Designer Children Chapter 28

Designer Children by OneShot20XX ([email protected])

Author's note: We are reaching the end, and as I close all of the loose ends, posting will be less frequent I'm afraid. There is another reason, however, as this is a hobby for me, other responsibilities must unfortunately take precedence. With that said, I will try and post the remaining chapters on a weekly basis. Just to give you an idea, it takes approximately 1 hour to write 1-3 pages. We have reached page 500 with the posting of this latest chapter. :) I'm not by any means abandoning the story, but the posting will unfortunately be less frequent. Thanks to all of you who have read up to this point, and for your insightful commentary. If you haven't read my other story (book?) then I encourage you to do so. It is similar in that it is a slow burn mental transformation, but it has a music theme and plenty of twists.

Chapter 28

“Shh. Shh. It’s OK, Kaylee.” A soft hand descended on my back. It immediately began rubbing, careful circular motions tracing an instant soothing pattern. But still, I cried. And cried.

I was overcome by fear- a state where my mind could only flit back and forth between different nightmares. The images were completely made up- the monstrous creatures, the man with the gun, the skeletal tree that picked the skin off little children before devouring them. None of those were real, but my childish fear was mixed with the realization that I was succumbing to the serum.

There was no denying it.

Another set of footsteps entered the room, and then a voice. “What’s wrong with her? Is she sick?”

“I think she had a nightmare.” The hand continued to rub back and forth, while another hand reached over to my dresser and picked something up.

Seconds later, a soft light filled the darkest parts of the room, the places where the fear hung like thick, inky sheets. “This will hopefully help, Kaylee.”

Gradually, the banishment of the dark and the hand stopped my incessant, uncontrollable sniveling. Through it all, I shook and mewled words that mostly didn’t exist. I turned to face the two voices in my room. A smiling, yet worried Kathryn, hair mussed, clad in a silk nightgown, looked down at me. Within her look and her touch, there was love. It was palpable. Thomas stood next to her at my bedside. He was the one who plugged in the Frozen-themed night light.

Mommy. Daddy.

They came and the scary dreams went away. The bad man with the gun, the tree- it was gone, now there was nothing but comfort. Safety.

No…I couldn’t think of them that way. They were the wannabe parents. The ones who took me away from Eve and Greg- mostly Eve. The memory of the nightmare, and their gently swinging bodies- I hated them with a passion for everything they had done to bring me here, but I was terrified at the same time that they would die.

What the fuck was wrong with me? I had to be going crazy. Is this what Ashley went through as she fell to the serum? Was it worse for me because I still had all my memories? I knew what I had felt with Eve, but it was never like this. Never this powerful.

Kathryn sung softly to me as she continued rubbing my back. Eventually, I fell back asleep.

I woke with the sun in my face. With a heavy sigh, I turned to look at the night light. I ripped it from the socket and threw it on the floor. The impact shattered the bulb, leaving glass on the floor. I wasn’t sure what got me through the night exactly, but I wasn’t spending another night in this room with a fucking night light.

It was one nightmare.

Still, as I looked down at the fallen night light, I couldn’t help but feel comforted by it and slightly saddened by my actions. Did it actually help me sleep through the night? It helped Ashley, but then she had been traumatized. She needed it.

Saturday was cleaning day, and I was surprised by how quickly I had fallen into the routine. Thomas and Kathryn asked me about the nightmare and the broken light, but I wasn’t really interested in telling them. And of course, they found out about the movie I had watched, and I lost my screen time for the rest of the weekend.

When bed time neared, that fear began to creep back into my mind. I had kept it at bay throughout the day, but as soon as I was standing in my room, peeking out at tree branches that looked like fingers, my mind was suddenly overwhelmed, and again, all I knew was fear.

Kathryn put her hand on my shoulder, “We got a new bulb if you want your night light, Kaylee. Lots of kids your age sleep with one.”

Thomas added, “It’s very common. We know you’re very brave, but that movie you were watching is for adults. It’s no wonder it scared you. Maybe just try the night light for a few days, OK?”

Kathryn smiled, “At least if you wake up in the middle of the night, you won’t be a completely dark room.”

I sighed heavily, my shoulders sagging as I felt resigned to my fate- that of a little girl who was scared of the dark. Thomas plugged in the night light, and I felt almost instant relief wash over me. I slept through the night, waking again with the sun in my face and the soft glow of the night light. Defeated, I spent most of the day in my room, coming out only to eat. Kathryn and Thomas were worried, and after I refused to tell them what was wrong, they returned to their parenting articles and support network, which in Kathryn’s case was her sister.

As bedtime neared again, the fear, which was as commonplace now as the powerful desire to watch and play Frozen, returned. I peered out my window and noticed that the tree branches were no longer scratching against the glass. Frank had likely come by because otherwise I’m sure I would have heard an ambulance if Thomas had tried it.

I noticed something else too. There was still some daylight. Summer was waning, but those long summer days were still here. I looked at the pink princess castle that acted as my alarm clock and the only means I had to tell time. Had I really been going to bed at 8 PM every night since I got here? I mean my body was tired, especially since I had started school, but had I really allowed myself to slip further into a routine? The teeth brushing. It all started with that.

Fuck, what was next, story time?

I slept with the night light again, and the next day, I trudged into school. Kathryn and Thomas again tried to play twenty questions with me, but I told them to fuck off, which again lost me my screen time. I sure as fuck was not going to tell them the truth about why I was so upset. I wanted to see if Eve had written me back yet, but unless I could get the wannabes out of the house, it wasn’t happening.

What I really wanted to know was whether or not the researchers had completely cracked Travers’ code. I needed some good news. At this point, I knew I was fucked. I wasn’t Ryan any longer. I didn’t- or couldn’t like the same things. But, I wasn’t Kaylee yet either. Just this walking-talking mess of a human being.

“You look very pretty today, Ava.”

Ava always wore dresses. Did she have a mom like mine, trying to (yet successfully) forcing her into them? Or was she just that girly? I felt a tinge of jealousy as I looked down at my own clothing- again a combination of a polo shirt with khaki pants (as the weather was getting cooler).

