alexis frowned, “Are you OK, Kaylee? It looks like you went to Space Mountain there. Like I said this part is a bit tricky.”

I blinked and nodded slowly, “Yeah. Um. I’m fine.” Alexis smiled and proceeded to show me how to tie my shoes. As I watched her hands move methodically through each step, it seemed an impossible task. She just made it look so easy. I looked down at the laces, which sagged down over the sides of the shoes. Trying to tie them together to thin the fat looping bows only resulted in undoing them altogether.

Alexis said, “You won’t get it right away. It just takes practice, Kaylee.” I nodded sadly.

Alexis asked, “Did you want a snack? Your mommy said you could have some of these cookies. Or like I said, we could eat popcorn. I’d still love to see your Frozen room too. Did you know it is my favourite movie?”

I shook my head, “Those cookies are gross. They taste like sawdust and chocolate chips. If you ate one, you’d probably choke to death.”

Alexis looked at me with her massive eyes in obvious surprise, “Woah. Heavy stuff. Ok. No cookies then. Popcorn then?”

I nodded, “Yeah, but while you make it, I want to send an e-mail to granny.”

Alexis nodded, and I led her into the kitchen. I added, “But you can’t look because it’s a surprise for K- mommy’s birthday. I don’t want you to tell her about the present. OK?”

Alexis grinned and started opening kitchen cabinets, “OK, Kaylee. No problem.”

This was my moment. Alexis wasn’t an overzealous insane helicopter parent who would watch every keystroke, desperately trying to determine if some child predator was sending me e-mails, or worse yet, Eve and Greg- the people with whom I really wanted to live.

I booted up my e-mail, thankful that the computer login password was still the stupid cat who, like Kathryn, was doing its best to get me to love or even like it. I heard Alexis say something about kettle corn, but I was too busy reading the latest three e-mails from Eve. The general theme was one of concern. She was wondering why I hadn’t responded to her first e-mail, and there were additional updates regarding the townhouse and Jessica, who it turned out wasn’t living with them. Greg had managed to get the manager job at the Palace, so with the extra money, they were able to afford it.

I wrote back slowly, each stroke was arduous. There was no proper keyboard placement. With hands and fingers as small as mine, I was forced to stab one by one at the keys like a hungry chicken pecking at feed.

Alexis said with amusement as the popcorn began popping, “That’s a long e-mail. So you sure you can’t give me a hint about the surprise?”

I stopped abruptly and glared at the screen, my pretty face scrunched into what most adults would consider an annoyingly cute scowl.

Alexis giggled, “Sorry, I get you. It’s really important. No more interruptions.”

I wrote:

Eve,

Congratulations to Mr. Egghead on the new job. Please tell me that he’s growing his hair back. Things are weird here. Maybe it is because parents are just crazy now, but I’ve got like one hour of this screen time bullshit every day. And I usually lose it because I don’t listen to a stupid rule or I swear. I guess the dad is kind of OK. He’s actually driving like an adult male instead of some grandma who can’t even see over the dash. The mom Kathryn though, she’s fucking nuts. Always trying to get me in dresses. She treats me like a fucking doll half the time. She’s a Feinstein too so she has this magic power that makes me stand like I have a stick shoved up my ass.

Are you still working on the case? I’m not sure I want you guys to help. You could end up like me, folding laundry in a house where guys sweep and clean the bathroom. It’s weird though, Kathryn’s tough, but so is Thomas. He just does this stuff without Kathryn saying anything. Shit. Sorry, Greg- now I guess Eve will have you doing more shit around the apartment.

Not sure how often I can write. The wannabes aren’t here tonight, and they are usually watching my every move. They put my phone on this bullshit kid mode so I can’t call or text. What’s up with Jessica? I thought she was living with you guys?

Ryan

Alexis, true to her word, didn’t look at the screen once. And why would she? E-mails to granny probably really weren’t that interesting. I sent the e-mail without looking it over too much, knowing that Alexis could turn around quickly, which would leave me forced to answer many awkward questions. Minutes later, Alexis and I settled onto the Patterson’s leather couch. The girl handed me a juice box and my own small bowl of kettle corn. The Patterson’s entertainment setup wasn’t actually bad- a plasma TV probably about fifty inches, surround sound with a subwoofer and a decent selection of DVDs.

I kind of expected rich people like them to have better more expensive stuff, but Thomas was cheap, according to his wife. So why the ultra-high end car? Was it Kathryn’s decision? While there was a Blu-ray player, which ran Netflix, there were, unfortunately, absolutely no game systems. The Pattersons didn’t even have good cable. They had some slimmed down shit package that was missing any sports channels. How the fuck was I supposed to watch football?

