Designer Children Chapter 30

Author's Note: This is not the end of the story. Sometime in about mid-January, I caught the plague, and then my entire family caught the plague. Seriously. There were frogs falling from the sky and boils on our skin. In any case, I wanted to give you all something (as many of you have been both concerned about my illness and with the story being unfinished), so I am giving you about half of what was going to be the final chapter. Thank you as always for your interest. I'll be writing more regularly now, so hopefully the last chapter will come out sooner than this one!

Chapter 30

Standing there was Tracy. Decked out in a light blue cardigan and a flowing knee-length skirt, she looked like Kathryn and Ava’s mother, read: preppy as fuck. The young woman quickly waved to Kathryn, who still hadn’t left, and slowly, with the speed of a lethargic snail, she crawled away in the SUV.

Tracy led me inside the modest bungalow. It clearly looked like they had only just recently moved in, with only a single picture on the wall of mother and daughter, which given the colour of the leaves had only been taken a few weeks ago at the latest. I looked around for Madison, trying my best to pull my jaw out of a position where eating an entire rabbit whole would have been a real possibility.

“She’s at dance. So we’ve got about an hour to talk before I have to go and get her. I figured that you probably wouldn’t want her here anyway.” The young woman smiled, but there was a sadness behind it. Despite her youth and the well-made façade, she looked tired as even the eye makeup couldn’t hide the dark circles underneath her eyes. Did prison do that to her, or was she feeling guilty about what her research did to Ashley and me?

I was slightly disappointed that Madison wasn’t there. Slightly. I was still in too much shock to even form words, so this fact didn’t weight too heavily on my mind.

Tracy said, “To answer the questions you are having trouble asking, Ryan. Simply put, there are people in the government who know what was done to you and Ashley. They helped me escape, so I can continue my research to find a counter for Dr. Travers’ serum. I’m here because I needed to be close to you. You are the only one who still has their memory, Ryan. And because you are still fighting the serum, any samples that you allow me to take will help further the research.”

“How do you know I’m still fighting it?”

Tracy smiled, “Simple. You don’t look like Kaylee. Not completely. If I recall, the script said that Kaylee loved dresses. If you aren’t in one, then there’s still some Ryan Sullivan left in there. I’m also working on a way to restore Ashley’s memories. I found out that they aren’t actually erased. The serum simply shuts off the brain’s ability to retrieve those memories. They are still there, but they are locked away.”

I shook my head in disbelief, “I-I can’t believe you are here. It can’t be real. What will you do if McDavid or other people who were part of the Project find out you are here?”

Tracy nodded, “This is absolutely real, Ryan. I’m here to help you. If I’m found out, then I’ll leave with Ashley. But I won’t ever stop trying to reverse what has happened to you, Ryan. I know that nothing I can say can really show you how sorry I am. The serum was never meant to be used this way.”

Overcome by emotion, I buried my face in my hands. I had just reached a point where I was accepting that being Kaylee was potentially my only reality, but now I had hope, living breathing hope, not simply a light in the dark. No, it was a veritable sun.

I thought of Jessica and whether she was dating anyone, or foolishly or romantically, depending on how a person saw things, waiting for me to return. Bullshit. She was doing her YouTube thing, and if I showed up, well she would be happy. She wasn’t waiting for me like some love struck school girl counting the days until she would see her boyfriend again after a long summer break. She wasn’t that kind of girl, and that’s what I loved about her.

But what about the Pattersons? And their little girl that they had been waiting for? Was it fair to them to take away that little girl? I sighed, my mind oddly conflicted. Apparently, I no longer hated them. They were alright, for hyper-obsessive helicopter parents.

I remembered the gentle kisses on the forehead, the loving words, the warmth of Kathryn’s embrace and Thomas’ terrible yet endearing humour. I had only known them for two months, and yet, I was slowly being drawn toward them.

Tracy said, “It’s OK, Ryan. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure that it would even be you stepping through the door. I thought by now Kaylee would have swallowed you, like the programmed persona is meant to do. How- how have you managed to stave off the effects of the serum for so long? I mean it’s changed you some, but even without the memory wipe in our earlier test subjects, I’ve seen incredible regression even overnight after prolonged exposure to children.”

I shrugged my shoulders and dug into my pocket, pulling out my dad’s pin.

Tracy asked, “And what do you do with that?

I replied, “When I feel the urge to join in with a game or really act like a little girl, or just a kid in general, I kind of poke myself with it. It just reminds me of who I am. It’s my dad’s old overseas service badge.”

Tracy grinned, “A totem. A powerful symbol linked to your old life. Amazing. So you look at it and it reminds you clearly of who you are and a little poke provides the needed stimuli to effectively block the serum. I have actually seen something like this before, but it didn’t work forever. It’s obvious the pin is more than just special. It’s a piece of Ryan Sullivan.”

I nodded, “Like you said though, it doesn’t work all the time.” I was quickly and painfully reminded of my tantrum in the grocery store over the Frozen-themed chocolate bar.

Tracy asked, “How are you doing? And your new parents, are they treating you OK?”

I shrugged, “They really piss me off sometimes. And they are way different than my real parents, but they care a lot for Kaylee. It’s just sad that they couldn’t have a kid who would you know, feel like that about them in the same way. If I’m being fucking honest, I’m holding on by a thread. And that thread is about as thin as a strand of spider web.

I’ve had more than a few instances where I’ve just completely lost it. Either completely joining in with a group of kids or just having my mind react like a complete kid to something that I used to enjoy. I-I also, well it’s not just being a kid either. The little girl part of it. It’s overwhelming to me sometimes. I’m scared of fucking bugs, and I cry so easily.”

Tracy watched me with fascination, not completely unlike Dr. Travers when he first gave me the shot that would infuse me with the serum for the first time. Was it just how scientists reacted to their creations? She said gently, “It’s OK, Ryan. I’m not surprised. The serum you were given is meant to completely erase Ryan Sullivan’s personality. You would still have your memories without the newer dose of the serum, but it is supposed to make you Kaylee inside and out. Again, the fact that you have lasted so long is remarkable. I can help you though.”

I sighed, “Yeah, I know you are looking for a cure.”

Tracy shook her head, “I mean that I can help you right now. I can’t reverse the serum’s mental and physical effects, but I can halt any further regression. I’d just have to inject it into your bloodstream.”

My eyes grew to comical proportions, looking akin to Duke when he knew it was time for the vet. And then, I began to shake.

Tracy frowned, “Ryan? Are you OK?”

The very thought of another needle piercing my skin with the memory of what happened to Dr. Travers, it was too much. In my mind, I saw Ms. Daniels stab the man over and over again, and I heard the terrified, pained shrieks of a person who before had barely shown a hint of emotion beyond a careful, cold amused smile.

Tracy reached out toward me, but I pushed her away. I fought back tears as the memory played over and over, and still, I continued to shake as my breaths came in shorter and shorter gasps.

Tracy asked with clear concern, “Does this happen often?”

I replied, “I-It happens when I try and go against the serum. Like when I tried to get my friend to cut my hair. And even recently when I tried to get a stylist to shave it all off.”

Tracy smiled sadly, “It’s extremely effective. It prompts these attacks to ensure that the brain is properly trained to accept the new persona. If you attempt to deviate from the persona that is implanted within you during the malleable period, then the serum will react accordingly. I’m so sorry, Ryan.”

I frowned, “But it happens too even if I’m not fighting, like this one time after a nightmare I had, I just couldn’t stop shaking and crying. But it happens too when I think about what happened in the studio.

The young woman frowned deeply, “It wasn’t exactly Shangri-La in there. Those attacks you are experience are the result of any trauma you suffered at the hands of Travers and Daniels in the studio. While the serum removes nearly all physical defects, allergies and even life-threatening illnesses from a body, it cannot stop new trauma from impacting the brain. Even worse, the serum unfortunately cannot differentiate, so in introducing these panic attacks to allow a persona to be rewritten, it also allows for the mind to weaken and become more susceptible to attacks outside of those linked to the new persona.”

I said, “So basically I’m fucked either way. The serum is going to continue to erase me, and if I fight against it I’ll freak out. And because the serum and what happened in the studio with Travers and Daniels, I’m going to have attacks even when I’m not fighting. Like, watching a horror movie. Or just thinking about the studio.”

