Designer Children Chapter 31

Chapter 31

Author's note:

This is it. I want to thank my test readers for providing encouragement, ideas and a swift kick in the ass to get this thing done. Clocking in at just under 600 pages, it is shorter than the Sidereus Prophecy, but it still took about two years to write. For those of you on this site, thank you very much for going on this lengthy journey with me. I hope you enjoy the ending of Ryan's story. People have asked about my next project. I'll be honest that I don't have one. My ideas come from a spur of the moment. Designer Children was born from the multitude of children's programming I've had to sit through with my children over the years. But like my previous project, it morphed into something beyond just a television show (or in the case of TSP a music-themed gender change), into the realm of conspiracy. I assure you that I'm not sitting here writing this with a tinfoil hat. With that said, I'll be taking a break, but when I am struck by the right idea, I'll be back. Please comment and let me know what you thought of Ryan's journey, and as always I can be reached here: [email protected] (epilogue will be posted tomorrow at the latest)

As the needle approached, I shook. The Ryan Sullivan who had defiantly stared Dr. Travers in the face as metal pierced skin was gone, replaced with a terrified little girl who couldn’t bear the sight of it. She looked away, eyes tightly closed as if the object were some monster ready to devour her. Or a fire, licking and singeing her heels. It was an absolute fear response, not one of a survivor, the deer who stood and was massacred by a half-ton pickup.

“Ryan, it’s OK. You’re being really brave. You can do this.”

My eyes shot open, fury entering my being, and I leveled my gaze at Tracy the same way the eye of a hurricane peers at those hapless enough to be trapped within its torrent, moments before it unleashes hell. “No! You can’t fucking talk to me that way, Tracy! You promised!” The last words were a veritable whine.

“You’re not my fucking mom holding my hand before the first day of school. If you want me to trust you, you have to stop falling into that mode.”

The needle stopped its approach.

“I’m sorry, Ryan. It’s just a habit- you know with Ashley. How do you want me to help you through this then? I can’t administer the serum if you are shaking like that. It’s dangerous.”

I nodded, “Just tell me to man up. Stop being a pussy. It’s what my dad always said.”

Tracy looked down at me and sighed. She gently placed the needle on a nearby counter in her makeshift basement lab. She wasn’t simply looking down however- no, it was as if she was looking through me- at what I had become. I was sitting there in a dress, one of the new ones I got for Christmas. It was pink with a pleated skirt, four shiny silver buttons that cinched tightly at the waist. A sort of white silken bib with a navy blue ribbon hung in the centre neatly around my neck, draping down toward my midsection. If anything screamed Kaylee Patterson, daughter of Kathryn Patterson, it was this dress. After Christmas Eve, however, I had never looked back. I had embraced the contents of my wardrobe, the same way I had when I discovered porn for the first time.

“Is that really what you want, Ryan? Do you really think that will help?”

I sighed heavily, “What do you want to hear? That I want you to fucking comfort me? That I’m scared out of my fucking mind that I’m losing my adult self?”

Without hesitation, Tracy reached out and gently took my hand. The woman firmly squeezed it and then picked up the needle again, “Shh. Shh. Just think about something happy, and it will be over.”

My mind drifted to the time spent in the studio, one of the very few happy moments. A morning at play with Ashley/Madison, in her presence a descent into childlike innocence free of pain, fear or regret.

A moment later, I felt a little prick.

Tracy continued to hold my hand as the needle went deeper into my arm. I peered up at Tracy, expecting to receive the same comfort from her expression that I was getting from her touch. Surprisingly, her face lacked any such reassurance. It lacked the cold almost robotic visage that made me question Dr. Travers’ humanity, but she wasn’t exactly Kathryn trying to console me after a particularly scary nightmare either. For a brief moment, her features hardened, her lips turning into a gentle frown. She hid it well, but for a second she demonstrated a hint of concern.

“There, all done.” The anxious mask broke and Tracy’s ever youthful face smiled. “I guess we’ll call Kathryn to come and get you before I have to pick up Ashley from dance, hmm?”

I nodded, anxious at the impact of my decision, but pleased that I had made it.

***

Why did Tracy look that way while she gave me the needle? Was she worried that her cure for the regressing effects of the serum simply wouldn’t work? She had promised me that I wouldn’t have to worry about becoming like Ashley/Madison- what she had given me essentially blocked the serum from wreaking further havoc.

But was I simply a test subject? She said that she needed me close, needed to study me and the effects of the serum on someone who had battled it for nearly a year. She couldn’t exactly test it on Ashley/Madison- it was too late for her.

“Are you OK, Kaylee Bear? The doctor is just going to have you read something and then answer some questions. That’s all. It’s just like school.”

Kathryn added, “It’s a little test. We just want to make sure you aren’t bored in the first grade. It might be the reason why you aren’t careful with your schoolwork. You do your work so quickly. We think you might need more of a challenge.”

I shrugged lightly, my legs swinging gently from my chair- my feet perpetually never touching the floor. The only chair where I could was the one in Mrs. Carmichaels’ class and the little activity centre that the Pattersons had put together for me. Not like I sat there and coloured or painted or anything. My legs were clad in stockings and a plaid skirt. A monogramed sweater neatly clung to my frame. I was a mini-Kathryn through and through.

Thomas said, “You’ll do fine.”

And I did. The passage the doctor had me read was laughably easy. I mean I read Sherlock Holmes books and fully understood them. Something about photosynthesis and required nutrients for plants- either way, it was simple. I remembered learning about it in fifth or sixth grade. They also had me write out a few of my answers, and while my handwriting had improved, I still struggled with certain letters. It didn’t matter however. The doctor looked at what I had written, and then she called in another doctor who looked at it, and they stared at it in what could only be described as excited astonishment.

***

“They’re going to move you classes?”

I nodded, “Yeah I think so.”

Ava looked at me sadly. “Oh.”