Alexis popped open the Blu-ray case for Frozen and approached the player. I was moments away from finally seeing the object of my newfound obsession. The studio had played the movie on loop overnight, but it wasn’t the same as watching it- not even close. I had no intention of actually sitting down and watching Frozen, but the second Alexis started the movie, skipping right to the disc menu, I heard a symphony playing an uplifting melody- and everything changed. I felt giddy, my body gradually filling with tiny pockets of energy that made me want to bounce up and down on the couch in absolute bliss.

I knew generally what the movie was about- the kids at school talked about it enough, but to have the actual images, the torrent of ice and snow- the beautiful danger of a thousand spiked fingertips reaching out toward a terrified crowd, little girls at play forever innocent until a grave mistake, and slim forms in dresses- gorgeous greens and bluish white nearly translucent. It was all too much. I was transfixed by the screen, completely unable to pull away. Just as the excitement grew to a crescendo, even before the movie began, I felt inklings of fear. If I sat here, lost within the world of Arendelle, completely mesmerized by the story of two beautiful sisters, would I use my screen time to watch it every night and beg Kathryn and Thomas for five more minutes? Was it as dangerous as the little girls around me with their imaginations reaching out toward mine like some sort of parasitic hive mind?

My plan had been simple- distract Alexis with a simple question about her boyfriend or a friend of hers and get her in the other room so I could put on a different movie- anything but Frozen. I had seen teenage girls with their phones, especially on the bus, where I was struck by swinging backpacks as chattering teens stared down at their devices. They were often totally unaware of the world around them and the bruise that would form from being smacked in the face by a heavy book bag. I had also been a near perfect angel, meaning that, as Ashley had explained in the studio, Alexis probably trusted me, so she could just leave me there to watch the movie by myself while she fucked around on her phone in the other room.

Unfortunately, I had completely underestimated the sway the movie could have over me. I was the weak swimmer who dove into what they believed to be a calm river, only to be carried by rapids, the breath sucked from their lungs as their body was tossed and then broken against the rocks. Its power came from a multitude of sources, but the prime one, at least currently, was linked to Ava’s group. Why hadn’t I just agreed to be stupid Olaf? It would have been so much easier. Maybe next time they would have let me be Elsa. Ava was probably mad at me because I’d ruined the game. That’s why she made fun of my shoes and called me a baby. It was all my fault.

Seconds later, all worry- anything that resembled conscious thought was gone. Alexis had pressed play, and a beaming smile graced my face. I threw my hands together in glee as the energy coursed through my body again, and this time there was no fighting it. There was no battle- the opposing army had simply never taken the field. I was overrun by the story, the characters, and the music, but especially the magic.

It was just so incredible that there could be a person like Elsa who could make ice and snow from nothing. She would be the best big sister. What other big sister could create a winter wonderland from nothing but their fingertips? Still, it was Anna’s jubilation with which I most identified. She was just such an excitable happy character. I bounced up and down on the couch as she jumped from slope to slope, each one crafted by her big sister. Until, disaster struck and Anna was struck in the head by Elsa’s magic. I gasped and then turned to Alexis.

“Is Anna going to be OK?”

Alexis, who was momentarily surprised by my sudden panic, smiled and said, “I thought this was your favourite movie? I think she’ll be OK. But you have to keep watching.”

And she was, thanks to some silly trolls that looked a lot like rocks half the time. Their big bushy green eyebrows made me giggle. We reached coronation day, when Elsa was to be crowned Queen of Arendelle, but suddenly the picture froze. I turned and looked at Alexis who had the Blu-ray remote in her hand. She had paused the movie, and while I wanted her to unfreeze the image more than anything, probably more than life itself (at least at that moment). I was also suddenly freed from the iron grip of the Disney cash cow.

Alexis grinned, “I can keep the movie running if you want. I’ve seen it about a million times because of my little sister. Last time I babysat her, I tried to turn it off, and she nearly bit me.”

I blinked slowly, the last of the cobwebs fleeing my mind and responded, “Um. No, I-I want to watch it with you.” Alexis nodded with a smile and then excused herself to the bathroom.

I wasn’t sure what kind of permanent damage the movie was doing to my adult mind. My eyes swept over the location of the remote, which was neatly wedged between the couch. I could hit play so easily and be transported back to Arendelle, but I managed to fight the temptation. Seriously though, it was like pulling myself away from a foursome with Megan Fox, Ashley and Jessica. Fuck- throw Monique in there too with her massive tits.