Tracy replied, “Some of that, like the horror movie for instance, can be attributed to the regression of your adult mind. Scary images are going to be more frightening to you. It really depends on the stimuli. Being terrified of bugs is absolutely part of your persona being overwritten and replaced with Kaylee’s.”

She added quickly, “But at least I can stop the regression.”

Again, I shied away from Tracy.

The young woman, who most folks would think had Madison in her late teens, put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed it gently, “Think about it. I’m not going to force you to take it, but keep in mind that even with your powerful totem, there might be times where you will lose yourself. Your mind is really remarkable to be able to fight the serum this long, but eventually, even the strongest will succumb. You’ve probably had a few lapses already, right?”

I lowered my head, my speech barely above a whisper, “A-A few.”

Tracy nodded, “When you are ready, I’ll be here.”

***

The thought of the needle piercing my skin, sending waves of pain throughout my entire body kept me from returning to see Tracy. However, the knowledge that someone close to me was working on a way to reverse the serum actually steeled my will. When Ava and her first grade fashion cult approached me to play, I was able to turn them down. Boredom was still an issue, but thankfully, with my new gymnastics obsession, I turned my mind to that. Many of the girls from class, including Ava herself sometimes, joined me in the school yard.

As Halloween approached, I prepared myself for the onslaught of desire, the powerful need to dress as a princess and collect buckets of candy. I wasn’t sure if Tracy would ever find a way to turn me back, but just the knowledge that someone was there allowed me to combat the yearning I had to be a child. It wasn’t some far off university with a bunch of people I had never met- no, this was Tracy, and I knew she was fucking brilliant. If anyone could find a way, it was her.

“Scaredy cat, scaredy cat!”

“I am not!”

Ava said, “I saw you cover your eyes at the fire assembly.”

I retorted, “Lots of people were.”

Ava nodded, “Yeah, but not big kids. Only little ones.”

We had just watched an assembly on fire safety. The assembly discussed having an escape plan in the event of fire, changing smoke detectors and what to do in case of fire. It featured a person dressed in a Dalmatian costume, who later handed out colouring books to everyone, and a firefighter from the local station. Being such a small town, Twin Falls didn’t have its own fire department, instead, having to rely on a volunteer force.

While the discussion of smoke detectors and the escape plan didn’t faze me overly, a video demonstrating what should be done during a fire itself had absolutely terrified me. My imagination, still an active force, placed me within the burning house with roaring flames on all sides.

Ava asked, “How come you didn’t take a colouring book?”

I said, “Colouring is boring. And it’s for kids.”

Ava shook her head, “I bet you didn’t because you were scared.”

I shouted, “It’s not true! I wasn’t scared.”

However, I knew the truth. The assembly had frightened me, awakening childlike fear that hadn’t existed since I was a little boy.

***

Flames surrounded me. The plastic snowflakes dangling from the ceiling of my room melted and then oozed downwards, nearly landing on me. I ran back toward my bed, hoping to find safety there, and forgetting everything I learned in the assembly and hid under the covers. Fingers of flame burnt away the covers, blackening the beautiful Frozen dresses that had been my comforter.

Black smoke, like that emanating from the nostrils of a bellowing fire-breathing dragon filled the air, sending my body into a coughing fit as the black billowy mass invaded my bedroom, and subsequently, my lungs. I ran toward the door, side stepping more of the snowflakes that oozed as the plastic burnt. The fire lapped at my toy chest and quickly gained entry, leaving Barbies with blackened hair and melted faces. Throwing open the door, I tumbled out into the hallway, which was also teeming with black smoke. I sprinted toward Kathryn and Thomas’ room, but as I reached out to touch the door handle, I was shocked to find it too hot to touch. Moments later, the entire left side of the house began to come apart, and what had been a veritable mansion in my eyes was reduced to blackened skeletal remains, as only a few of the thick support beams survived the fire.

The floor underneath me began to give way, the floorboards creaking as the fire ate away at my footing. I soon realized that I was falling, but nothing remained of the downstairs save for the charred remains of my parents’ bed. Everything else had been enveloped by an enormous fiery mass shaped faintly like a dragon. As I tumbled, the flame dragon opened its maw, preparing to swallow me whole.

“Kaylee! Wake up, honey!”

My eyes shot open and without thinking, my body flew toward the voice. Arms caught me as I cried and shook, babbling incoherently about a dragon and fire. And mommy. Mommy. Mommy. The word wouldn’t leave my head.

“Shh. Shh. It’s OK, Kaylee. It was just a dream.”

Kathryn held me tightly in her arms and slowly started to rock back and forth, similar to how sixth graders slow dance. She hummed the comforting lullaby as I buried my head in her chest, immediately wetting her silk pajama top.

“Mommy’s here, Kaylee. You just had a bad dream. It’s over now.”

I hadn’t called Kathryn ‘mommy’ since my last bad dream, after I had watched Goodfellas. But, I clung to her and repeated it over and over again, as I shook, the image of the fire and the monster replayed in my head, the same way I used to rewind kills during my favourite horror movies.

Further regression. I should have allowed Tracy to give me the shot, but the very thought of it was like being in a room full of spiders crawling all over me. Crawling in my mouth.

Thomas appeared at the doorway, looking dishevelled with a hint of stubble that was usually absent on his face. I guess he usually shaved before coming downstairs. Kathryn hated beards. He yawned heavily, “Is she OK?”

Kathryn, who continued to basically hold me like an overgrown baby as I blubbered, said, “A bad dream.”

Thomas walked into my line of vision and then gently tousled my hair, “Did you have a bad dream, Kaylee Bear?”

While Thomas had initially joked about using the pet name, he had started to use it more and more. Kathryn stuck with the more traditional ‘sweetie’ and ‘honey’ that many women her age used in place of my name. In my current state, however, I wasn’t in a position to complain about the humiliating pet name.

Eventually, with the presence of both parents and the soothing lullaby, Kathryn was able to put me back in my bed. The moment they left, however, I felt a powerful fear overtake me. It was like a deep all-encompassing darkness had descended on me, and with it, I began to shake again. Needing that same comfort I had received the first time, I crept from my room and slowly made my way to Kathryn and Thomas’ bedroom.

Their king-sized bed with the massive beige comforter looked especially inviting. I clambered onto the bed and nestled myself between both Kathryn and Thomas.

“Uhmm. Midnight, not so-“

“Thomas, it’s Kaylee.”

“Oh. Kaylee, you need to go back to your bed.”

Even though it was dark, I swore I could see Kathryn clearly glaring at Thomas, “She’s terrified, Thomas. It won’t hurt if it is one night. We aren’t going to become co-sleepers. Kaylee’s teacher e-mailed us and let us know that some of the kids might be affected by the assembly they had today. She needs to feel safe right now.” Kathryn took me in her arms and hugged me firmly.

Thomas flicked on the lamp on the nightstand, “I’ve read articles about this, Kat. You can’t let it happen even once. We are training her to rely on us to fall asleep.”

Kathryn said, “She is obviously feeling vulnerable and frightened. We can’t just send her back to her bed. And you can’t just read an article and have it all figured out. I go to my sister, and you just start Googling things. It doesn’t help because Emma and Sophia are very different from Kaylee. The articles too. Almost everything I’ve read has been wrong anyway. They don’t know Kaylee. I really think we need to start doing this ourselves. Feel things out and really get to know her. And right now, she needs her parents to provide her a place where she can feel safe.”

Thomas sighed gently and then flicked off the lamp, “Maybe you’re right, Kat. It’s obvious that there are still things bothering her. Halloween. And the toys. Fire is pretty scary for kids too. Okay, this needs a softer touch.”

Kathryn kissed me gently on the forehead, released her grip, and then lifted my head onto one of the many pillows on the bed. Meanwhile, Thomas pulled the big beige comforter over my tiny body, and I adopted a loose foetal position. Moments later, I heard a quiet meow and then light scratching on the bedroom door. Without waiting to be invited, Midnight bound on the bed and then nestled in the space between my butt and my feet.

While I had terrible memories of Hannah’s cat scratching me after I had accidentally crushed it, Midnight’s presence was calming. He purred loudly, the slow vibrating actually helping to extinguish my fears. As this occurred, Kathryn gently teased the hair at the back of my head. Gradually, my mind stopped replaying the dream over and over and my imagination powered down. Once this occurred, I began to feel immensely comfortable and safe in the bed.

Thomas, perhaps feeling left out, said, “Good night, Kaylee Bear. We love you.”

Incredibly, I was actually starting to believe it.