While we didn’t exactly get along all the time, my Christmas Day stunt had put me back in Eva’s good graces. According to her mother, bringing Ava over to see the half-eaten carrots and sled tracks had renewed her belief in Santa. After receiving the new serum, the millisecond of belief I had was quickly erased, but I was happy that Ava’s was fully rekindled. I certainly didn’t want to descend into a brainless childlike stupor, but Ava had a few years of blind innocence left maybe. Although, hopefully she wouldn’t be that awkward twelve year old that still believes.

She asked hopefully, “But I’ll still see you at gymnastics, right?”

I replied, “Yeah.” My new class was probably going to have much older kids. Kids who wouldn’t give a shit about me. I would be away from the temptation of children’s games, even though Tracy’s formula had emboldened my resolve. I barely needed my pin at recess anymore. Either way, once I moved classes, it would be perfect.

While I waited for the switch, Tracy planned to continue looking into an actual cure. At this point, I was more concerned with returning to adulthood than my original gender, but it would be a bonus. Of course, the cure would deprive the Pattersons of their little girl, the one they had waited years to adopt, but wasn’t the life stolen from me by the serum just as significant? It was mine to do with as I pleased, even if I had spent my early adult years fucking and playing the role of a failed actor. It was supposed to my choice, but the serum, in transforming me into a child, stripped this away from me. Even if I was a teenager, I would have more rights, and I wouldn’t have to worry about bedtimes, screen time bullshit or having a grown man and woman brush my teeth.

My mind buzzed with possibilities, quickly wondering if I should contact Jessica. Everything had previously seemed so hopeless, but with this recent bout of luck, I was feeling confident enough to send her a little e-mail telling her how I was doing. Obviously, I’d send one to Greg and Eve too.

At recess that day, I was back to my usual routine, which involved biding my time and waiting for the bell. It was boring, but I had a newfound focus and confidence since receiving the shot from Tracy.

“Kaylee! You want to play with us?” Ava waved at me, beckoning toward a gaggle of giggling danger. I wasn’t sure what they were doing, but I didn’t want a setback, so I quickly shook my head.

“How come?” Ava looked surprised. Although to her, I suppose we were friends. I didn’t consider her that way, but the fact we were in the same class and gymnastics made us closer by proxy. That’s just how kids were I guess. That would be like me thinking that every person in my acting class was a friend just cause we all showed up in the same place once a week.

I replied firmly, hoping that Ava would piss off before I learned what she was actually planning. The incessant laughing from the bundle of energy twenty feet away was proof enough that it involved something inherently childish. Ava returned to the group in a huff. Why the fuck did she want to include me so badly?

Moments later, I had my answer. All of the girls from my class began terrorizing the boys, chasing them and attempting to kiss them. Normally, a six year old girl wants nothing to do with boys- the average one, at least in my experience. Across the yard, I could see two much older girls pointing toward the scene and then bending their backs in laughter.

As I watched the scene, I couldn’t get over how absolutely…dumb it looked. I wanted no part in what was happening in the schoolyard. Eventually, a few teachers got involved and stopped the game, which mostly involved the girls tackling the boys and then jumping on them, while the boys tried to wriggle away from pursed lips. Soon after, the bell rang, and I started making my way inside. As I reached the entry doors, I felt a hand on my back and then a forceful shove. My arms flew out to lessen the impact, but the push was so sudden that my face hit the ground before I could get my hands in position, resulting in me painfully scraping my chin on the hard-packed snow mixed with ice.

I looked up, tears in my eyes only to see Ava.

***

Sweet, sweet retribution. Ava knew that it was coming too. She hesitated with the paper in her hands, lightly folding over the edges. We had been working on a story for the past two days, again one with a theme of friendship. Ava’s story, which was likely laden with spelling mistakes and nonsensical scribblings inched toward me. My story was finished within about fifteen minutes, another sign that I didn’t belong in the first grade. I tried my best not to smile, but I couldn’t help it as I gripped the paper. Ava hadn’t told me the real reason she pushed me. She said that she had slipped on the ice and tumbled into me, but her fucking hand was clearly on my back in a distinct shoving motion.

If she wanted to be my friend, she had a weird way of showing it.

Ava watched me with growing trepidation. I relished every second of her discomfort, until my eyes finally dipped down to the page. The smile, however, quickly slipped from my face. The story made no sense. I mean it was probably a typical Ava story with a bunch of cute animals trying to reach a satisfying conclusion where the author’s command of the language was more of a hindrance than any fictional obstacle.

The words on the page were jumbled together. Just letters without any pattern. Maybe it was so bad that I just couldn’t parse it? The spelling was probably awful, but then I couldn’t recognize any words. Fear gripped me as I continued to stare down at the page.

Ava asked sadly, “Is it really, really bad? Just say it, Kaylee.”

Ignoring the girl, I quickly snatched my story from her hands. Seconds later, I began to shake. “No…no…No!” My eyes scanned the page over and over as my hands gripped the paper so tightly it began to tear along the edges. The letters on the page formed no discernible pattern. I knew it had been perfect too as the shiny happy face sticker attested, but I couldn’t read it.

And, as I looked around the classroom, at the rules and the reading corner where I spent so much of my free time after breezing through assignment, I came to a painful and demoralizing truth.

I couldn’t read.

***

“I’m not sure if Madison’s mommy will agree. It’s very short notice, Kaylee.”

“I need to go there. You- don’t understand. It’s really important.”

Kathryn laughed gently in that patronizing way that adults laugh. It was the oh-that’s-so-cute-but-it’s-not-a-real-problem laugh, a condescending chortle. It wasn’t important like paying the mortgage or getting a job. My reading ability had regressed since my initial change, but only with regard to the speed with which I could read. It was a matter of focus not understanding. But now, it was dire. Something had clearly gone wrong with Tracy’s attempt to block the regressive effects of the serum. It had gone into overdrive or something. Travers’ serum continued to be a nefarious, multi-layered enemy. What if I lost the ability to speak? To even understand speech?