“Thank you, Mrs. Carmichael.”

It looked like Ava was going to play tennis, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. The bottom of the dress was ruffled, similar to a cheerleader’s skirt. It would be perfect for twirling. Ava stood in the middle of her group of friends, dressed better than some of the sixth grade girls at the far end of the yard.

It fucking pissed me off that I was jealous of someone like Ava, but she- she got so many compliments. Stupid Mrs. Carmichael always said nice things about Ava’s dresses. All she said was hello to me. It was an easy fix. I just had to go into my closet and pick one out.

I sighed, realizing that I was dressed like some pathetic soccer mom.

School was still mostly boring, except when Mrs. Carmichael used the special white board to do animations, like when she made the whole Earth spin until we stopped on Antarctica. It was only my writing that put me on the same footing as the other kids in the class. Everything else we did was just ridiculously easy.

The class was working on a short story unit, emphasis on the word short. We had to make up a story about two friends who have a problem getting along but the two friends had to be aliens or some bullshit like that, and then we had to get our seatmate to read it. I couldn’t contain myself as I looked over Ava’s work.

Ava smiled, “You think my story is funny, Kaylee?”

I shook my head, “Not really. I mean. It doesn’t make any sense. And I don’t think you spelled one word right.” I wanted to hurt Ava for how she had treated me. Maybe I was a baby because I couldn’t tie my shoes, but at least my story made sense.

Mrs. Carmichael, who was doing her rounds like some sort of teacher-ninja hybrid, surprised me, “Kaylee, that’s not nice. We all learn at different rates. Rather than being mean, why not help Ava improve her story? Offer some suggestions.”

I shifted awkwardly in my seat as I was admonished, “OK, Mrs. Carmichael.” The teacher smiled and moved to break up a light sabre dual involving two boys armed with pencils.

Ava said, “I don’t want your help, Kaylee. You’re mean.”

Ava snatched her story back from me and then lowered her head on her desk. Was she crying? A lump appeared in my throat as I looked down at my own story, which was easily twice the length of Ava’s. Thankfully, the bell rang and the students lined up for lunch.

Lunch was an interesting phenomenon. It looked a lot like a seventh grade dance, especially with the younger ages. As the kids got older, there was more mingling among the sexes, but generally, boys sat with boys and girls with girls. I was a different case.

I hadn’t really made any friends, so I sat alone. I would have sat with Conner, but I couldn’t bring myself to sit at a table with five six year old boys. It was easy to tell myself that it was because of their ages, and that spending time with them outside of class was dangerous, but I also knew it was because of their sex. The strange push and pull still existed with Conner, but the prospect of sitting at the table with the other boys was like more like a vicious mental shove. It just wasn’t happening. I had previously been comfortable with guys- my own age certainly. Sitting around a fire or at the table and talking about whatever. Or not talking. Now, now it just felt wrong. Like some hairy spider crawling down my neck. Yuck.

I looked down at my lunch and sighed. It was packed in one of those lunch bags that kids in elementary school carried- well more so little girls- pale purple and adorned with Frozen characters. Each item was packed in a Tupperware container. Kathryn was apparently trying to save the world by avoiding plastic bags, but plenty of the other kids had their food in little plastic baggies, so it probably didn’t make a fucking difference anyway. On the inside of the bag in black permanent marker it read: KAYLEE PATTERSON.

My lunch was equally sad, a ham sandwich on whole grain bread, which tasted like I was trying to chew through a piece of cardboard slathered with mustard. A yogurt drink, whole wheat crackers with cheese and for dessert- fruit. Fucking fruit. Kathryn made most health nuts look like regular greasy spoon customers. Okay. It was a fruit cup, but still- fuck, she couldn’t give me cookies? It wasn’t fair because Thomas got to eat fucking Oreos. He had a stash in his office.

As I stared down at my lunch bag, my mind began to wander, back to the icy slopes of the North Mountain, but as I thought about Frozen, I was most reminded of the music. The incredible music. Normally, I just went for dance stuff- whatever they were playing in the club or at the Palace, it was mostly top 40 stuff. The odd song would get stuck in my head, but this was nothing like that.

I had a serious earworm- the songs playing on repeat, and coaxing me to be a good girl so I could get my screen time. I nearly asked Thomas to put on Radio Disney in the morning drive over, hoping that I would hear something from the movie. I found myself humming the intro song as Conner walked over to me, football neatly tucked underneath his arm.

“Hey, Kaylee. You wanna play?”

I nodded rapidly and bolted out of my seat, perhaps a little too happy to be playing catch with a six year old. Five minutes later, however, I learned that we both sucked at throwing and catching the football. Conner would throw the ball to me, and it would either bounce off my chest or fall well short of the target. Catching it with my hands, or at least trying, revealed that my hand-eye coordination was still- well at the level of a six year old girl. Conner was only slightly better than me.

Conner said, “Maybe if you come closer. Or I could throw it like this.” Conner threw the ball underhand, and finally, the lob properly bounced off my chest and landed in my hands.

I shook my head fiercely, “That’s how kids play catch. Come on, we’ll get it.”

Conner sighed, “I’m bored. Let’s play tag or we could play Avengers. Like the football could be a bomb or something, and we have to help the people before it explodes.”

I said, “We aren’t going to get any better if we don’t practice. Let’s just do five more catches. Like once we get five. We’ll stop, OK?” To be honest, I wasn’t all that interested in playing Avengers. No, my attention was caught again by Ava’s little group of friends, enjoying a really fun game of skipping.

We got five catches, but three of them were underhand, and they weren’t all in a row. Conner decided to join his friends, who were all playing Avengers. I sat alone, watching Ava’s group until the bell rang ending the lunch-time recess.

***

“It’s not really fair. She’s had her career completely stalled.”

Thomas replied, “Well she was gone for a year. She can’t just expect to pick up exactly where she left off. She wasn’t working.”