***

Just as Mr. Milner described, once the holiday season descended on Twin Falls, the town was transformed. Wreaths hung on nearly every door, including my own, and the lampposts with their intricate designs were neatly decorated with bright red bows. The empty parking lot next to the grocery store sold all shapes and sizes of Christmas trees. The trees along Main Street, whose skeletal limbs were bare, lost their gloomy look with hundreds upon hundreds of coloured lights hanging carefully from each branch.

Thomas and Kathryn, with my first Christmas approaching, obsessed about every little detail. Thomas transformed into a massive child who battled Kathryn over lost screen time so that he could watch Christmas specials with me. Meanwhile, Kathryn poked and prodded me for a concrete list with the same zealousness as a person performing an extremely thorough autopsy.

“Do you want Barbies?”

“How about Frozen Barbies?”

“What kind of Frozen Barbie? Coronation Anna and Elsa?”

“How about something to practice doing hairstyles?”

“What about clothes? Dresses? Or those polo shirts you like? How about some cute pajamas?”

Finally, Kathryn, seemingly frustrated with my non-committal answers, simply handed me a catalogue. As a kid, I remembered leafing through the brightly coloured pages and picking out what I wanted, circling them with a thick black marker. When I circled two of the newest game consoles and a few games, Kathryn clucked gently and frowned, worried that it would take me away from my school work. Speaking of which, while I was still reading and writing at a slower level than I had as an adult, my understanding was fully intact. School wasn’t the chore that I expected, and it held my attention most of the time. I assumed, however, that this was a by-product of the serum.

My use of the powerful token, in the form of my dad’s pin, apparently protected me from all but the most tempting games and activities. Gymnastics helped too. As time passed, it became easier to control my childish tendencies, at least in the school yard. However, since the nightmare, induced by the assembly, I had sought out Kathryn and Thomas’ bed a handful of times. The pin, unfortunately, did nothing to curb the terror I felt. While my actions, which brought instant comfort from my would-be parents, removed the fear, the next few days, I was always wracked by anxiety with the knowledge that I was acting more and more like Kaylee in some respects. Still, I knew that Tracy was working on a way to reverse the serum, and that acted as a potent catalyst to the endurance test that was the battle against the serum.

“You still believe in Santa? He’s not real you know.”

Ava replied, “He is so. He always brings me exactly what I want. He eats the cookies. And there’s always a lot of bites out of the carrot I left.”

A group of older girls in our gymnastics class were arguing with Ava over the existence of Santa Claus. Ava was steadfast in her beliefs, like some devout who sees the works of the divine in everyday life. It was rare, but we were waiting for the instructors to set up the next activity. This left the girls with time to gossip and needle each other.

One of the girls said, “You’re a baby for believing, Ava. Santa is totally not real. Your parents eat the cookies and bite the carrots. Only little kids believe.” She looked at me, “You don’t believe anymore right, Kaylee?”

Ava and I had a complex relationship. She still seemed to think that I thought she was stupid, and that fact was the only reason I didn’t want to play with her. Of course, she didn’t know that it was because prolonged contact with Ava and her clique would alter my mind in a potentially irrevocable fashion. She retaliated by teasing me, calling me a baby and generally being unpleasant. In turn, I made fun of her when she failed to comprehend something as simple as first grade math or grammar.

Ava jumped in before I had a chance to answer, “Kaylee is a little kid. She was scared of the fire show we had. And she always looks like she is going to cry outside.” Was there any truth to that? Honestly, I was miserable. I desperately wanted to join in with the games, and I wanted Ava to be my friend. I wanted us to be best friends. However, I also knew what that meant. Complete surrender.

I had been feeling charitable, especially since Ava had been nice to me recently, specifically during gymnastics. We even talked about being in the competitive class together. But if she was going to be so mean, we could never be friends. My brain never took a moment to decide, it simply flashed from one emotion to another. Hurt to anger. I never considered my words nor the ramifications of them. I wanted to hurt the person who teased me, never mind that I still kind of wanted to be friends with her. Still, she had struck first and retribution was my right.

I said, “He’s as fake as your mom’s tits, Ava.” My time in Hollywood had turned me into a sort of expert on silicone. The raucous nights spent with Monique and other girls who had received enlargements gave me an excellent understanding of how fake boobs hung. Ava’s mom, being about as old as Kathryn, had an impressive rack, and if they were natural, at her age, they would have hung much lower.

Ava looked at me in confusion, while a few of the older girls smirked. Ava replied, “B-But he always brings me exactly what I want. Even stuff that stores don’t have.”

I smiled knowingly, “Welcome to online shopping. Maybe she paid three times what the stupid thing was worth on eBay or something.” Ava continued to look at me skeptically, so I added, “If you don’t believe me, then here’s what I want you to do. I want you to go into your parents’ closet. Or in some closets in your basement or whatever. I guarantee that you will find at least one of the toys on your Santa list.”

A few of the older girls looked at Ava now with sad smiles, perhaps memories of their snooping returning to them and how it destroyed their belief.

“Your parents just take one of those toys and wrap it up or put it in your stocking to make you think that Santa brought it. The whole thing though is to make sure that you act like a little angel for the weeks leading up to Christmas, but it’s all fake, Ava. Every last bit of it.”

Ava sniffed lightly as the instructors had finally finished preparing the next activity, “Why are you telling me all this stuff?”

I said with as close to a shit-eating grin as you could get for a six-year old, “To open up your eyes, Ava. To show you the whole thing is bullshit.”

Ava didn’t speak to me for the rest of the class, and a few of the older girls told me that what I had done was really mean. What was so different about what they were saying? I was just twisting the knife in the wound they had made.

The next day, Ava looked miserable. She sat most of the day with her head down on her desk. There was no doubt in my mind what had happened, and I knew that I was to blame. Guilt immediately spread through my stomach, the acid therein seemingly roiling at the sides, causing a sharp sickly feeling throughout my entire body as I realized that I had destroyed a little girl’s belief in Santa Claus, taking with it a piece of her childhood.

***

“You sold me out.”

As it was my first Christmas with the Pattersons, Mrs. Feinstein, my new cousins and their parents travelled to Twin Falls to celebrate the occasion.

As for Mrs. Feinstein, I should have been overjoyed to see her. My imagination had originally given her gnarled, frightening features and placed her within a gingerbread house where she devoured fattened children who were foolish enough to take a bite from the delectable domicile. Before eating them, she tortured them with lessons on politeness and proper etiquette. I learned, however, that Mrs. Feinstein was a far different creature. While she retained her hawkish features and wizened face and frame, I knew that she was far from a nightmare borne from an overactive imagination. In fact, she was a friend, and a protector, and immeasurably generous- a person who graciously gave up her afternoon to spend them with a little girl whose parents couldn’t afford after school care.

The memory of her betrayal still burned deeply, and while I knew the truth, that it was McDavid who had engineered my adoption, it still bothered me that she had gone behind the back of Eve and Greg to act as a reference for another couple. A couple which turned out to be the Pattersons. I knew that it was never McDavid’s intention to have me end up with Greg and Eve, but telling that to a mind that hung onto adulthood the same way that some middle-aged woman hold onto their youth was a hopeless endeavour. I still saw within her the betrayer.

Mrs. Feinstein said, “That’s no way to speak to your grandmother, Kaylee, especially at Christmas. Why I could have brought you more books, but if you misbehave, you’ll never know.”

I said, “Cut the bullshit. Why did you go against Greg and Eve? Do you know what it’s been like here?”

Mrs. Feinstein’s expression never changed, although the steel, which I knew all too well, returned to her voice, “I expect that it has been a challenge for both you and your new parents. However, I did not, as you say, sell you out, Kaylee. I acted as a reference for your former guardians, just as I did for the current ones. I told the truth, even though in some cases it may have hurt the chances of both couples. I am sorry you feel that I have wronged you, Kaylee. But you must face facts, young lady. Gregory and Eve had no legal right to you. Do you understand what that means?”

I nodded, “Yeah. It means there’s a system that doesn’t understand what’s best for kids.”

Mrs. Feinstein frowned gently, “They also weren’t proper parents, refusing to enroll you in school. They left you home alone all day in an apartment where you hurt yourself very badly. Furthermore, they should have gone to the authorities the moment you arrived at their doorstep. They told you a fanciful tale of not being able to trust the police because of what happened with respect to the arrest.”

I shouted, “But they took Tracy when she was trying to help us!”