I had to see Tracy so she could conduct an examination. And it fucking had to be tonight.

Kathryn replied, “Well I guess it’s not a school night. If Madison’s mommy agrees then you can go there after supper for a few hours. But if you have a fit when it is time to leave then the next time you ask for something like this it will automatically be a no. Got it?”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Whatever you say I’ll do it. I just need to get there.”

***

“I sent Madison to the neighbours with the excuse of a family emergency. What is it, Ryan? You’re scaring me.”

The moment I entered the house, I flew into Tracy’s arms and told her everything. She held me, gently patting my back as I blubbered about my lost ability to read.

“I’m so sorry, Ryan. I really thought that it was going to work. Maybe I made a mistake somewhere in the formula. It also might just be temporary.”

Click clack. Click clack.

Footsteps. Either Ashley was trying out a pair of Tracy’s high heels or there was someone else in the house.

“Oh cut out the drama and tell the poor girl the truth.”

Ms. McDavid walked slowly down the stairs as I untangled myself from Tracy’s arms. I said through clenched teeth, “What the fuck is she talking about? What is she even doing here?”

Tracy frowned deeply and refused to meet my gaze. Ms. McDavid placed her hand on Tracy’s shoulder, “I told you that you should have erased her memory too. This is just going to make it harder on her in the long run.” Tracy shifted away from the touch as if it were acid bent on corroding her skin through to the bone and then devouring the marrow. She crossed to the other side of the room looking defeated, but relieved to be away from McDavid.

Ms. McDavid smiled, “The Pattersons haven’t curbed that swearing habit completely it seems. I figured by now they would have, but I guess you really did have a vile mouth.”

I ran over to Tracy and placed my hands on her cheeks, attempting to jerk her head to meet my gaze. The young woman easily pulled away and shook her head, “The serum has already taken so much. I didn’t- I didn’t want to leave her with nothing.”

Ms. McDavid tsked, “This will be infinitely worse for her. Your ‘charity’ will cause serious psychological damage.”

I shouted, “Stop fucking talking about me like I’m not there!”

Ms. McDavid smiled, “I figured you would be used to that by now. Now, Tracy, we’ve discussed this. Just give her the shot. Remove the last of our mistakes.”

Tracy regained a firm posture and looked at Ms. McDavid in disgust, “No. I’m not erasing another life. Soon enough, she won’t care about who she used to be anyway.”

I heard movement upstairs, but instead of the heavy clicking of heels, it was the excited stomping of little feet. Madison burst from her bedroom and looked down from the top of the stairs, “When can Kaylee come up and play?”

Tracy said sweetly, “Aunt Bronwyn and I are just talking to Kaylee. It won’t be long. Why don’t you get the Frozen DVD ready downstairs?”

Madison groaned, “But Frozen is so blah, blah. It’s for little kids.”

Tracy said firmly, “Yes, but Kaylee is our guest, and it’s her favourite movie.” Honestly, she looked more like the girl’s babysitter than her mother. Even the hard lines that appeared with the slight frown vanished the moment Tracy smiled. She said, “You girls are going to have so much fun tonight. You’ve been wanting Kaylee to sleepover for a long time, right?”

I threw up my hands, “No fucking way am I staying here overnight. I’m getting the fuck out of here.”

Madison furrowed her brow and then looked at Tracy, “What’s wrong with Kaylee, Mommy?”

Tracy replied gently, “Just go and get the movie ready. I think Kaylee might be a little homesick is all.” Madison did as she was told and quickly disappeared into the other room, but not before giving me a worried look.

Ms. McDavid chuckled, “Miss Patterson, you’re free to go. The door isn’t locked.”

Tracy shook her head and frowned deeply, “Bronwyn, you’re being unnecessarily cruel. You know she’s not going to be able to leave.” The escape was a tease. No, this wasn’t like being fifteen and escaping from Hannah’s house in the pitch black through four backyards while every dog in the neighbourhood gave away my presence. Even though I knew Twin Falls, and it was far, far safer than the streets of Los Angeles, I knew that I wasn’t even going to be able to leave the porch. It wasn’t for a lack of wanting, but my mind was crippled by fear and what lurked in the darkness, snow and ice, was ratchetted by my imagination into a living, breathing horror movie.

Outside the door, lying in wait, was an army of spiders, caterpillars and other creepy crawlies. Beyond that, a frozen wasteland that would halt my escape. I don’t know why the bugs weren’t affected by the cold, but the terror wouldn’t allow them to freeze. No, instead, they would crawl all over my body as I lay prone, the spiders probing my mouth with their legs until they found the entrance and exited through my nose.

I began to shake.

Ms. McDavid replied, “Pardon me for obtaining a last bit of data. I wanted to see how far gone our Mr. Sullivan is. I would say that he’s tumbled rather headlong down the rabbit hole.”

Tracy glared at her colleague, “There’s other ways. Now the poor girl is terrified. This doesn’t have to be a painful process.”

Ms. McDavid sneered, “You wear that halo tightly amidst your hypocrisy.”

Tracy leaned down and tried to make eye contact with me, “Ryan. Look, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry. Mixing and administering that formula was the only way that they would let me go.”

I wanted to see horrible things happen to Tracy. A gauntlet of Saw-like traps to make her bleed, to break her mind, until she was ready to die. The moment the thoughts entered my mind, however, I began to shake even more. Eventually, this fear turned to anger, a deep red-hot rage.

“You think I fucking care about you being in prison? Mrs. Feinstein was right about you, and I should have listened to her- you’re just as much a fucking psycho as Travers and Daniels. But you’re worse because at least they didn’t pretend they wanted to help. Well, you should just erase me completely because I’m not going to stop fighting. There are still people working on the serum to try and reverse the effects. I’ll contact Eve and Greg again, and they’ll help me. As long as there’s one part- one iota of Ryan Sullivan left in me, you haven’t fucking won.”