Kathryn glared at Thomas and the man quickly added, “In her field. She’s been out of her field for an entire year. Do I think it’s fair? Not really no. But is it fair for her to just be able to come back and claim a job. The senior professor position went to someone who has managed to stay current in a field that is in near constant flux. It’s a sacrifice.”

Kathryn, who was still looking like she wanted to partly strangle Thomas, said, “I didn’t expect her to just be given tenure or the senior professor position. But she should have had more prep time for the exam.”

Thomas, who was attempting to act as the voice of reason as far as I was concerned, said, “She had the same amount of prep time as everyone else. Just because she’s got a baby at home doesn’t mean she should have preferential treatment.”

Kathryn replied, “The whole thing is very shady. Some people knew about the senior professor job way before Cynthia. Her career trajectory is completely screwed up now, and she is being punished for having a baby.”

Thomas sighed, “Well the jobs are on internal mail. I mean yes it would have been ideal to know earlier because she could have started getting back into things sooner, but that’s not the fault of the university. It was her choice not to get set up for the internal mail. Look Kat, Cynthia is your friend, so I’m not sure you are looking at this in the right frame of mind.”

Kathryn shook her head fiercely, “Did you know that by Cynthia’s second semester, they had already cut her course load, and they took her off a research project? This was a girl who was still teaching aerobics, high-impact aerobics into her fifth month of pregnancy.”

Bored of the conversation and the gross green beans on my plate, I asked, “So did she get knocked up, or is there someone in the picture?”

The conversation only served to demonstrate another in a long list of reasons why I didn’t want to grow up female. I certainly didn’t want to deal with that shit- let alone bleeding out of my vagina every month. For a brief moment, as the image of that popped into head, I was overjoyed that I was only six years old. Women just had to deal with a lot of bullshit. I had heard Kathryn complaining about how her colleagues treated her, especially her male colleagues. Her male students were sometimes less than subtle about their staring. With the so-called perfect genes, I would probably have to put up with the same on a daily basis.

Kathryn and Thomas both turned toward me with wide open, no- gaping mouths. Thomas stuttered, “K-Kaylee, where did you learn such inappropriate language?”

Kathryn shook her head, “Guess. I’ve half a mind to call them up and tell them how they’ve corrupted a poor little girl.”

I shot a nasty look at Kathryn, “First of all, I’m not a poor little girl. I understand way, way more than you probably realize. And secondly, Agatha, how the fuck do you know I didn’t learn this in the studio? Some conversation between teamsters during a lunch break? You don’t know that it was Greg and Eve. They took really good care of me.”

Kathryn blanched, while Thomas remained silent. She finally spoke up, “You’re right, Kaylee. We don’t know. I’m sorry.” She firmed and hard lines appeared on her face, “But that doesn’t ignore the fact that we’ve told you about a hundred times now that we don’t want to hear anymore swearing.”

I nodded, “I know. No screen time.” I was actually thankful because I wouldn’t have to wage a battle against myself that could end with me begging Kathryn and Thomas to watch Frozen.

Thomas added, “And we don’t really say ‘knocked up’ either. It’s not polite.”

I rolled my eyes, “I’ve been here long enough to see how things work. People like those diamond rose tea-sipping society types, they act polite, but they aren’t. They use different words, but they mean the same thing. I remember how she talked to Kathryn about me and child birth or whatever. They might as well have just said fuck you, I’m better than you because I pushed a baby out my snatch.”

If Kathryn and Thomas had worn monocles, they would have popped off and tumbled into their also non-existent wine glasses. Both looked flabbergasted. I guess I had probably gone too far, even for a semi-street wise first grader, it was far beyond my expected level.

There was a full thirty seconds of silence at least before Thomas finally said, “So, Kaylee, who did you play with today?”

I smirked, enjoying the squirming of the wannabes. “Conner. We threw his football around. We both kind of sucked though.” This fact quickly wiped the smirk off my face.

Both Kathryn and Thomas looked pleased. I guess the daily reports they were receiving about my sitting alone at lunch and recess had to be driving them crazy with worry.

Kathryn said, “Well if you want to get better, you need to practice. Why not play catch with your- Thomas?”

I raised a speculative brow, “No offense, but I bet he’s about as good as me. And I’m awful.”

Thomas stuttered, “I-I’ve got a grant proposal coming up. I also have to present to the development committee about the impact of the coffee shop they want to build in the library.”

I shrugged, “Probably throws worse than me too. And do you even have a ball?”

Kathryn nodded, “Yes we do. There was one in the garage when we moved in.” She then turned toward Thomas, “You’ll be out there for half an hour not three hours. Now get moving.”

I looked at Thomas and shrugged, then slowly made my way to the backyard. Thomas followed behind me as if he were being led down death row.

***

“You didn’t need to come out here you know.”

Thomas replied, “Sometimes it’s just best to do what Kathryn wants. It’s the Feinstein in her. Plus, well we should you know do things together. If I’m going to be your d-“

I interrupted, “Adoptive dad.”

Thomas nodded, “Right. Maybe one day though, I’ll call you my little Kaylee-Bear, and you’ll call me Daddy-kins.”

I shook my head, “Ok, stop. I barfed a little in my mouth.”

Thomas grinned, “So, the people you were staying with, did they like football?”

As we spoke, we awkwardly tossed the ball around. Thomas didn’t provide any pointers like my own dad, but I already knew what I had to do. We stood about six feet apart, but Thomas was forced to often jog forward in order to sometimes catch but mostly miss the ball. I still clearly threw like a girl.

“Not really.”

“You know if you let the ball bounce off your chest, you’ll catch more. I guess you’ll have to move in a little though.” Thomas did as I suggested, and he caught my next pass. I knew it wasn’t really the best way to catch a football in a game situation, but for our purposes it worked. After all, Kathryn wasn’t about to join the play and intercept the ball.

I peered out of the corner of my eye, noticing Kathryn standing at the backdoor, peering at us from the screen door. I groaned, “She’s recording us. Isn’t she?”