Mrs. Feinstein responded calmly to my outburst, “Your friend in the studio was arrested because she was part of those who did this to you, Kaylee. Even though Tracy told the truth about what was happening there, she was still a part of the crime. I’m sure they are still looking for the others who kept you there, Kaylee. But the police were right to arrest her. She hurt you too.”

I shook my head, “No- no, Tracy was the only one who cared about us in there.”

Mrs. Feinstein smiled sadly, “If this woman really cared about you, she would have called the police immediately and stopped the entire sordid escapade. She was using you, just like the others. It’s just that eventually her conscience caught up to her. This nagging voice in the back of her head told her she was doing wrong. She eventually made the right decision, but not before hurting you and the other children.”

I closed my eyes, knowing that it wasn’t true. After all, Tracy was doing her best to help me now, and Ashley. Yeah, she was a part of creating the serum, she had recruited me and played Hermie, but she was trying to fix her mistakes. Unlike Ms. McDavid who was doing her best to erase them.

Mrs. Feinstein tapped her cane firmly on the floor, and I immediately stood upright. “Young lady, let me tell me a story. Come. Sit next to granny.”

I sneered, “You aren’t my granny.”

Mrs. Feinstein replied with that calm demeanour. She met my outbursts with absolutely steeled serenity. “Fair enough, Kaylee. I won’t force you to call me that, just as I understand you won’t call Thomas and Kathryn mommy and daddy. You will, however, still treat me with respect, now, come and sit next to me.”

I did as I was told, mostly so that the old woman would leave lecture mode. Sitting on her bony knee again, however, brought back pleasant memories of the afternoons spent reading Sherlock Holmes. I asked hopefully, “Did you bring me more books?”

Mrs. Feinstein smiled gently, “You’ll have to wait until Christmas morning, young lady.” My shoulders sagged slightly as I felt my lip move forward in a pout.

She cleared her throat and continued, “Now, I am not sure if Thomas and Kathryn have told you, but they have been trying to have children for a long time. They always wanted to be parents. Wanted a little girl or boy to love. But it didn’t work out that way.”

I nodded, “Yeah, I know. I have a feeling the whole town knows because of Janet Plinkett.”

Mrs. Feinstein wrinkled her nose, “Her mother was the same way.”

I added, “Yeah, total shit disturber.”

Mrs. Feinstein replied, “Kaylee, you really must curb this language. It’s unbecoming of a young lady.”

I said with a smirk, “You never swear? Ever? Like let’s say you drop your tea cup, it breaks on the floor. What do you say? Oh my goodness? Mercy me?”

Mrs. Feinstein said, “I have used inappropriate language, but such language for you seems to be commonplace. It should not be your reaction in all situations to utilize it. Now, returning to my story. What you may not realize is that the last time Kathryn was pregnant, she had to go to the hospital. She learned that she would never have children. I know her, and she is a woman full of love, ready to share such love with a child, so this was obviously such a sad result. This is something that Ms. Plinkett likely does not know.”

You have no idea how happy Kathryn is to have a little girl of her own. Even though you are a challenge, Kaylee, when I speak to her, it is clear she absolutely adores you, loves you very much. Do you know what she told me? That you were just like the little girl that she wanted to have. But never could.”

I raised a brow, “Really? I mean, I haven’t exactly been a perfect angel… She probably said it like the first week I was here or something.”

Mrs. Feinstein smiled a wide-toothy grin, “And Feinstein women aren’t either. When you’re older, I’ll tell you some of the stories involving my sister and I. We are challenging, intelligent, independent and fierce yet also extremely loving women. Just as Kathryn is. And just like you are, Kaylee. You might have Patterson as a last name, but you’ve practically got Feinstein blood. And it was just last week that she told me.”

I asked, “Wait, I’ve always been confused by this. Why are you granny if Kathryn isn’t your daughter?”

Mrs. Feinstein responded with a sad smile, “My sister was killed in a traffic accident ten years ago. She never knew her grandchildren, and well, I just adopted the moniker when I first met Emma. I didn’t want to be some Great Aunt Agatha, sounding like some schoolmarm from the Sherlock Holmes books. I also thought it was heartbreaking that Emma wouldn’t have a granny, so I just started calling myself that. We’ll tell them the truth one day, but for now, I’m Granny Feinstein.”

I wasn’t entirely convinced that Mrs. Feinstein wasn’t just trying to make me feel better, but I was able to sleep with Kathryn and Thomas without fear of repercussions, so the support they showed and Kathryn’s own words regarding my place in the family, the daughter she always wanted, could have actually been genuine.

While Thomas had initially shown concern that co-sleeping, as he called it, would cause me to rely on the adults in order to even fall asleep, he hadn’t said a word since the first night. My dad on the other hand would never have allowed it. I still remember seeing Aliens 2 for the first time and thinking it was over, until the part with the cyborg getting ripped apart, which gave me terrible nightmares for weeks. My dad never let me sleep in the bed, even as a little boy.

He never explained any of it either, like men don’t get scared or don’t be a baby. The man who I would come to idolize simply pointed at the door which caused me to slink back to my room. My mom’s protests were never even considered and likely not even heard. Thomas had backed down in the argument, but it wasn’t because he was a weakling. He could hold his own, especially when he and Kathryn engaged in political discussions.

“So, I hear you are quite the gymnast, Kaylee.”

I nodded happily and proceeded to tell Mrs. Feinstein all about it.

***

“You need to use your grenades when they come at you like that.”

I watched my cousin Michael get murdered by the incoming Nazi zombie horde. My hands went out in the same manner as the little girl waiting at the bus stop when I first escaped from the studio, reaching pathetically for the phone.

The teenager, whose scraggily hair dipped over his left eye, said, “No way, Kaylee. This game isn’t for kids. Or girls.”

I shook my head, “OK, well then keep doing it that way. And getting your ass kicked.”

Michael, who had made himself right at home, was sitting on our couch with his feet up and taking up two spots in the process. Emma and Sophia were quietly playing in the corner of the entertainment room, but they both stopped to giggle at my words. And just as I predicted, Michael got his ass thoroughly and definitively kicked. Level 97 of Robot Nazi Zombie was not a level where you could hope to survive using speed tactics. You had to use the grenades to crowd control.

Meanwhile, Michael was growing frustrated. He looked at me angrily, “Why don’t you go and play with Emma and Sophia? Leave me the fuck alone.”

I shrugged my shoulders and pushed down on the pin in the pocket of my khakis. “I don’t feel like it.” They were playing some weird game where they were pretending to be Midnight’s kittens, and as always, I was drawn to them. The moment Emma and Sophia arrived, I knew that I would be pricking myself on a near constant basis, so I even left the protective cap off the pin, keeping it always at the ready. While it functioned well, like the school yard, I was miserable again. Granny- Mrs. Feinstein was busy in the kitchen, so she couldn’t read any longer, and I was getting bored.

I had already demonstrated pretty much everything I knew about gymnastics to all the adults in the house, and while I received wonderful, addictive praise for my actions, it was short lived. That is why I had turned my attention to Michael’s game, hoping that it would awaken part of my old self. The challenge aspect of it still interested me, but the actual gore, the entrails and circuits of the half zombie half robots was icky. Just like the caterpillar guts running down my arm. I wasn’t exactly a gore hound any longer- not that I could watch the violent death of anyone at this point without being forced to spend a solid week in Kathryn and Thomas’ bed.

***

“Come on, I don’t want to do that, mom. It’s dumb, and Santa is for little kids.”

Michael’s mother replied, “Michael, I know you don’t want to go, but we’re going to do this as a family. You don’t have to go and sit on his knee or anything.”

Michael said, “Just being seen there is embarrassing, mom. If Courtney sees that I was there, she’ll think I’m a little kid. And mom, seriously, why did we have to come here? I hate this place. It’s boring, and there’s nothing to do. They don’t even have any video games.”

His mother replied, “I know it’s not our usual Christmas, but this is really important to your Uncle Thomas. He wants to bring Kaylee to see Santa. And then we are going to take our picture in front of the huge tree in the town square. This isn’t exactly a hardship.”

I hadn’t intended to overhear the conversation, but I was in the washroom as it took place just outside the door. Santa. Kathryn and Thomas would want me to sit on his knee and take cute pictures in a pretty dress.

About ten minutes later, as I was pondering my fate and just waiting for Kathryn and Thomas to parade a host of new dresses in front of me, I heard Sophia shout, “He is too!