Ms. McDavid, who was finding humour in this situation, said, “Do you want to tell her, or should I? No?” She barely waited a second before answering, “I’m sure your well-off parents will instill this in you, Kaylee. But money it makes the world go round. And there’s no money in aging. Anti-aging? That is a goldmine. From the very beginning, the research being done at the university hospital was to break the secret of the formula, but the intention was never to use it for aging purposes. No, the research team, with suddenly deepened pockets from the pharmaceutical cabal, was looking into replicating the original formula.”

I was the boxer- the MMA fighter, the person just getting my fucking ass kicked over and over as Tracy and Ms. McDavid continued to pile on the painful truth, they might as well have been metaphorically striking me repeatedly in the face, bruised, then bloodied, then reduced to a literal mush of broken bone and brain matter.

I recovered long enough to ask snidely, “Not smart enough to figure it out yourself?”

Tracy replied, “Not exactly. Dr. Travers safeguarded the formula. Yes, pieces of it were written down, but ultimately, the secret to actually making it was lost when Dr. Travers himself was regressed.”

Ms. McDavid smiled knowingly, “Herself.” Then, a deep frown crossed her face, “We won’t know for quite a while if she has retained that knowledge.” She brightened considerably, “Of course, we still have a small amount. Some of which was used on you.”

Tracy said, “It’s really not going to be a bad life at all, Ryan. Your parents are wonderful people. You’ll grow up as a girl, but you’ll be beautiful. The serum will see to that.”

I shook my head vehemently, my thick blonde braid bouncing in my peripheral vision. “You don’t fucking get it though. None of this was my choice. My life was shitty, but at least, it was mine. I was trying to turn things around. Even met a girl who wasn’t just some drunken mistake. Sure, the Pattersons are nice, but they aren’t Greg and Eve. You took all of that away from me, Tracy. And instead of you know…helping me- you fuck me over. Now I’m going to be stuck in the first fucking grade. Surrounded by Ava, and her little friends, having to jab myself every recess.”

I didn’t need a knife, or any of the innumerable sharp objects available in existence to wound Tracy. No, there was venom in my words that seeped into her and returned her posture to that of a sunken, shattered woman.

Tracy said, “Just give in, Ryan. It’ll be easier on you. I’ve seen totems used before, but never over such a lengthy period. You could be doing serious psychological damage to yourself the longer you fight.”

Ms. McDavid added, “We really are just thinking about your well-being. Now, go and watch your little movie while the grownups talk, sweetie.”

I shook my head, “No fucking way. Just call Kathryn, because if I stay, then I’m going to make things really fucking hard for you two. Madison is going to start asking a lot of questions. Uncomfortable questions.”

Ms. McDavid left the room without a word. Tracy looked at me sadly, “Don’t make us erase you, Ryan. That’s a choice you can make. Continue to know who you were in this new existence, or simply cease to be.”

A tiny smile appeared on my face, “But you can’t do it, can you? Too full of remorse for all the other lives you’ve destroyed, you can’t pull the trigger.”

“No, but I can.” Ms. McDavid had returned with a syringe, full of a familiar looking liquid.

Tracy shouted, “You were holding out on me. You said you didn’t have any left.” I couldn’t get over how much Tracy sounded like a college freshman or even just a teenager pissed at her friend for hiding the weed they had bought together. She didn’t seem particularly concerned about me.

Ms. McDavid said, “I’ve heard enough of this. She’s a liability, Tracy. Hold her down and do your goddamn job for once. Thirty years we’ve known each other, and your boy scout routine is still getting us in trouble.”

Tracy approached me and easily grabbed my wrists, pulling me toward her. She managed to pin my scrawny arms to the floor as Ms. McDavid grew closer with the syringe. I kicked my legs at her once she was in range, but she caught one of my feet and then maneuvered herself in a position to be able to essentially sit on me. With a grown woman sitting on my chest and my arms pinned, I was completely helpless. As I opened my mouth to scream for help, desperately hoping Madison would hear, a soft hand covered it.

Ms. McDavid said, “Shh. Shh. Just a little prick, and it will all be over. Tomorrow morning, you’ll just be a happy, normal little girl, Kaylee.”

I looked up at Tracy, my eyes pleading with her. She looked away, refusing to meet my gaze, but my orbs continued to burn into her, eventually forcing her to look. If the harsh words I had spoken about Tracy were true, my defiance would come to an end. However, if anything remained of the woman who had attempted to save Ashley and myself from the studio, maybe I had a small chance of leaving with my memories intact.

It all depended on which woman peered back at me.

The syringe inched closer. I was beginning to wonder if Ms. McDavid was enjoying herself, relishing the moment. From the look on her face, she was. To her, I was part of the mistake, the gross misuse of her life’s work. But was it a failure? She seemed to think so. The feeling of the soft material of the dress swishing at my thighs as I walked into the house told me otherwise. And the thick braid adorned with glow-in-the-dark snowflakes. To me, the serum worked as advertised.

I watched as the needle came within an inch of my skin. It would wipe out everything I knew. And everything that I was. There would be no one left to remember the first deer I shot- the welling of pride I felt as my dad firmly squeezed my shoulder. I would never have the opportunity to see if things worked out with Jessica. I’d never get to see Greg and Eve finally get married after he popped the question seventeen years later.

I would never be able to reconcile with my mom.

And I wouldn’t care because I wouldn’t know any of those people. The Pattersons would be confused at first, noticing how well-mannered I was, but that would soon be replaced with firm relief. They would simply think that I had accepted them, and Kaylee Patterson would live the life of a small-town Minnesota girl without ever knowing her true origins.

She would be happy- but it would be a false happiness wrought by the serum.