Thomas looked over toward Kathryn and then back to me, “Yeah. Definitely.”

I groaned, “And she’ll probably post it on Facebook.”

Thomas nodded, “Yeah. Definitely.”

I asked, “Did she change her desktop picture yet? The other one was seriously creepy.”

Thomas laughed, “Yeah. It’s a picture from your first day of school. She rotates them.”

I sighed, “She’s obsessed.” I couldn’t believe that I was actually having a decent conversation with Thomas. We had our moment in the car, but beyond that, we hadn’t exactly bonded. Now, we were just throwing and catching a ball poorly, and we were almost opening up. It reminded me of playing catch with my own dad, and I couldn’t help but notice a pleasant feeling- these little pin pricks at the back of my neck as we continued to talk.

Thomas simply shrugged as we continued to throw the ball back and forth. I said, “What’s with those sticker people on the car anyway?”

Thomas replied matter-of-factly, “Kathryn’s idea again. I think they are cute. Don’t you?”

The stickers still bothered me, especially the presence of the smiling stick princess that was supposed to represent me. If that is how my wannabe parents saw me, then I would have to quickly change their minds, show them that I would not fit within the mold. I reached out to catch the ball and dropped it. With a sigh, I replied, “Not really. And that one of you, you like building sandcastles, right?”

Thomas laughed, “I’m an archeologist, but they don’t really have one for that, so yeah I’ve got a little shovel and a pail.” The laughter ended abruptly as Thomas failed to catch the ball- although my shitty throw probably didn’t help. “I haven’t been on a dig in a long time. About five years now. Wow, I can’t believe it’s been that long.” Thomas shook his head slowly and threw the ball clear over my head.

“Sorry, Kaylee.”

I ran to fetch the ball, my body still filled with a boundless energy, even after playing earlier with Conner. “So why don’t you go on one? Seems like it would be pretty cool. Like Tomb Raider.”

Thomas smiled sadly, “Kind of like that. But actually nothing like that. I’m basically a grant monkey now though. Curse my superior command of the English language.”

I rolled my eyes at Thomas’ attempt at humour, “So, just tell them you don’t want to do that anymore. It’s a university. It’s full of people who can write. Why do you have to do it?”

Thomas looked at me the same way most adults did when I said something outside the understanding of a regular six year old- a little smile crossed his lips as his eyes looked on, clearly amused at the precocious little girl before him. “Well because it is part of my job. We all have to do things we don’t like. You don’t like folding laundry, right? But it needs to be done.”

I shook my head, “Sounds like you just don’t want to fucking deal with it. Same way with the door and fixing stuff up around the house. And with the tire initially.”

Thomas cleared his throat, “Kaylee, your language. And it’s complicated. It’s also kind of my fault. I had a chance to go on a dig about three months ago, but I turned it down.”

After this, things went silent. We continued to throw the ball back and forth, both of us mostly dropping it, especially as the remaining light faded.

Thomas broke the silence a few throws later, “So you don’t like your sticker?” I shook my head firmly. The image of the smiling little girl in the princess dress would have been harmless to most, but to someone struggling with their very identity, the little sticker on the back window of the SUV was the scripted Kaylee- the one the serum sought to create.

The one that couldn’t watch scary movies and hid behind her mommy’s expensive skirts.

That needed a night light.

I had fallen so far from the fearless Ryan Sullivan, I felt like I had one finger left on the ledge, my body dangling above a precipice.

“I just don’t really feel like it’s me.”

Thomas smiled, “Well we can fix that easily. The kit came with a bunch of accessories.” He motioned toward the front yard and then took off excitedly. I followed, but with much less enthusiasm.

When I reached the front yard, I saw Thomas busy trying to pick off the sticker. I watched as he removed the puffy looking skirt and the stereotypical pointed princess hat. He turned to me and said with a completely straight face, “OK. So what’s more you, boxing gloves?”

A tittering giggle didn’t simply escape my mouth- it burst. Thomas grinned and then pulled out a sheet with a litany of sticker accessories. “You like Sherlock Holmes, right? There’s this cap and magnifying glass. How about that?”

I smiled, “Okay. Yeah that sounds pretty good.”

Thomas carefully removed the stickers and then placed them on the little girl stick figure. The long hair and the triangular-shaped skirt were a dead giveaway to her gender, but at least the stupid princess stuff was gone.

“It’s getting near your bedtime. We should head inside.”

***

“Lean your head back a little bit more please, Kaylee. I still see some stuff here.” I did as asked, allowing Thomas to more easily reach my back teeth. It was perfectly normal now to have a grown man or grown woman brush my teeth. This fact should have terrified me, but it was routine, the same way that I lined up next to the other kids to go out for recess, putting my little feet in clown-sized multi-coloured footprints.

“Okay, good looks like I got the last of it.”

Instead of simply rinsing the brush off, wiping it on the towel and placing it back in the little ice castle holder, Thomas proceeded to gently brush the tip of my nose. The giggle this time, however, did not burst nor escape from my mouth- as an involuntary reaction. It flowed like a primordial river, never dammed, never losing pressure, simply a constant current. Something absolutely natural and untouched.

A big grin formed on my face, my cheeks dimpling in a way that caused an equally massive grin to break out on Thomas’ face. A few minutes later, as Thomas tucked me in, I asked, “Can we throw the ball again tomorrow? I mean we both kind of suck. But I feel like we were getting it with the last ones.”

Thomas nodded with a smile, “Yeah. I-If you want to. But it’s late now, and you’ve got school tomorrow. Good night, Kaylee. I love you.”

“Good night.”

Thomas leaned over and kissed me on the forehead. Moments after he did, the little pin pricks returned, travelling up and down my spine like tiny electric shocks. As Thomas left the room, a small smile graced my face.

***

It was hairy, and its million or so legs were crawling slowly across my exposed forearm. I stared down at the caterpillar inching its way along my skin. It was multi-coloured, a mottling of orange, black and yellow, but my brain failed to register the colours. A primal, uncontrollable fear descended on me, and in seconds, I was shrieking, flapping my arm, desperately trying to dislodge the creature without touching it.