“Sophia, don’t be a baby. Your sister knows he isn’t real. It’s just some creepy guy in a suit.”

Sophia replied matter-of-factly to Michael, “I know that the ones in stores are just helpers to the real Santa. Santa is too busy getting ready for Christmas.”

The adults were once again preparing something in the kitchen or elsewhere, and they left the kids to their own devices. It was clear that Michael was trying to avoid a potentially embarrassing trip that involved him being in the vicinity of a small town Santa Claus. What he didn’t realize is that most teenage girls would think that Michael spending time with his little cousins and posing with Santa was cute. Again, it played into that whole, not ready to be a mother but one day I’ll think about it mentality. Sure, there were girls who wouldn’t find it adorable, but plenty who would see Michael as sensitive and caring. Not the asshole that was trying to convince a little girl that Santa wasn’t real because he didn’t want to be humiliated by a Facebook picture.

Michael said, “Santa is for babies. If you believe then you are a baby, Sophia. You don’t want to be a baby do you?” Emma, who I expected didn’t believe any longer, remained silent, but she cast disapproving glances in Michael’s direction.

Michael looked at me, “You’re supposed to be the smart one. I bet you don’t believe right, Kaylee?”

I looked at Sophia, whose bottom lip trembled gently. Her eyes were already flecked with tears, simply waiting for another hurtful word to bring the deluge. Maybe the kids in the school yard or her friends had told her something similar and she was simply on the verge. Everyone had to find out at some point that Santa wasn’t real, maybe it was time for Sophia to stop believing.

I said firmly, “I think he’s real.”

Michael scoffed, “Mom said you were supposed to be like a genius or something, and you believe? I think you are just saying that for your cousin.”

I shook my head, “No, I’m not. I really do believe in him.”

Despite my affirmation, Sophia went to her mom and told her that she didn’t want to go anymore. This created drama amongst the adults some of whom thought that Sophia was a little too old to believe, and that maintaining the illusion of Santa Claus was tantamount to lying to children. Others, like Thomas and Kathryn, however, were extremely vocal in how much a crock of shit they thought the theory was, that it had been debunked or something. The words forming the conversation all eventually swirled around my head like a swift yet harmless wind.

My mind flitted back to what I had done to Ava, and that roiling, torrent of stomach acid returned to bring with it deep-seeded feelings of guilt. I had basically done exactly what Michael was trying to do, although ultimately mine was a reaction to being teased. And while Sophia could be a giant cry baby sometimes, did she really deserve to find out from her asshole cousin that Santa wasn’t real?

It may have been too late for Ava, but Sophia was clearly on the fence. Her faith in Santa’s existence was wounded, but she hadn’t decided one way or the other yet. And that’s when I got an idea to restore her faith in the jolly fat man.

***

“Sure, you can go outside, honey. Just make sure you stay in the yard.” As Sophia, Emma and I made our way to the hall closet with all the winter coats, Kathryn added, “Oh, and wear your snowsuit, Kaylee.”

I groaned lightly, knowing that while the hated garment was, according to Kathryn, the best, most durable and warmest winter clothing available, I still felt like a giant pink marshmallow each time I wore it. Still, I guess it made sense because once December hit, Twin Falls was blanketed with a thick layer of snow and sub-zero temperatures. I still didn’t think it was necessary to wear something that made me look like the Michelin Man’s daughter, but arguing only led to warnings of frost bite, pneumonia and explanations regarding how well suited the clothing was to a Minnesota winter. Why couldn’t Kathryn and Thomas have lived in like Hawaii or something? Or at least a place that didn’t require children to bundle up in suits that looked like they were designed to survive winter and a nuclear holocaust.

Okay. Maybe I was exaggerating slightly. But I still hated it with a passion.

Emma and Sophia giggled as I maneuvered my body into the confines of the suit, but when I cast a death glare, they both stopped. We made our way into the backyard, trudging through the deep pockets of snow. The girls wanted to build a snowman, but the snow wasn’t right. Their attempts to roll the snow resulted in frustration as it refused to stick. They were disappointed, especially since they didn’t see snow in California, but it was just too cold.

I continued to lead them through the expansive backyard, until we reached a small hole in the fence. Dropping to my knees, I began to crawl through.

Emma said, “Kaylee, your mommy said we are supposed to stay in the yard.” The girl looked nervous with her eyes constantly shifting back and forth, while her head swivelled back toward the patio doors.

I said, “Yeah, but I won’t be able to show you something really cool.” I looked seriously at Sophia, “It’s about Santa.” Sophia immediately broke into a smile and proceeded to follow me. Emma sighed lightly and then followed suit begrudgingly.

Beyond the Pattersons’ backyard was a small empty field that led into sparse trees before spreading out into a larger hilly forest. Poking out from the snow-laden field were small bushes and shrubs. I stopped as I noticed a set of tracks.

“There. Reindeer prints.”

While Kathryn and Thomas were overjoyed that their new daughter was a bookworm, they also insisted that I spend time outdoors (even though they barely went outside). The backyard held numerous temptations, but it also had an aging wooden fence that Frank Milner had failed to notice. I had snuck out of the yard a few times. The close proximity to the forest reminded me of hunting with my dad. Kathryn had caught me last week, shaking as she babbled about me being lost forever in the surrounding forest. I just explained to her that with all the time spent inside at the studio, I just needed to get away sometimes. To be alone. She accepted this.

It was also when I noticed that deer had been munching on the plants in the field.

Sophia asked with wide eyes, “Really? I thought they only lived in the North Pole.”

I grinned, “Well yeah. But they have to practice for their big night. I guess they use this field as a landing pad. I bet if you come here Christmas Day you’ll see even more prints. And maybe something else.” It was obvious that the local deer were using the field as a feeding ground. They were definitely coming on a routine basis.

“Kaylee Patterson! Come inside right now!”

The two girls looked at me with fear as we realized that we were busted. I turned toward the backyard where Kathryn and her sister were standing at the fence looking both disappointed and concerned. The three of us trudged back inside, where I was unceremoniously paraded to my room by Kathryn’s firm hand.

“Kaylee, I’ve told you not to go outside the yard like that. First of all, I can’t see you, and second of all, I don’t want you wandering into the forest and getting lost.” There were tears in the woman’s eyes. I had been in forests like the one outside my house hundreds of times. Plus, moose hunting required going extremely deep into such forests, and my dad and I never got lost.

I replied, “Look, it’s not a big deal. And I thought we already talked about this. You know I need space. I-“

“It absolutely is a big deal, young lady. You can’t scare me like that. I get that you want to explore, and this alone time is important to you. But you can’t do that. I can’t- I can’t lose you.”

I blurted out, “I was just trying to help Sophia. Because of what Michael said.”

Kathryn raised a brow, “You mean?”

I nodded, “I thought if I brought her out there and showed her the tracks I saw last week- well maybe she’d believe again. And maybe we could put some half-eaten carrots there or something too.”

Kathryn’s face erupted into a wide grin. She proceeded to throw her arms around me and kiss me on the cheek, “Oh, Kaylee. I had no idea. I still- I still don’t like you wandering off like that, but that’s so nice. What a nice cousin you are. And that’s a really smart idea too. We’ll definitely do that.” Her face then contorted into a confused, yet happy mask.

“That means you- don’t.”

I nodded, “No, I don’t. But it’s not fair for Sophia to have it wrecked by an asshole like Michael. I’ll play along for her. We all should. Even Michael.”

Kathryn hugged me tightly again, her eyes welling with tears. “Oh. Kaylee, I love you so much. I just wanted this Christmas to be so special because it is your first. You don’t have to go and see the Santa at the mall if you don’t want to.”

I shrugged, “Well, I could for Sophia.”

I added, “Oh and I was hoping that Ava could see it too. You know the carrots and the reindeer prints. On Christmas Day.”

Kathryn smiled, “I would have to talk to Ava’s mother about it, but I don’t see why not, sweetie. Why do you want her to come over?”

I replied, “Some asshole at school told her Santa didn’t exist.” Kathryn grinned from ear to ear, gushing with pride.

Kathryn said with a smile, “Of course. Well if her mother doesn’t mind. No problem. Oh, I know you hate that snowsuit we got you. But it really isn’t that much different from Sophia or even Emma’s. Still, you don’t need to always wear it. I’ll be right back.” She returned with a box, clearly a wrapped Christmas present that screamed clothes, especially as I took it and gently squeezed the top.