I continued to struggle against my human bonds, trying to wriggle out of the grips, but the bodyweight on top of me made it impossible to do more than wiggle my hips slightly and point my toes. My eyes closed, I waited for the inevitable.

The sound of breaking glass filled my ears, followed by a shriek.

“You bitch! We’ve only got three left from Travers’ final batch. Unless you’ve been hiding other ones too. I’ll see to it that you end up back in prison for your belligerence. And don’t you care what this has done to your career? It’s in shambles. You’ll be lucky to work out of a high school laboratory after this.”

Tracy said as she released the grip on my arms, “Bronwyn. I checked the others, and they are from an earlier batch. A failed batch. So unless you’ve got more, that was the last one.”

Ms. McDavid sprinted from the room. She wasn’t as young as Tracy, but her long, sleek legs bounded away, returning just as quickly, syringe in hand. Fear not only crept but thundered back into my mind, but I watched instead in horrid fascination as Ms. McDavid used the syringe to siphon the fallen liquid, before pricking herself with the needle.

It was then I realized why Ms. McDavid considered the serum a failure. It was tremendously addictive. I thought it was just Daniels at first, a woman absolutely obsessed with remaining youthful in a business that shunted wrinkled and greying women to bit parts and period-piece character actors. It made sense to me that her addled mind would allow her body to absorb more and more of the formula, even as she was regressed to a point where boys were only just becoming slightly less icky.

Ms. McDavid, however, was more concerned with her floundering career, and Tracy with saving her own skin. There was perhaps an element of desire to be younger, but the way Ms. McDavid plunged the needle into her arm, watching with glee as the liquid entered revealed that the serum would never be the fountain of youth. At least not with Dr. Travers’ specifications.

Middle-aged women who took the serum would soon find themselves looking like college co-eds, until the next dose, and the next- when they would be carded, then eventually carted back to high school.

I didn’t need a barbed wire revenge filled with painful torture. No, the ones who did this to me would eventually regress themselves to children like me. It was obvious that Tracy had more serum because she would have likely been on the floor trying to sop up the last vestiges of the source of her addiction.

That was the failure of the serum. It was obvious to me now. Why would Tracy have regressed herself beyond a point where she even looked like Ashley’s mother? Because she couldn’t help herself.

And, as I watched Ms. McDavid, a look of pure bliss on her face as the fluid coursed through her veins, I knew that the serum, which had stolen my body and eroded my mind, was also my revenge for what had been done to me.

***

“What you are suggesting simply isn’t possible, Mrs. Patterson. I think what is happening here is that Kaylee simply doesn’t want to leave her friends. I have seen it before in children her age. They will pretend to have forgotten everything they know. I think if you-“

Kathryn jumped in, her voice wavering, a thin line between calm and explosive anger. “With all due respect, Dr. Thomas, Kaylee is not pretending. She loves reading, but she hasn’t looked at a book in days.”

The middle-aged woman sitting across the table folded her hands and sighed gently. It was the reaction of a woman who had heard it all before. With my diminished capacity to read, I had failed the last test for entry into the enrichment program. The deep lines within the doctor’s face grew cavernous as she spoke. The careful bob that encased her silver-white hair did not help in that respect either as it pulled the skin back, making her look hawkish.

“I realize that you are an educator too, Mrs. Patterson, but you are also the girl’s mother. You are not seeing what is plainly in front of you. On the test, Kaylee scored in the absolute top percentile. It is so rare that only three other children in the state her age have received a similar result. I understand that this will be a difficult transition for her, but as I was attempting to say, you should explain it to her in a way that will make the enrichment program fun, yet also challenging. That is what she needs more than anything. To know that she will be challenged.”

Thomas shook his head and removed his glasses, carefully placing them on the table. He squinted across at the doctor. “She doesn’t really have many friends. There’s an older girl Madison, but something happened at their sleepover and that seems to be over. I don’t think she has any friends in her grade either. She’s just miserable though- we want to help her. I agree with my wife, I really don’t think she’s faking.”

Dr. Thomas replied, “I’ve only heard of this happening as a result of trauma. Usually physical. A severe brain injury. Could something have happened at the sleepover? Or in the school yard?” She turned to me, “Do you remember hitting your head really hard, dear? Have you been feeling dizzy or sick?”

Kathryn said with controlled rage, “Are you suggesting that I don’t know something horrible has happened to my daughter? I went to pick her up on Friday night after Madison’s mother said that she wanted to go home. She didn’t tell me anything else. Saturday morning, I watched her reading one of the books she got from Christmas with tears in her eyes.”

Dr. Thomas said, “I simply administer and analyze the results of the tests. It sounds like this may run deeper than simply not wanting to attend another school or switching classes. At this point, Mr. and Mrs. Patterson, I would suggest a child psychologist.”

“Kaylee can take the test again in sixty days. Have a good day.”

***

“That woman has a lot of nerve. As if she thought we didn’t bring her to a doctor already? That we could be so negligent!?”

Thomas, who carefully navigated the rough waters of Kathryn’s boiling rage, said matter-of-factly, “Maybe we should consider an MRI. A brain scan could tell us a lot about what is happening in her head. I’m worried about her too. And I never realized she pricked herself with pins before. The psychologist might be a good idea too. Maybe they could get her to open up.”

It probably didn’t help things that I had barely croaked out two words since returning from Madison’s. Day after day, I could feel the serum chipping away at what remained of my adult self. The desire to play had turned my thigh into a pocked reddened landscape. Being unable to read left me with only a few options for amusement- and while I could do my gymnastics routine, eventually I found myself bored and looking for something else to do. Something that practically screamed at me from the toy chest.

Kathryn replied, “I don’t know if it is self-harm or something else.” The woman looked back at me, “Can you tell us what’s wrong, sweetie? We’re really concerned about you. Why are you hurting yourself?”

I had hoped to hide the little pricks from my would-be parents, but the humiliating doctor visit ended that particular dream.