“Kaylee, calm down. It’s just a bug. Here.”

Conner, who had dropped his football, took hold of my arm and then firmly squished the hapless caterpillar. This, however, did not stop my shrieking as now a disgusting, or as the older girl I had met at the beach would put it, icky goo oozed down my arm. Conner took his shirt and quickly wiped away the guts and the caterpillar carcass.

Conner said, “Wow, you were scared of that? You’re such a girl, Kaylee. My mommy is really scared of spiders. She makes me and my dad kill ‘em. One time she got one in her hair, and she screamed- a lot like you.” The little boy laughed.

Oh fuck. Spiders. They were worse than caterpillars. One hundred times worse.

It was clear the serum was warping my mind further, on its gradual descent toward the Kaylee character from the Hermie Hippo Show, but all I could think about was that little web in the far corner of my room and the nest of spiders that would undoubtedly pay me a visit tonight. Forget the fact that as Ryan Sullivan, I had bottled, fed, squished and played with caterpillars, worms- anything I could find on the ground that moved basically. Kaylee was entirely different specimen apparently.

I was becoming a scaredy cat. A violent movie was one thing, but an insect? Something that lived its life until it found itself on the bottom of someone’s shoe?

I looked down at my arm, checking to make sure that nothing else had fallen on it and then quickly moved away from the tree that was probably hosting a whole colony of creepy crawlies. The fear I felt was real, and completely irrational, just like my mom’s fear of mice. I mean my mom had a bit of an argument considering one, half-dead had crawled into her pant leg after fleeing the neighbour’s cat. When she went to put on the pants, out popped the mouse, and my mom just lost it. Fuck, is that what I had to look forward to? Screaming like a maniac because of a fucking rodent?

I glared at Conner, but he had already gone to retrieve his football, so he didn’t see the look. The asshole thought the whole traumatic experience was funny. Of course, I had laughed at my mom, who had done her best impression of a mental patient, while balancing on a chair to escape the mouse.

As we resumed our game of catch, I was still angry, and I tried to show this by throwing the ball harder. While I had been practicing with Thomas, which had slightly improved my skills, I still couldn’t throw very far or very accurately, so my hard throw bounced harmlessly off a nearby tree. I looked fearfully at the tree, worried that my action had dislodged more caterpillars.

Why did Conner have to be so mean? I couldn’t help being terrified, and he fucking…laughed! It also bothered me how he had so casually ended the life of the caterpillar without a measure of fear. Exactly as I used to. Hannah was actually not terrified of spiders, but she hated frogs. Like really hated them. To tease her, I used to make frog noises when we were at the beach, which she didn’t particularly appreciate. It usually earned me a punch on the arm. She really got pissed off the one time I actually brought her a frog to try and explain how girly she was acting. Now that I had experienced it first-hand, I had a new appreciation and a measure of guilt. It really was uncontrollable and completely irrational- but most of all, it was impossible to stop. It wasn’t a matter of just saying to myself, “It is just a caterpillar or spider.” The fear practically seeped into my being.

Thankfully, the bell rang, ending the first recess of the day. The playground was scattered with fallen leaves in orange, yellow and red, and we were forced to tromp through them on our way back to class. Some of the kids had formed leaf piles, and had been joyfully throwing their bodies into the cushioned mass. Others had been throwing the leaves or took turns putting the leaves in each other’s hoods and then picking them out of their hair.

I had had to prick my leg a few times with my dad’s pin to avoid ditching Conner for the leaves, an activity clearly linked to childhood.

Conner asked, “So what are you gonna be for Halloween?”

I knew Halloween was coming- three weeks away, according to the pumpkin countdown calendar in the classroom, but I had no intention of being anything. Adults didn’t trick or treat. They dressed up in costumes, the girls in slutty almost lingerie, got drunk and made some fun mistakes. Kathryn had asked what I wanted to be a few times, but I just told her nothing.

I was already hanging on by a tiny thread- Halloween, with imagination and childish games, brought with it innumerable risks to see what remained of me fully washed away, the colours running from my being and forming pinks and pale purples.

I replied, “I don’t know. Maybe Elsa.”

Conner said, “Ava and a bunch of the girls from our class too are gonna be her. That’s boring.”

I had replied sarcastically, knowing that a million or more young girls across the country, and maybe even across the world, would choose Elsa as their costume. The joke went completely over Conner’s head.

I said, “Well what are you going to be, Spider-man?”

Conner nodded his head happily. I smirked, “Okay, you and about a billion other kids. Why does it matter what I’m going to be?”

Conner replied matter-of-factly, “You’re different. Well kind of. For a girl. I thought you’d be something cool like Black Widow. Because you like that kind of stuff.”

I replied, “I’m sure the skin-tight leather costume would go over really well in an elementary school.”

Conner laughed, “But you could, right? And then we could really play Avengers on Halloween.”

I shrugged my shoulders, “Maybe.”

***

While I could usually count on Conner to help me stave off boredom by tossing the football around during recess, the little boy often quickly grew bored. He often left me alone, and as my eyes crossed the playground- the swings, the girls skipping rope, the kids going down the slide for the millionth time. It was all as alluring as an eyeful of Monique’s implants, heaving in a too-tight crop top. Before I realized that the breasts were basically just bloated silicone jugs.

During lunch-time recess, Conner had left me after about five minutes of throwing the ball around to join his friends in a game of football. Although, with the respective ages of the players, to call it football was actually a disservice to the sport. It mostly involved the boys running around and tackling each other behind a group of trees that provided some shelter from the watchful eye of the lunch time monitors, but it was about as close to as I was going to get to an actual football game, so I slowly made my way over to the group.

Childish behaviour, like jumping in leaves or playing with toys, was dangerous to my adult self, but a simple game of football with first and second graders seemed safe enough. Because neither of them could throw very far, it was all running game, with the boys trying to block each other from reaching a set of trees on either side that acted as goal posts.