Kathryn smiled, “I was going to just have you open this on Christmas, but I think you deserve to have it a little early.”

I tore off the paper, and then thrust my hand into the soft cardboard box. The hand removed a coat, a hat and a pair of mittens, but unlike my snowsuit and the thick toque with the pink pompom on top, the clothing was actually stylish. The clothing was still the type all the people going on their various boats would wear in the winter however.

It was also little girl as fuck, which would elicit no small amount of gushing from adult females of a certain age, still I found myself wanting to try it all on and then look at myself in the mirror. This is exactly what I did. Sophia had decided that the trip to see Santa was back on, so the whole family started getting ready to leave the house, even the beleaguered Michael.

But I trailed behind, looking at the little girl in the mirror. She wore a light pink beret, one with a small decorative flower on the front with matching mittens. The girl’s thick Elsa braid stuck out from the headwear as she slung it over her shoulder. Around her slim shoulders meanwhile was a white waistcoat with large shiny silver buttons. The coat while fashionable was also furred at the arms and at the neck. The outfit was completed by a pair of white furred boots.

Darling. Adorable. Oh-I-wish-I-could-eat-you-up. That is what the ladies would say, and a part of me desperately wanted to hear it. To have the attention that would be lavished on Emma and Sophia.

Still, the ensemble was lacking somewhat, and as I looked at my polo sweater and khakis, I frowned. It would look much better with a dress.

“Simple. You don’t look like Kaylee. Not completely. If I recall, the script said that Kaylee loved dresses. If you aren’t in one, then there’s still some Ryan Sullivan left in there.”

Tracy’s words echoed in my mind as I stared at my wardrobe closet, the one that held a multitude of dresses.

“Kaylee! Time to go!”

I left my room, taking fleeting glances at the wardrobe closet as I went.

***

“Kaylee! Watch out!”

I felt myself being grabbed and then pulled into an embrace. Looking up, I saw a frazzled Kathryn. “Kaylee, you walked right out in front of that car. Were you paying attention?”

I blinked slowly, feeling confident that I was keeping an eye out for cars in the parking lot of what passed for a mall in Twin Falls (it was like the outlets but with only about 7% of the stores). I nodded, but this did nothing to assuage Kathryn’s concerns.

She asked me with grave concern, “Did you look?”

Of course I did. That should have been the response, but as I thought more about what happened, I had a sinking feeling. It was a sensation of a tiny pebble tumbling into the inky depths of a seemingly bottomless well. Submerged, the pebble should have eventually risen to float, but it was pulled deeper and deeper. I hadn’t looked.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sophia holding her mother’s hand as they walked toward the car.

Kathryn asked again, “Did you look, Kaylee? It’s very important that you look both ways even in a parking lot.” I knew that. Didn’t I?

I answered with a fervent head nod, “Yeah. I looked. Don’t worry about it. It just came a bit fast.”

Kathryn replied, “Oh. Okay. Some people do drive fast in parking lots.” Kathryn sounded unconvinced, but we walked back to the car without incident.

As we walked back to the car, my heart pounded as I found myself looking at Kathryn. My fingers wiggled within my mitten, but never made the jump to her own hand.

***

The Pattersons didn’t strike me as a religious family, but apparently, even before my arrival, they attended church services on Christmas Eve. My mom used the base chapel, especially when my dad was on a deployment, but they never made an effort to bring me. This meant, of course, another opportunity to dress up.

I was left by myself in my room. Kathryn hadn’t pushed a specific outfit on me, but I knew that Sophia and Emma would be wearing brand new Christmas dresses. They wore party dresses in the dead of summer. I imagined, based on that fact, they would probably be wearing tiaras, long gloves and glass slippers.

As I peered at my wardrobe closet, I felt a tingle of excitement. On my bed was my usual preppy outfit. For Christmas, however, instead of the short-sleeved polo, it was a white wool sweater. I knew that inside the closet lay the scripted Kaylee, the one that the serum envisioned from the very beginning.

As much as I recalled Tracy’s words concerning Kaylee’s image, Kathryn’s desire to see me happy, acting in a way that felt natural also came to the forefront. The struggle for identity was very real. Already, I had faced the fact that I was no longer attracted to women. Instead, I stared at perfection like Kathryn and Jessica and found myself wishing I could be them. Gymnastics became a love of mine. Few men, at least the ones I knew, woke up saying they wanted to be gymnasts when they grew up. I was terrified of bugs and scary movies, and I sucked at football. I was also a massive cry baby. But did that make me a girl? Did that make me Kaylee Patterson through and through? Those traits could easily describe a boy too.

Without an adult body or at least a teen body sending signals, hormones that direct sexual attraction, I was still confused. All I knew, however, is that I wanted to tear open that closet and wear something and parade around the mirror, and have all the adults and my cousins call me beautiful.

I had fought it for so long, and as the hours, days and months ticked away, I became more and more miserable. Staring jealously at Ava and her group, listening to the adulation she received from the female teachers. Mrs. Smyth called Ava, “swan.” Beautiful, graceful and elegant. I was chickadee- a cute chirpy bird. Ava’s name is, ultimately, what I wanted.

Was it the serum pushing me toward this end? Or was this simply the natural path after my transformation? At this point, all I wanted was to be happy, as Kathryn desperately wanted. Fuck the serum, if it meant I could actually look at myself in the mirror and smile- and be content with who I was.

My hands gripped the handle of the wardrobe closet and flung it open.

I wasn’t sure how long I tried on the dresses in the closet, but I think I must have worn each one at least once. As I did, my heart leapt and my head buzzed happily. It felt like the most natural thing in the world, posing in front of the vanity, smiling and twirling. Someone might as well have lifted two massive cinderblocks from my shoulders.

It was girly. Something that Ava and my cousins undoubtedly did. It was something a boy didn’t do, but the sensation, the sheer joy of the material, the patterns, and sparkling sequins, it just felt right. The same way it had when I had put my arms around Hannah for the first time, pulled her in for a kiss, and proceeded to bite her lip like some overanxious 7th grader playing seven minutes in heaven. She laughed it off and pecked me the cheek, wrapped her arms around my neck and then kissed me full on the lips, making me forget how to breathe momentarily.

“Kaylee Bear, are you-“

I stood there smiling in the dress as Thomas looked on in total yet happy surprise. The dress itself reached just above my shins. It was poofy, but not exactly a hoop skirt. The skirt portion was red with interlacing silver lines, each line weaved into the other and formed what almost looked like shimmering icicles. A generous bow adorned the back of the dress, while little roses lined neatly along the collar.

Thomas said, “Kaylee, you look- beautiful.” He reached behind and quickly buttoned the back of the garment just above the bow.

I beamed at the compliment as something flicked within my brain. They felt different coming from Thomas. Women threw words like that around all the time. Gorgeous. Perfect. Fat. Ugly. They built and broke each other’s self-esteem in little groups. Kathryn had called me beautiful more times than I could count, having probably read that such words were necessary in some article or in a discussion with her sister to bolster the confidence of little girls.

From Thomas, however, the words were special. Thomas wasn’t Ryan Sullivan, whose words were used to control and weaken already damaged minds. No, he meant what he said. They seemed genuinely sincere, and while I knew that the serum had ‘blessed’ me with what amounted to the genetics of a future supermodel, I had never really felt comfortable in my skin.

In that moment, however, I did.

I didn’t feel like Ryan or Kaylee. Riley. Some construct of a mad doctor and an equally mad television executive with an imploding biological clock.

I felt like me.

***

“Kaylee!! Kaylee!! Wake up!”

I was being shaken. Little hands dug into my shoulder, and while I knew it was Sophia, who was sharing my room, I felt like the fallen pork chop in the battle between human hands and a hungry Duke.

“It’s Christmas! It’s Christmas, Kaylee!”

I groaned lightly, and then, as if a switch went off in my brain, I felt a sudden bubbling excitement. On Christmas Eve, I went to bed, telling myself over and over not to make a big deal about Christmas, fighting the urge to bounce on the furniture the way Sophia did and avoiding her almost crazed look as she stared at the mountain of presents in front of the tree.

I could be a girl, but I wasn’t going to be a child.

Some of the adults in the house grumbled about Christmas. They complained about how much things cost, how they wouldn’t be able to make their credit card payments- how the kids would play with the toys for five minutes and then move onto something else. Thomas and Kathryn were excited, but they didn’t look like they had swallowed a bag of brown sugar and washed it down with a gallon of cola.