The memory wipe would never happen now, but I was still an adult trapped within the body of a child. In a way, it was worse. At least if I forgot, nothing would matter. Just a sweet innocent bliss.

No.

I couldn’t think that way. The war fought over many months against the serum would not end with me simply accepting that I was a child. I was an adult, and I wanted to be treated that way. No more getting my teeth brushed by a grown man or going to school with kids. I had lost my ability to read, but it would be the last part of Ryan Sullivan consumed by the serum. However, if I was going to have a chance to beat the serum, I was going to need help. The Pattersons had shown a willingness to help in the past, and they were at least starting to understand me beyond simply being a little girl. Fitzy was proof of that.

And just like that, the words tumbled from my mouth, a tiny crack in the dam, a mere sliver grew outward, fingers of stone elongating and widening until water seeped and then burst, unleashing the deluge.

I told them everything. Who I had been before entering the studio, the secret behind the serum- everything.

“And that’s why you can’t treat me like a kid any more. I can’t go to school, be surrounded by them all day long. There’s too much temptation. You can’t let me sleep in your bed when I get scared. Or anything like that. I know it seems impossible, but come on- last week I was reading fine. Madison’s mom, Tracy, she gave me another shot of the serum. It was supposed to stop the effects, but it made it worse. I need your help. I don’t want it to win. Please.”

Thomas pulled into an empty parking lot of a bar and stopped the car. It was early, just before supper, but there were a few cars parked outside. I felt a tinge of sadness, knowing that it would be years before I could set foot in the type of place that I had frequented so many times- where I had met Eve and countless girls. A place where I was the predator and king. A shiver, like when I forgot to zip up my snowsuit all the way on a particularly cold day, travelled through my body.

I would be the prey. The recipient of a hundred awful pick-up lines. The drunken mistake of some vulnerable boy who just broke up with his girlfriend and the ideal conquest of a multitude of egotistical assholes. Still, I would choose being an adult woman, even a teenage girl over a child.

Tracy had lied about everything else. Maybe she had kept the truth from me regarding a cure. If you could make someone younger, why not older? And the way Travers had explained it, gender was like flipping a switch. With their connections, the Pattersons could likely reach out to other universities and discover the truth. Was there any going back at this point though? Even with a cure, would I just be an extremely effeminate boy? I had come to love wearing dresses, having my hair done- I had even pondered asking Kathryn to get my ears pierced like Ava.

My mind was an insane jumble. Flitting back and forth, I barely noticed Kathryn and Thomas looking at me with grave concern.

Kathryn said, “Of course we’ll help you, sweetie.”

Thomas nodded in agreement, “It’ll be OK, Kaylee Bear. We’re here for you.”

I was getting mixed signals, like the girl that offers to buy you a drink and then tells you about how much she loves her boyfriend. It was fucked up. Did they want to help or not? But most importantly, did they believe me?

Thomas pulled out of the parking lot while Kathryn fidgeted on her phone.

“Here, there’s one in St. Paul, specializing in children who have suffered trauma.”

I seethed in my seat, realizing that the Pattersons probably didn’t believe a word I said. Kathryn looked back at me as Thomas drove and gave me a reassuring smile, “We love you, Kaylee. We’re going to do our best to understand what is happening to you and to help you through it.”

“Trust us.”

***

Fucking bullshit.

It was…all fucking- it was unfair! Why didn’t they believe me? What six year old talked like I did, even one exposed to a bunch of teamsters on a daily basis? They didn’t believe me because they just wanted sweet little Kaylee. I knew it. They were selfish.

They just wanted to help me become Kaylee through and through. My imagination ran wild with fears of shock therapy as I said my true name only to feel a mild electrical impulse. Soon enough, I would only have one name. The memories would be there still, but the doctors, they would tell me that the memories were hurting me. They would tell me to forget.

It would all begin at my appointment next week.

“Okay, Kaylee. It’s time for bed. Get into your PJs, please. And here, we forgot to brush your teeth.”

Kathryn looked at me expectantly, but I didn’t budge.

I said, “I told you that you can’t treat me like that.” She came at me with the Frozen-themed toothbrush, but I clenched my teeth down. The adult woman still managed to pry open my mouth despite my struggle. She said, “I know you are going through a lot of things right now, honey. But the bedtime routine is still going to happen. You don’t want cavities do you? And if you go to sleep too late, you’ll be tired at school tomorrow. And grumpy. And honey, when you are grumpy, it’s like dealing with a bear with a braid.” Apparently, she got her sense of humour from Thomas.

Kathryn said gently while holding me close, “We are going to do everything we can to get you through this. To figure what is wrong so you can be happy and healthy. I love you so much, Kaylee.”

I didn’t reciprocate, instead saying, “If you really love me, then you’ll believe me.”

The embrace was broken as Kathryn’s arms fell limply to her side. My words caught Kathryn off guard. Her features tightened, and she slowly stood up. “It’s complicated, Kaylee. I want to believe you, but it’s hard because it sounds like a story. Your teacher says you have a wonderful imagination. Is it possible that maybe you want to be this Ryan boy so you can play with the boys? I know they were mean to you. And being older? I know when I was a little girl that I always wanted to be bigger. I would say I can’t wait to be ten, then thirteen. Then sixteen. Then when you get older- you stop wishing that.” She said the last words with a wry smile.

She smiled, “It’s really common to feel that way, Kaylee. You’re not strange for wanting to be older. Or even for wanting to be a boy. There are people out there who feel that way. Boys who grew up as boys, but who want to be girls. And the other way around. I just think you’re confused right now because there’s so much going on, and so much of it you don’t have any control over. Let’s go and see the doctor next week and hopefully you’ll start to feel better.”

And then, Kathryn channelled Mrs. Feinstein, “For now though, it’s time for bed sleepy-head.”

Kathryn had broken everything down in a completely logical manner, but to my brain, it didn’t matter. I wasn’t getting my way and that took precedent.