One team was actually short a player, so I decided to just join in. Another boy had done the same two minutes before, basically joining in the middle of the play. It was the exact same way we had done it when I was a kid. Kids would get called in for dinner or lunch or appointments- it didn’t matter. Someone else would just join in, and you would play until there weren’t enough kids to have a proper game.

I received a few strange looks from the boys on both teams, but they continued with their game. This was an important moment in establishing who Kaylee Patterson was going to be. Would she be the girly girl who was terrified of bugs, or would she be the tomboy who would run and keep up with the boys? I needed these boys to see me as the latter.

I had joined just as a touchdown had been scored by my team, so I quickly ran back and waited on defense. Most of the tackling involved grabbing shirts and throwing the player with the ball to the ground, but I had seen a few rough mid-body hits that had left the boys involved looking dazed and sometimes even hurt.

Conner, who was on my team, smiled at me as we ran down the field toward the opposing team. A boy, who was easily a foot faller than me, ran with the ball neatly tucked underneath his arm like a real running back. Compared to me, he was a rampaging giant, with broad shoulders and massive hands. Either he had failed a grade, or he liked dominating little kids. In front of him, his offensive line blocked by mostly pushing my team down with outstretched hands. Some of the offensive linemen spun the defenders by their shirts until they fell to the ground.

I had little in the way of previous experience running against kids my own age, but it was clear that I was fast. While my legs were short, and it felt like it took forever to actually reach my intended destination, when stacked against kids my age, I actually held my own. Considering I was supposed to be this perfect specimen- that this would transfer to some athletic ability made absolute sense. Sure, I couldn’t catch or throw a ball very well, but few six years olds could, boys or girls.

I managed to slip past two charging second graders, easily half a foot taller than me, and leapt toward the kid with the ball. My hand stretched out and snagged his pant leg and then dug in, my fingers gripping like some rabid dog. He pulled me along on the grass for a few feet, my white khaki pants quickly gaining an assortment of stains in lovely green and brown as the grass and hard packed dirt met my knees and legs. He picked up speed now basically dragging me down the field. So, realizing I was losing my grip, I rapidly swung my other hand over to grip the boy’s free leg, which sufficiently slowed his movement. With this slowdown, I released my grip and then hugged his legs, bringing him down suddenly. As his descent was such a surprise, he had no time to cushion the fall with his hands. He fell hard onto his face, which dislodged the ball and sent it skittering in a fumble toward my team.

There was no time for congratulations on my tackle as my team immediately went on the offensive. Still, the boys looked impressed. The fallen boy, whose chin was covered in dirt, looked humiliated, but he quickly got back into the game. As he rose, he sniffed a few times, but crying in front of a bunch of his classmates during a football game was never going to be acceptable, even in first and second grade, and especially if he was older. He would never live it down to a point where he would probably want to change schools.

As my team ran toward an inevitable touchdown, I was pushed hard from behind. The shove caused me to stumble, but I managed to maintain my balance. I spun around to see my attacker and saw the boy I had tackled, red-faced and furious. It was well after the play, and in a real game of football, it would have amounted to unsportsmanlike conduct. More than anything, it was a jerk move.

I glared at the boy and moved to push him back, but my team had already scored, so I stifled the childish outburst that sought to put me on the same level as the real child standing next to me. The game continued like this throughout recess with a lot of back and forth from both teams. Despite my earlier tackle, no one seemed willing to give me a chance to run with the ball. I wasn’t sure if it was an issue with sharing or the fact that I looked like a girl, but even standing right next to a teammate in a position to lateral the ball to me, I still didn’t get it.

It was bullshit. I was just as fast as most of them, and in some cases, even faster. I was definitely faster than Conner. After the next touchdown, I sprinted toward the ball and took it in my arms. I looked at the assembled boys around me- my offensive line, and then I cradled the ball, pressing it firmly against my body. It was just like my dad had shown me. We played a similar game to the one in the school yard, but it was one-on-one, and most of the time it ended with my dad tackling and then tickling me. At least when I was younger. When I got older, and I sought to challenge my dad, we got more competitive and definitely rougher.

Would Thomas ever want to do anything like that with me?

The Pattersons could not be my parents. I still wanted Greg and Eve, although partly because they would let me do whatever I wanted. I thrust the thoughts from my head as I began to run. My offensive line surprisingly tried just as hard to help me get to the other side of the field as any of the boys who had gone before me. As I ran down the field, I began to feel confident that I could actually score. Some of the boys were definitely more coordinated than me, but I had pure speed, and my smaller frame could find and easily pierce the holes in the defense.

As I grew closer to the goal, I noticed that I had only one defender left to beat- the boy who may or may not have been two grades ahead of me. Still red-faced, he pounded down the field toward me, looking all of a sudden like a rampaging elephant. My imagination took this image as truth, and I felt a sense of instant fear.

Focus. I was going to show this asshole that he couldn’t push me around. Gathering my courage, I told myself that I was going to blow past him. I would make a quick move to the left, but I would go right, and then I would start my victory dance.

The boy said nothing, but his face and posture told the story of someone who was still upset that a girl had managed to tackle him. His teeth were bared like some snarling dog with his eyes showing the fury tied to his embarrassment.

A tiny strand of hair entered my field of vision, followed by another and another. I had kept the headband on for the game, knowing that it would keep my long hair, which was now well over shoulder length, suitably bound. Kathryn had this morning chosen one that tied. I guess it was probably called something else, but all I knew was that it was loose, and the hair was in my eyes.

I didn’t see the impact, but I felt it immediately. The ball skittered away, indicating a fumble, but I wasn’t in a position to retrieve it. My body took a moment to complete a diagnosis, but my mind was already three steps ahead. A shrill moan left my lips before I even realized how hurt I was, and then came the waterworks, powerful- a veritable deluge. My chin hurt like hell, but I was more concerned with bawling my eyes out.

“Did you have to hit her so hard?”