I picked up Alexis’s phone, fucking lucky that she didn’t have a screen lock and rapidly started going through her text messages. My luck continued as I found a guy she had been texting regularly. It was obvious from the texts that Alexis liked Eric, and the feeling was mutual, but they just needed a little push. OK. Maybe a big push. Again, unsurprisingly, as I was flicking through the picture gallery on the phone, I found a selfie that Alexis had taken. She was wearing a regular bikini, nothing skimpy- but for a teenage boy. Well it would get the engine started in a way that would launch him from first gear to sixth in a matter of seconds. I attached the bikini pic with a simple “u like?” and a winking smiley face.

Alexis returned to the bathroom with her phone buzzing like crazy on the coffee table. While I had followed Ashley’s advice up to this point, I knew to get out of this, I needed to listen to my gut. All I knew was that I had to get Alexis out of the room before she unpaused the movie. The addiction growing within me was like Monique and her tattoos, really awful nonsensical tattoos. She actually got an itch for a new one, this bubbling in her skin. Probably had to do with her being high as fuck too, but I wanted to see the end of the movie that badly, and watch it again and again until I could recite every line of dialogue.

Alexis picked up her phone and then narrowed eyes. She quickly turned in my direction, “Kaylee, what did you do with my phone? Why did you do that? Do you think it’s funny?” There was fire in her eyes, dancing pools of molten lave. She really did like this guy.

I shook my head, slowly creeping to the other side of the couch, away from the ire of an angry teenage girl. “N-No. I just thought-“

The phone buzzed again, which had to be the boy’s response, but it was actually a phone call. Alexis proceeded to then walk out of the room and completely ignore me. I listened at the kitchen door.

“No. It wasn’t me. It as this kid that I’m babysitting.”

“Well I was thinking about sending it, but I wasn’t sure you’d like it.”

“Yeah I can talk. Kaylee’s just watching a movie in the other room.”

I grinned and fished out the remote, quickly hitting the big red Netflix button, which mercifully shut off Frozen. I knew exactly what I wanted see, and I was hopeful that Netflix hadn’t removed it yet. The streaming service periodically removed movies and shows, but amazingly, there it was, my favourite movie- Goodfellas. Admittedly the pinnacle of Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta’s career and simply notch on the stellar career of Robert De Niro, it was arguably the best Scorsese mob movie of all time. Of course there was also Godfather, but Godfather III ruined the franchise in my eyes. Goodfellas was a self-contained movie. No bullshit sequels.

I enjoyed the movie more than ever, and incredibly I got to watch all the way to the conclusion of the Lufthansa Heist arc. When Alexis finally entered the room, the seemingly permanent smile was quickly wiped from her face. She owed me an apology as it was obvious my little stunt had actually pushed her relationship with Eric outside of the awkward looks in math class phase.

“Kaylee? What are you watching? OK, this is definitely not for kids.” She rapidly turned off the TV just as the camera pulled inside a refrigerated truck, and joining row upon row of meat was a half-frozen corpse hanging by a hook.

“Alright you little sneak, time for bed.” She ushered me up the stairs.

I asked with a smirk, “So did he like the picture?”

Alexis was caught off guard by my question, nearly dropping my toothbrush in the process, “Uh. Yeah. But if you ever touch my phone again you’ll be swimming with the fishes in cement shoes.”

I rolled my eyes but maintained my smirk. Alexis shrugged her shoulders, “OK, so that was lame. Now open up kiddo, it is way past your bed time.” I let Alexis brush my teeth. The whole thing had become a routine, with Kathryn and Thomas alternating. The lack of independence bothered me, but the thought of going back to the dentist in the near future made my pride easier to swallow.

Alexis let me get changed into my PJs and then entered my room. She asked as I was getting into bed, “Hey did you want me to turn this night light on before I turn off the light?”

I shook my head, “Nah. I don’t need it. Night lights are for babies.”

Alexis grinned, “Wow. Gangster movies and no night lights. You are tough, Kaylee. Next time though let’s stick to the Disney movies, OK?”

I nodded slowly and let my head gently fall onto my Elsa pillow. Alexis turned off the light, bathing the room in darkness, and I quickly fell asleep.