“You know I’m never going to call you mom or mommy. Never. Or Thomas. You guys aren’t my parents and you never will be. I hate you.” I said it matter-of-factly, yet with the intent to deeply pierce the woman’s heart, leave her wounded.

My words had the desired effect and Kathryn’s firm yet pleasant demeanour collapsed. Forget the fact that I called out for mommy with each bad dream- no that didn’t count. It wasn’t done out of love but fear. I just wanted to be comforted, essentially using her to wash away the fear in a warm embrace.

And then, in a voice completely devoid of feeling, Kathryn said, “Go to bed, Kaylee. We can talk more about this in the morning.” I knew that she was eating her feelings and that she would probably be bawling her eyes out, telling Thomas what a failure she was as a mother.

She closed the door without saying good night. My cheek normally wet from a kiss was dry. I had won, but it was a hollow victory that left me feeling worse.

I sat in the dark, hugging the plush Elsa doll against my chest and moments later, my cheek was wet.

***

The dim glow of the dying CRT monitor illuminated the kitchen, but seconds later, the entire kitchen was bathed in fluorescent. I didn’t give a fuck about being caught at this point. Maybe they would actually believe me. Was I terrified of the dark or did I want my presence downstairs in the middle of the night to be all the more obvious?

If the Pattersons didn’t believe me, then I had to get out of here. It would put Greg and Eve in danger, but I refused to lose myself and become the child that the serum, and, ultimately, the Pattersons wanted. I booted up my e-mail, thankful that I could at least still remember and spell my username and password. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to read any of Eve’s many e-mails, at least not quickly and especially if they had words with multiple syllables, but I could still write.

Sort of.

I began slowly tapping at the keyboard, watching as letters jumbled together.

“Eve i no it haz been a long time.”

No.

It was getting worse.

“Wans i got the searum i can’t’ reed.”

With each keystroke, I felt my heart sink further into my chest. Fuck, I was as stupid as Ava. It hadn’t even been this bad a few days ago. I had struggled, but now, I knew the words I wanted to say, but I couldn’t see them on the paper any longer. They appeared on the page completely phonetically. And because I had so much trouble spelling the words, I was forgetting basic sentence structure, or even what versions to use of simple words.

“Or rite good. Ther is so much i want to say but im so scard. You and greg are my ownly frens. I told the patersons but they don’t’ belief me. im loosing myself mor evryday.. Pleaz come too twin fals too safe me.”

Stupid. I was so stupid. So fucking stupid.

“I opolujise if this gets you in trubble but i no i don’t’ have much time leftt. Wqedjhsdjfhsdjkfvhjdvhk

I was crying as my hand moved the cursor to delete the evidence of my humiliating breakdown. Once removed a shaky hand continued typing.

“sum tims i thnk when i leaved with you. i waz vry happy. I wan’t’ too feel like that again.”

I was losing my place in the message, getting sidetracked. I wasn’t making any sense. Eve and Greg, they would think there was nothing left to save. I couldn’t send the message.

My cursor hovered over the send button.

I would have to find another way to contact them. Maybe I could dictate it? An audio message sent in an attachment? Why the fuck hadn’t I thought of that before?

Because you’re just a stupid little girl. Stupid, stupid little girl.

How could I record anything without a webcam? Did the ancient Dell have a built-in microphone or something? While I had options to avoid revealing just how far I had fallen to Eve and Greg, I began to seriously doubt that I could do anything.

I clicked on a Facebook status update, recognizing the icon. I missed those two idiots. A lot. There was Eve posing in front of a mirror, sticking out her belly. A rather substantial belly. Either she was into some fetish shit where she was getting fat as fuck or…I realized that I had seen the type of picture before. The beaming smile told the full story as did the stretchy material of the jeans that encased a globular belly that wasn’t exactly proportional to the rest of her. Was I supposed to be happy for them? No, all I could think about was how the baby would get so much more attention than me. Oh fuck, what was I thinking? Was I that far gone that I was worried about sharing Greg and Eve with a baby? The enormity of the situation caused my body to simply collapse.

I leaned forward and lay my head on the keyboard, crying softly into the keys.

A few minutes later, I closed the browser, never sending the e-mail. I scrambled up the stairs and moments later, I crept into bed with Kathryn and Thomas.

***

I had an hour before Kathryn began the bedtime routine. It was interminably long. I had my screen-time privileges, but I was relegated to G movies and KIDS Netflix. Not that I could have watched something even remotely scary. I still had nightmares about the scene in Goodfellas with the meat hooks.

A fifteen minute recess was one thing, but a full hour of time- one I used to fill with Sherlock Holmes novels, it was too much. I played with Fitzy, did my gymnastics routine, but my mind ached to fill the void of boredom that descended after. Alone in my room, surrounded by new toys from Christmas and toys I had never even really looked at- I was seriously tempted.

It was like a drug- a sweet, temporary release into a world where I didn’t worry about who I was or what I was becoming. It hadn’t always been like that. In the studio with Ashley, I was able to actually hold toys in my hands without becoming some glitter-addled zombie. I guessed it had to do with the malleable period- outside of that the serum grew balls and really started to fuck around with a person.

A knock at the door.

“Kaylee, honey? Can we talk?

I replied, “Do I have a choice?” I was actually happy that she had come. Maybe she would kill some of the remaining hour before bed.

Kathryn entered the room tentatively, like Greg when I took him to a bar. He used to follow me around like a lost puppy, acting like a pathetic cock blocker. Until I could get a few beers in him, then at least he would start to open up. I was surprised, however, to see Thomas enter too.

Kathryn said, “We’re sorry we didn’t believe you.”

I blinked slowly, eyeing Kathryn and Thomas as if I was in an alternate universe, or one simply dreamed up from my own furtive imagination.