“I think she’s really hurt.”

“We should get a teacher.”

“No way. They already said we can’t play this. We’ll be in big trouble.”

My hands went to my chin, and I touched it gingerly, which set off a new chorus of cries.

“Mr. Samuels is looking over here.”

“Why do you even play with her, Conner? She’s such a big baby.”

“Because she’s my friend. And she’s cool.”

I felt someone kneel down beside me. “Kaylee, should we get a teacher? Are you going to be OK?” It was Conner. My crying had lessened, my sobbing now a pathetic whimper more in line with Duke the time he caught his leg in a rabbit snare during a hunting trip with my dad. In the wild, I would have been attracting predators, the sound awakening primal urges to fill empty bellies, but in the school yard, it would likely bring a teacher.

My theory was proven correct a moment later as I saw every boy except for Conner suddenly take off. They had to know they would be caught eventually. Mr. Samuels, the third grade teacher, probably knew them all by name, since it was a small school. Although in the case of the asshole that murdered me, maybe he also taught them currently. In fact, since Twin Falls was such a small town, it is probable that Mr. Samuels even knew most of the parents by their first name, even this early in the school year.

Conner shouted, “Emergency! Emergency! Mr. Samuels, I think Kaylee’s really hurt. Maybe, she’s got a broken leg or something! Or a broken face!” He excitedly pointed toward me. Unsurprisingly, he was kind of flapping his arm as he pointed. I apparently wasn’t the only one that did that.

Mr. Samuels laughed gently, “I don’t think that’s quite it, Conner. And let’s not scare her. But we’ll see how Kaylee is doing, and then maybe I’ll take her to the nurse.” Mr. Samuels was, like most adults, very tall, but compared to others, he was monstrously tall. Just looking at him, it seemed like his legs went on forever. The consequence of this is that he made me feel tiny. I imagined myself as a little fairy, the one from the story I had written, with a broken wing. The giant, Mr. Samuels, taking my entire body into one massive hand.

Mr. Samuels asked with a smile, “Where does it hurt, Kaylee?”

I pointed to my chin, while still sniffling and eliciting the odd whimper. The teacher’s presence and the fact that Conner had remained by my side had comforted me immeasurably.

Mr. Samuels said, “That’s going to leave a nasty bruise. Let’s take you to the nurse so we can get the whole story. We don’t want your parents to worry, so we’ll take it all down so they understand what happened to you.”

Conner frowned, “But will we get in trouble for playing that game?”

Mr. Samuels replied, “That depends. Were you doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing?”

Conner shrugged and refused to meet the teacher’s gaze, “Well. I mean maybe.”

Mr. Samuels sighed, “That’s why we don’t want you playing so rough. Because kids like Kaylee get hurt, and it isn’t fun any longer, right?”

Conner nodded, “Right. Can I help you bring Kaylee to the nurse? She’s my friend.”

Mr. Samuels smiled, “Sure.”

***

I scratched at the band-aid firmly stuck to my chin- the war wound from the lunch-time recess. Yes, I had cried my eyes out, but considering I had been hit with the elementary school yard equivalent of a monster truck, it wasn’t surprising. I had hung with the boys. While the cowards all escaped, trying to evade what would be an obvious capture, I had still successfully played their game.

As a guy, it is what you did. You got the shit kicked out of you, and you got back up and threw another punch, another hit- dragged yourself across the field to the bench. I had once played an entire game of football with blood leaking down the side of my leg from an errant cleat. The longer you staved off the treatment, the more credit you received from your teammates. There was something animalistic about it, a fervour that raised the level of play, it made tackles harder, limbs move at hyper speed.

For the final recess of the day, the boys had moved the location of their game. I strode over to them confidently, my pants, the expensive khakis were still slicked with stains, likely a permanent green over each knee. The equally expensive polo sweater with the little frills at the cuffs was also similarly stained at the front and back, the result of my being thrown and also dragged. I wanted to show them off, like war wounds, but I had been forced to change by Mrs. Carmichaels. She hadn’t made any of the boys who played change. Annoyingly, the only change of clothes I had was a dress, surreptitiously placed there by Kathryn no doubt. And of course, Mrs. Carmichaels had made a big deal about it.

The blouse was pink with black stripes that attached to a long, flowing skirt that ended just below my ankle. Attached neatly, just over my heart, was a pretty pink rose. It wasn’t real, being soft and almost plush, but it had multiple layers making it look as if was continuously blooming. Fucking Kathryn.

I wish the class had a mirror.

Just like at lunch, the teams were uneven, but something about the game itself was odd. No one was grabbing shirts, pants, trying to haul each other down or doing anything that resembled a football tackle. Fuck. They were playing touch football. It was the exact same game without any of the physicality.

“OK. No teachers.” It was the older boy, the one who had introduced me to the grass, the dirt, and his elbow.

I quickly began jogging toward the team missing the player, my skirt gently swishing against my legs as I did, but instead of just continuing the play like the first time, everything stopped.

“Go away, Kaylee, cry baby!”

“You got us in trouble!”

“Stupid crying girls.”

I shook my head and said, “Hey you fuckers, I nearly got my jaw broken by someone who will be shaving while he’s still in the fifth grade. If he hit you like he hit me, you’d probably still be crying. Now come on, let’s play.”

“Get lost, kid. No one here wants to play with a cry baby girl. Go play with the stupid girls. You look just like them.” The older boy flicked his thumb in the direction of Ava and her group.

I said, “Hey idiot, you do realize we’re all kids? Right? Just because you are in third fucking grade or whatever doesn’t mean anyone here has to listen to you.”

I turned to Conner, but he wouldn’t look at me. I said, “Come on, Conner. Let’s just go and throw the ball, OK? It’s your ball anyway, right? We don’t need these assholes.”

Conner said in a tiny voice, “Um. Sorry, Kaylee. The guys make fun of me for playing with you. They say you’re bad. And if I play with you, they won’t let me play with them.”