Sophia jumped on my bed, and the normally demure little girl grinned widely, pushing her face into mine, “Did you see the presents? There’s like a million down there! A million billion. And we can go out and see if you were right. You know about the reindeer. Maybe there’s some tracks or something! Then I can tell the kids at school that Santa is real.”

I was about to tell Sophia to take a Xanax, but I realized it was too late. Her enthusiasm was infectious. Presents! So many presents. Still, there was nothing I would really want, right? It would be mostly toys and clothes- maybe a dress or two. So, why did I feel like I did the moment Jessica accepted to go on another date? Nervous, but practically giddy. Moments later, I felt infinitely better about my maturity as I saw Thomas glide down the hall in a pair of ridiculous footie pajamas, looking like a giant human-shaped Christmas present. He was bursting with Christmas spirit to the point of oozing apparently.

“Kaylee Bear, it’s Christmas!!”

Kathryn and I shared embarrassed yet amused looks as we made our way downstairs. As we arrived, Kathryn’s absolute mortification reached its peak as Thomas was seen wearing a large felt hat with green ears. He was playing elf handing out all the presents.

Kathryn looked down at me and smiled, “Thomas loves Christmas, but I’ve never seen him love it this much. I think maybe it has something to do with you. What do you think?”

I shrugged, “Maybe. Or maybe you need to increase his meds. Like double the dose.” I said the words with a smile, finding Thomas’ spirit more endearing than annoying. It reminded me of my own dad, who turned into a massive kid around Christmas time. I think it had to do with sometimes missing Christmas while on a deployment, so when he was around, he dialed it up to eleven for the holidays. It used to drive my mom crazy. The constant humming of Christmas songs, the Grinch that Stole Christmas on a loop in the VCR and the overabundance of decorations. Our base house for the year was usually so lit up that it would have outshone Hermie’s stage lights.

Despite the mountain of presents, Sophia was already dressed in her boots and coat, eager to see if the reindeer had landed in the field next to the backyard. We trekked outside, with adult supervision this time, and unsurprisingly, there were new tracks. I had hunted enough deer to know their feeding patterns, and with such plentiful vegetation next to a forest, they would return many times.

“Oh wow! Santa really was here. There’s some carrot pieces in the snow. And lots of tracks.”

Sophia returned to the house with a massive smile on her face. Her belief, at least for now, had been restored. I was hoping it would be as easy for Ava. As I trudged back through the deep snow, I noticed something peculiar. Two long parallel lines ran smoothly along the surface of the snow. They almost looked like- sleigh tracks. It hadn’t been part of my original plan, considering the Pattersons didn’t own a sleigh. Also, even if someone had dragged a sleigh out there and pulled it toward the open field, it should have dug a much deeper groove in the snow. And wouldn’t there be tracks from those who lugged it? Even if it hadn’t been a human, there weren’t exactly any horse prints either.

I smirked, “No way.”

The presents I received were to be expected, plenty of toys, some new clothes, and while the urge to tear them open was strong, I battled back against the omnipresent desire. Meanwhile, Sophia tore open the wrapping with such zeal that she often ripped the TO and FROM sticker, forcing the gift giver to loudly exclaim, “That one’s from me.” For each gift, she would shout out, as if we all couldn’t see it, exactly what it was.

“It’s a horse clothes barn for my horses!”

“A Frozen calendar!”

The adults seemed to enjoy the ongoing gift commentary from Sophia, her energy seemingly permeating the room as she conducted the ritual of ripping, shouting and thanking, usually punctuated with a quick hug for the gift giver. While I felt the urge to do the same, the pin, which was strategically placed in my pajamas bottom pocket allowed me to focus. My subdued reactions, however, seemed to dampen the spirits of my would-be parents as I opened their gifts. I had specifically told them that I didn’t play with toys, and yet they bought me some. Were they hoping I would change my mind overnight? That the shiny packaging would instill within me a powerful longing to tear them open?

They didn’t wait. After the gifts were opened, Thomas went about putting the toys together, trying to entice me to play with them. He mostly struggled however, especially with the Frozen Castle Playset (with realistic ice furniture). It was the same one I had seen in the window display at the Disney Store during the clothes shopping trip with Eve.

Voices spoke about me, around me, but never directly to me. The quiet conversations, however, like a still pond that is suddenly joined by a massive rock, were broken by angry raised voices.

“She said she doesn’t like them.”

“We can’t force her, Meghan.”

It was Kathryn.

“I know it’s not normal.”

Mrs. Feinstein hobbled into the kitchen, and the voices stopped.

I watched Sophia and Emma playing with their new toys, desperately wanting to play with my own, but joining meant admitting that I was a child. More importantly, I knew that it would regress my mind further, perhaps bringing it to a state where Tracy wouldn’t even be able to help.

While I was comforted by my seeming victory, I was also hurt by Kathryn’s words. Normal. What did that even mean? Why couldn’t they just accept that I didn’t want to play with the toys? Even if not doing so was making me miserable. Being miserable was preferable to losing my adult capacity however. Was I freak to them? Why did they even want me if I was so different from my cousins? I was starting to think that maybe Mrs. Feinstein was lying about Kathryn’s words- maybe I wasn’t the daughter she always wanted.

Just as I began tearing up, Mrs. Feinstein, who had returned moments before, took me by the hand and brought me away, hobbling up the stairs to the couch where I had read all of the books she sent me. Midnight cast an irritated look in our direction as it was clear he too was trying to escape from all the noise downstairs.

“I’m sorry you heard that, Kaylee.”

I said, “I don’t care about it. I know I’m not normal.”

Mrs. Feinstein smiled gently, “Who is exactly? Have you seen how Thomas is dressed? Have you seen Kathryn’s white room? No, of course you haven’t because she won’t let you in there. She’s still waiting for it to be judged in some home life magazine from 1952.”

I replied, “She won’t even let Thomas in there.”

The old woman took my hand and said, “You’re a really special girl, Kaylee. Your parents, and they are your parents, speak the world of you. They are so proud of how you are doing in school and with your gymnastics. Why I am sure they’d shout it from the mountaintops if they could. In many ways, you remind me of myself. My nose stuck in a book, while my mother worried that I was strange because I didn’t play like the other children.

My father would tell her that I was fine, that I was simply studious- a very serious little girl, as he would say. But what my mother didn’t realize is that I was playing, in my mind as I was reading. I would imagine the grimy cobblestone streets of London. And the moors with fog crawling across it like ghostly hands. And I loved it. I imagined myself there, right alongside Watson and Holmes trying to solve the mystery. There’s nothing wrong with what you are doing, Kaylee. Don’t feel like you have to be like your cousins. Normal is relative. And oftentimes, boring.”

Mrs. Feinstein said, “Now, a certain someone just got you some brand new books. Why don’t we crack them open?”

An hour later, we were four chapters in and showing no signs of stopping. Sophia and Emma played downstairs with their new toys, while I enjoyed reconnecting with Mrs. Feinstein. As we turned to the fifth chapter and Holmes was beginning to piece together the mystery, the doorbell rang. My heart and mind sprung, sending my body hurtling off the couch like an errant kid-sized missile. My action surprised Midnight who leapt off the couch as if he were being chased by some murderous vacuum cleaner.

Mrs. Feinstein cackled, “And she’s off!”

It had to be Ava, come to have her own belief in Santa restored, but as I approached the door I heard barking. I grinned and quickly pulled the door open, expecting to see Mr. Milner and Finnegan. What greeted me, however, was a different dog entirely, similar in size with a long muzzle and bursting with energy, but white, black and brown with floppy ears. I recognized it as a beagle. Think Snoopy.

An unknown woman tugged at the leash. She said with a massive sigh, clearly exasperated, “Sorry, car was frozen solid. Had to get Frank to bring his blowtorch over! Of course then it wouldn’t start.”

Kathryn appeared with Thomas at her side, “Marilyn! We thought you weren’t going to make it.” She looked instantly relieved, but it was the last thing I noticed before turning all my attention to the beagle that was busy sniffing around my feet.

“Hey buddy, how’s it going?” The dog was still obsessed with my feet, but a moment later, it turned its attention to Kathryn, but then it buried its nose in Thomas’ feet.