***

“Come on, Elsa! Let’s play! The sky is awake, so I’m awake!” A little red-haired girl bounced behind a slightly taller blonde, who abruptly shushed her. “We can’t wake anyone up, Anna. You remember what happened last time, right?” Anna smiled and nodded, “Sure! It was so much fun. We made snowmen, and we did snow angels. And then you made really pretty glowing snowflakes.” Elsa replied, “We both got in big trouble. I lost my ice skates for a week.” Anna sighed, clearly exasperated. The red head leaned over and dragged her arms on the ground, swinging them slightly as she slowed her pace down the stairs. Her enthusiasm, however, was only momentarily lessened. “But we won’t get caught this time.” Despite her previous warning a tiny smile appeared on Elsa’s face, which immediately returned Anna’s excitement, akin to a wrinkled deflated balloon receiving air from a gas station air pump.

The girls reached the bottom of the long, seemingly never ending staircase with Elsa slowly pushing open a set of massive double doors. With every inch the door opened, Anna’s excitement grew. Soon enough, the two were standing in an expansive ballroom. Hundreds of windows cast pale moonlight onto an ornate floor.

“Do the magic!”

Snow and ice burst from Elsa’s fingertips, quickly blanketing the ballroom in a thin layer of snow. Like a heavy winter storm, snowflakes fell, adding to the layer, until the girls were knee deep in fluffy white snow. This only took a matter of minutes with Elsa and Anna both trying to catch the falling flakes on their tongues. Suddenly, the scene shifted and the girls, still dressed in their night gowns, were trudging through ever deeper snow. Grey buildings- factories with tall smokestacks pumping out black clouds replaced the fairy tale castle. Cars and trucks lined the streets some of them already half buried.

On the street next to them, people, or rather huddled masses, could be seen. One man had a scraggily beard and near blue skin. Little icicles hung from the beard and shook back and forth as the man was suddenly taken by a violent coughing fit. Anna stood and stared at the man, simply shaking in terror. Elsa took her sister’s shaking hand, noticing that it too was turning blue. Anna desperately needed to go somewhere warm. She needed to get out from the cold at the very least.

Elsa spotted a nearby van and managed to pull up the latch. It wouldn’t be a great place, but at least the two could huddle together like the people on the street to stay warm. Unfortunately as the door opened, Elsa noticed that the truck wouldn’t do anything for the two sisters. Row upon row of butchered meat hung upon hooks in the back of the truck. Elsa moved to take her sister’s hand again, but Anna wouldn’t budge. Elsa worried at first that Anna was literally frozen solid, but the smaller girl was still moving, albeit far slower than usual. A second later, Elsa realized what had sent her sister into a near catatonic state.

Hanging amidst the meat, were two human corpses, one with long blonde hair frozen to the face, and the other with a pair of glasses- the lenses broken and the arms bent and twisted. They dangled from two frozen bluish ears. There was no scream from the girls, only the howling of the wind which gently jostled the corpses, giving them sudden life. The jostling also revealed a third corpse. This one wasn’t nearly as frozen, making it look far more human. While the skin was still blue, the hair, which was reddish brown, wasn’t crusted over with snow and ice like the other two. Stuck fast to a tight-fitting workout shirt was a pin with gold and green bars. The dead eyes of the third corpse, open and staring, peered at the little girls, until finally- there was a scream.

I woke up, and all I knew was fear. My voice hurt, and I knew the scream had been mine. Terror had invaded every part of my mind. In that moment, it seemed like it was all I had ever known. I whimpered in my bed, and in that complete darkness, my imagination stoked by my fear created a man with a gun. Every little creak in the old house were the footsteps drawing closer to me. The tree just outside my window, with the branch that needed to be trimmed, it dragged its skeletal fingers across the window pane, and while I knew what was making the noise- the house and the tree, it was impossible to convince my mind that it was something other than the man with the gun and something worse- something beyond horrible.

I wasn’t sure what it was that lived just outside my window, but it was so terrible that my imagination created a dark cloud. It could be anything- a terrible beast with slavering jaws, a thousand needles pointed at me- whatever my mind believed the cloud took that shape. I heard a creak again, but it could have also been the cocking of the man’s gun. Was he in my room?

I lay shaking underneath my covers, the man who had been practically fearless, who watched countless horror movies, the gore hound who laughed at the excess blood that spurted from wounds, was gripped by fear. I heard a tiny creak next to my bed, and I lost control. My mouth flung open, “Mmm-…!”

I bit down on my tongue, hoping that the sudden influx of pain would distract me from what was a completely irrational and childish reaction to a movie. My favourite movie. I wasn’t sure how long I lay there, listening to the scratching against my window. But then, I heard them. Actual footsteps creeping toward Kathryn and Thomas’ room. The creaking was unmistakable. Was it the man with the gun? Was he coming for me next? The door to the master bedroom opened, and I let loose a panicked, uncontrollable cry.

“Mmmm-Mmmmommmmmmy!!!!!”



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