I stared at him dumbstruck, “But it’s your fucking ball! I mean, fuck- this doesn’t make any sense.” I looked at the other boys, some of whom had been on my team previously for a sign of encouragement- support, anything! I received none, and faltering momentarily, feeling the weight of my forced gender on my flailing adult mind, I sniffled and tenderly bit my lip.

The older boy said, “See? See? She’s just a big cry baby. She’s going to get us in trouble again. She didn’t even tackle me or anything. I slipped, and she kind of fell on me.”

I knew that it was a bold-faced lie- the kind that I told my mom when I was planning on sneaking out to be with Hannah past my curfew. “No, I’m not seeing Hannah, just going to check on some homework at a buddy’s place.” Of course, I didn’t do homework, so it was a terrible lie. Despite the obvious, a tiny seed of doubt was planted. Maybe the boy was right. Could I have just been lucky? But wasn’t I running and keeping up with the boys? Shit. When did they become simply the boys? Wasn’t I one too?

I turned to Conner again, the only friend that I had in the whole school, for a vote of confidence, and despite his earlier comment, he knew the truth. He had seen it as he was standing next to me. He even smiled when the older boy went down with a thud on the hard-packed grass. “You know what he is saying is bullshit, right? You saw what happened. And I’m fast.” Conner wouldn’t even look at me.

My brain suddenly took off, the slow gears now rapidly turning out of control until my reasoned thought fled and I sputtered out, “I’ll race you. All of you.”

The older boy laughed. I hated his face. He was mean, and he made me so mad. “Me. If you beat me, then you can play with us.”

We took our positions at the opposite end of the makeshift football field. At the count of three, we were off. Mrs. Carmichael had retied the ribbon, saying how pretty it was in my hair, so the formerly loose strands were effectively bound. The boys had placed themselves along the side of the race path, cheering loudly. None of them, however, for me. The name of the hated boy, Gavin, was rapidly thrust from my mind. I placed all of my focus on simply winning the race.

My body was growing used to the speed, the rapid pumping of legs and arms. My formerly awkward gait that would have brought cries of, “She runs like a girl!” was gone, and I realized that Ashley was right. It just took practice and the establishment of muscle memory. With the genes I possessed, the perfect collection of strands, I was a natural athlete. I struggled at first in gymnastics, and then with time, I became one of the best. It was clear that it was the serum because even in my former body, it never came so easily.

Everything the boys were saying about my abilities was bullshit.

I shot ahead of Gavin, but he still thundered behind me, like some great snarling beast chasing his prey. He slowly caught up to me, getting close enough for me to hear his heavy breathing. As we sprinted toward the finish, however, Gavin hit another gear and blew past me. He ran between the two massive oak trees that represented the finish line. I hadn’t tripped on anything, even the skirt which swished against my legs hadn’t impeded me, and the asshole hadn’t even cheated. I had simply lost. I realized that while Ashley had been right about certain things regarding my body and my new gender especially with the muscle memory, my comment in the studio about never reaching the same heights, the same speed or strength rang bitterly true.

I was never going to be as fast or as strong as Gavin. It would be that way with most boys. I could lift weights and build massive arms and legs, rippling biceps to put most men to shame, but I would be called ugly, a butch, or a lesbian. Denigrated because of my attempt to match them. I knew that because I had those thoughts when a woman came after me and immediately upped the amount of weight on a machine. Muscles were a turn-off, in that, they destroyed feminine curves and gave women undeniably male shapes.

Just like that, I was sapped of my former confidence. The serum had provided no great gift. This body was simply a tease, easily matching the girls, but it would always struggle to equal the boys. I had never tackled Gavin- he just fell. And while I thought I was fast, half the boys were probably faster than me. Maybe more. Just to torture me further, my ribbon came loose, and my long hair swept across my face, the wind seemingly playing along with some cruel joke. I was really starting to hate my hair.

The boys laughed at me, the equivalent to kicking a man in the balls when he is already down, and again, I cried. I began to realize that maybe the boys were right. The boys.

Maybe, I was a cry baby. No wonder they didn’t want me to play with them. I probably would get them in trouble again because I cry so easily- the wounded deer that attracts all the predators.

I fled the scene awkwardly, trying to hide the fact that I was crying by covering my face, but looking like some kind of tiny old-school vampire. The kind from old monster movies who used his cape to hide his fangs.

From a distance, I watched Ava’s group. The wind, that traitorous entity, brought the sounds of their play, and in seconds, I knew exactly what they were doing. Frozen. I fumbled around in my pockets for my dad’s pin, but I knew it wasn’t there. It was in the pocket of my grass-stained pants in a plastic bag at the bottom of my Frozen backpack.

Stupid little girl. That’s what I was. I couldn’t even remember to bring the most important object- the one I needed to maintain my grasp on what remained of Ryan Sullivan. Despite the lack of the object and the calming presence it brought, I continued to fight the urges, but I failed. The problem was that it simply wasn’t the urge to join the girls nor the fact that I hadn’t been accepted by the boys. Those were contributing factors, but it was something else.

I was bored.

At the beginning, I had just stood in the school yard and held my dad’s pin. It had been easy, but now that I was actually used to playing, even playing harmless games to my adult self, I wanted more. My mind was used to being busy- to the stimulation.

It was boredom that brought me toward them, and it was boredom that had me immediately agree to be Olaf, the magic snowman, surrounded by three different girls playing Elsa.

The bell rang, and I was saved, but I didn’t feel any safer. Tomorrow I would probably forget the pin again, and without Conner, I would succumb. I was already like them, shrieking at bugs, obsessed with Frozen to an unhealthy degree. I was already dressed like them. Ava even said my dress was pretty, and I wanted to do my hair exactly like Ava. I knew the urge to play with them was all powerful- it was more than just staving off boredom. It was finding people like me to play with- girls. The battle would begin at the start of every recess, and without Conner, without the boys, the end was inevitable. The serum had won.

As I trudged toward the school, resigned to my fate. I saw a girl with long raven hair surrounded by others her age.

She looked exactly like Ashley.



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