Marilyn said with a smile, “Probably smelling Midnight.” The dog was leashed, and I expected that if it hadn’t been, it would have gone from person to person smelling their feet in some kind of beagle ecstasy. I knew the breed. Hunters often used them because they would follow the trail of a deer endlessly. Marilyn pulled the dog firmly, and it begrudgingly allowed itself to be pulled backward, but not before trying to lick at my face and return to my feet.

Marilyn grinned, “Once they get used to the smells in the house, they won’t be as scatterbrained. Of course walks are another story.”

I hadn’t put two and two together, but the way that Marilyn was speaking, it almost seemed like-

Kathryn put her hand on my shoulder, but she didn’t need to say a word. There was an electricity to the touch, and the massive smile on her face as the beagle tried again to lick my face told me everything I needed to know.

Marilyn released the leash and allowed the dog to bound toward me. The long tongue was soon bathing my face in ‘kisses’, but I didn’t mind. Duke slobbered in a way that made his kisses feel more like he was lathering my face with the green slime stuck underneath an old boat.

Kathryn said, “His name is Fitzgerald.”

I made a face, probably looking like I had swallowed a sip of Jack again. “Can I just call him Fitzy?”

Marilyn nodded, “That’s what most people call him.”

Considering my track record with trusting adults, Eve who kept things from me about the social worker, the social worker who ended up being part of the conspiracy to erase me, and even Thomas and Kathryn who could flip flop at times on certain issues, I still felt the need to confirm the status of the dog, but Kathryn, perhaps sensing this or seeing my inquisitive and likely worried face said quickly, “Yes, Kaylee. He’s yours. We wanted him to be here first thing in the morning, but it just didn’t happen that way. Merry Christmas, sweetie.”

Thomas added, “You spend hours with Mr. Milner’s dog every time he comes here. We just-“ His words were interrupted by the biggest bear hug that a six year old girl could give. As I released Thomas and flung myself into Kathryn’s waiting arms, Thomas finished. “Wanted you to be happy.”

I hadn’t even asked for one, but other than a way to save my adult self, Fitzy was the perfect present. With the wonderful gift, I was starting to believe that even with all their fuck-ups (all the toys for instance!), maybe Thomas and Kathryn really did understand me. And maybe, with that understanding, I could actually trust them with my biggest secret.

And maybe they would actually believe me too.

After all, it could ultimately be the only way to save what remained of my adult mind. Because while I hated the very existence of the toys with their new plastic smell and multiple easy-to-lose accessories, I still desperately wanted to play with them, especially the Frozen Ice Palace. I wouldn’t even have to use a toilet paper roll for Olaf like in the apartment!

A second later, Fitzgerald (who the fuck names a dog Fitzgerald?!) broke my train of thought with feverish face licking. Kathryn mumbled something about Googling to make sure that amount of dog saliva was safe, while Thomas shushed her gently.

***

The Patterson household changed once Fitzy became a member. For one, Midnight had to share the attention and the space- with both of them deciding the upstairs reading couch was their territory. Fitzy got along just fine with the cat, and while Midnight cast the death eyes (those cat eyes that are only slightly open) at the dog, it was a relatively rare occurrence. Having the dog, my gymnastics and a host of new yet old books from Mrs. Feinstein was also an excellent distraction from the brand new toys collecting dust in my room.

Fitzy barked, the full bellow hardly matching his small stature. I said, “In a minute, I have to finish this.” The dog whined and rubbed himself on my legs just like Midnight. Maybe that’s why they weren’t trying to tear each other apart- Fitzy was half cat.

I looked down at the homework worksheet with boredom. Everything was still so easy. I liked the creative activities when we got to write stories or paint, but anything having to do with spelling, grammar or math was beyond tedious. I sighed in my chair, while Kathryn prepared dinner.

“Young lady, you know the rules. No playing with Fitzy until the homework is done. I know that sigh.”

Thomas, who was busy putting away the dishes said, “She’s probably bored to tears, Kat. She needs to be in an advanced class. Or second grade. Her reading levels are off the charts. She needs to be challenged, or she’ll start acting out.”

Kathryn replied, “Well we’ll have the chance to see in a few weeks. Her teacher has set up a placement test for the enriched program.”

While I shouldn’t have felt proud of breezing through first grade worksheets, pride welled within me, the same way it had when I used to make Monique scream in the bedroom. And when she got going, well as a singer- fuck. It’s no wonder people called the cops.

As always, I half read the instructions on the worksheet and then plowed through it. It was some ridiculous match the letters to the picture of the animal, but no animal had more than three letters. Cat. Bat. Rat. I couldn’t wait to go outside with Fitzy. Yesterday, he carried a branch that was double his size in his mouth and then tried to fit it through the break in the fence. Hilarity and much giggling ensued.

“Done!”

Thomas leaned over and peered at the sheet. I glared at him, “Come on. This stuff is so easy. You don’t need to look at it.”

Thomas turned back to the dishes, but then his eyes veered back onto the paper as if suddenly magnetised. “Kaylee Bear, this is a silly mistake. Cat is spelled with a ‘C’ not a ‘K’. I’ve seen you spell it just fine before in that story you wrote about Midnight. You’re doing them too quickly.”

I shook my head and cast my own death glare, little girl style- narrowed eyes and jaw forward, ready to devour my hapless would-be father. “It’s spelled fine.”

Thomas blanched and lightly cleared his throat, “It’s just a little mistake, Kaylee. Not a big deal. You are zipping through the work. You are bound to make mistakes that way. Your brain probably can’t keep up with your pencil.” He let loose a little laugh, but I saw nothing funny in the error.

In fact, it was a massive red flag. Could my return trip to first grade actually be regressing my mind? As I was spelling the word, I thought about the Kit Kat I got in my stocking, and that led me down the wrong path obviously. I should have known that there was a difference, but I didn’t clue in. Did I really have to check my work like I would if I was in a college course or something? It seemed ridiculous to check a first grade worksheet, and frankly, humiliating.

Kathryn added, “Jokes aside, you should read over your work, Kaylee. No matter what grade you are in- my students could definitely improve their results if they took even ten minutes to look over their essays. I want you to start doing that.”

I said through clenched teeth, “I don’t need to.”

Thomas and Kathryn looked at each other with dual frowns. Perhaps they sensed the inevitable that I would budge on this only the moment I died.

Later, as I was getting ready for bed, Kathryn reignited the issue. “You know that Thomas and I have the best intentions for you. You’re a very smart girl, Kaylee, but you rush through your work. And that’s going to make you sloppy. You don’t do that in gymnastics.”

I retorted, “Gymnastics isn’t a fucking stupid worksheet.”

Kathryn sighed lightly and said, “It’s normal to make mistakes. And I’m telling you how you can avoid them. I know I hated to hear my mom and Mrs. Feinstein say that they knew best, but it’s true. We’ve been there, Kaylee. And I’m a teacher. I see this sort of thing every day.”

I knew very well that Kathryn was a teacher. She might as well have prefaced her lecture with the words, “Here’s my thesis statement.”

I looked at the time on my clock and shook my head, “And I’m tired of going to bed at 8 o’clock every night.”

Kathryn responded sweetly yet matter-of-factly (reminding me of Musica), “Honey, we’ve been over this. If you want to grow big and tall, and be healthy. You need your sleep. Plus, you’re tired.”

I shook my head again, but this time it had a certain stubborn ferocity, “I-am-not! And that whole fucking thing is bullshit about flowers and growing. You were lying to me. I’ll still grow.”

Kathryn said, “Some yes, but maybe not as much. It’s also important so you don’t get sick. Now what’s this all about? If it’s about the worksheet, don’t worry about it. Just look it over next time.”

I reached over and plucked the night light from the socket. It wasn’t only the worksheet- it was everything that was symptomatic with becoming a child. The night light was a crutch, and the bedtime routine with the teeth brushing and the kisses goodnight on the forehead. At this point, I was used to them, but maybe that was the problem. Maybe it was regressing me further.

Kathryn looked on with gentle worry, “If you have a nightmare, just make sure to plug it back in. OK, teeth brushed and then into bed, sleepyhead.” Major Musica vibes now.

The problem was that I was exhausted, and fighting my sleep only made my lids heavier. It made no sense. If I was taking advanced chemistry or human kinetics- anything other than learning how to count in tens or learning how to tell time, I wouldn’t be worried. The first grade should not leave me so tired that I could barely keep my eyes open. Combined with the worksheet, and the fact that I had believed in Santa Claus for even a minute- I knew there was something wrong with me.

And only one person could help me.



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