Thomas said, “We talked to your friends today. Eve and Greg. We saw all the e-mails. And your phone. Most six-year olds don’t know how to change the tire on a car. The serum too, and how you’ve lost the ability to read and write properly. We’re deeply sorry. It was just so unbelievable that something like that could actually happen.”

I shook my head, “What does this mean? That you actually believe everything? Everything that’s happened?”

Thomas said, “Yes, Kaylee.”

Kathryn added, “Ryan.”

I sat on my bed, surrounded by the items of my burgeoning childhood, plush dolls, teddy bears and the Frozen-themed comforter. I asked, dumbstruck. “But why now? And what made you decide to call Eve and Greg?”

Thomas said, “Well. We knew you had been on the computer. Your draft e-mail was still there when I opened up the browser.”

Fuck. If I had actually sent the e-mail, would they ever have bothered to check? Just brought me to doctor next week to fix me and looked back?

Kathryn sat on the bed, but instead of taking my hand as she normally would have, she simply placed hers on the bed. An invitation. She said, “You know that we love you. Honestly. But we are giving you a choice. If you want to live with Greg and Eve, we’ll do everything we can to help you, including hiring the best lawyer we can to convince a judge that your friends are the best people to raise you.”

Thomas said, “If you want to stay with us, well we’ll be your parents. But we’ll respect you and who you are. We will do what we can to keep you out of school and away from kids your age. And if you want, you can be Ryan. We’ll support you in this. And when the time comes in a few years, and you want to be Ryan in body too. We’ll help with the transition.”

Kathryn smiled sadly, “It’s terrible what has happened to you. The serum has stripped away these choices. It stole your life. But we are going to help you through this. And we are going to give you these choices back.”

Was it sad that my first impulse was to jump into Kathryn and Thomas’ arms? But that is exactly what happened. I threw myself into their arms the same way I had on Christmas morning when Fitzy came into my life and hugged them fiercely.

Tears quickly graced my cheeks, an occurrence that was becoming more and more common, but I didn’t mind.

“Um. I’ll think about it. And get back to you. You know about what I want to do.”

Kathryn smiled, “Of course, sweetie. It’s not an easy decision.” The smile fell from her face, “Sorry. I don’t- do we call you, Ryan?”

I shrugged my shoulders and then sat back in the bed, “I-I’m not sure.”

***

“I don’t think she wants to see you.”

“She probably doesn’t. But I have some information for her that she will want.”

Kathryn shook her head, “How could you do that to all those people? And you took their memories? Just like you were going to take Ryan’s. You’re a monster.”

Tracy sighed heavily, “You’re right. But I’m not here because I want to erase Ryan. Or for any other reason other than to give some information that will help him.”

Thomas, now removing his claws, said, “You just want to feel better about what you did to all those people. And he told us how you tricked him into taking the serum again.”

I sat at the top of the stairs listening to the exchange. Thomas and Kathryn had started calling me Ryan, using masculine pronouns, but it felt strange. Like it didn’t fit. I peeked at Tracy, who looked the part of a fashionable Twin Falls woman, silk blouse and loose flowing skirt, but her hair was dishevelled, a messy ponytail replacing her normally free-flowing straightened locks. The clothing was wrinkled. She looked like the preppy during the walk of shame.

Tracy said, “It was for the best. Ryan was never going to be happy that way.”

Kathryn said, “That was not your decision to make.”

Tracy replied, “No, and it was a hard decision, but I stand by it. Putting Ryan at the same level as children his age will allow him to integrate better. To accept his fate.”

Thomas practically growled, “You’re disgusting. You took away years of schooling. Don’t think that this is over. We have Ryan’s phone. We can share Dr. Travers’ research with every university in the country. They’ll cure him. ” It was the angriest I had ever heard him.

Tracy said, “And turn your would-be daughter into a science experiment? Because that is exactly what will happen. He’ll be an oddity. A freak. At least I was setting him up for some sense of normalcy. By giving him these choices, you are putting him at risk if you bring this public.”

Thomas snarled, “I think it’s time for you to go.”

Tracy sighed heavily, “I know that you disagree with my methods. But believe me, this was best for him. And as for the cure, don’t you think I’ve been looking for one? Do you think I want to be an elite world-renowned scientist who looks like a college freshman? To never be taken seriously? You are going down a path that will just lead to a lifetime of therapy for your daughter. I’ve seen it.”

I crept down the stairs, “I knew it. I knew there was a cure. You lied about everything else.”

Tracy smiled, “Ryan.”

I shook my head, “In the studio, you said that you were going to do everything you could to help Ashley and me. That you were going to help find a cure. But that was all bullshit wasn’t it? You already knew.”

Tracy nodded, “Yes, I knew about the cure. But, I did want to get you away from Ms. Daniels though. That was very real. She was a madwoman, but it didn’t take much convincing for her to take more and more of the serum. A wrinkle here- an unflattering top. The woman was as a mad as she was vain, grasping at her fleeting youth.”

I asked, “So what, does it turn your hair white? Or make you some backstabbing bitch?”

Tracy replied, “All of the mice who had been regressed by the serum and who were given the supposed cure gradually returned to their adult stage, but they showed a complete lack of interest in reproduction.”

I smirked, “OK. So I’d be adult Kaylee with no interest in fucking guys. Sounds pretty good to me.”

Tracy shook her head, “You don’t understand. You would never want to fall in love either. You’d be an adult, but your mind would be- your sexuality would be permanently delayed. Something about artificially aging the body and mind seems to have an adverse effect on the development process. It’s like- you can’t induce puberty unnaturally, the thoughts, the experiences and memories that come from going through that time, it has to happen, and if it doesn’t, well the body’s chemistry doesn’t seem to catch up. Most of the mice barely lasted a few months like that. But-”

“Since your parents seem to be all about choice. Before I leave town, I’ll give you the prototype of the cure. Take it at your own risk. Anyway, I came here to tell you, that you may think that I completely ruined your life. But that last dose of the serum I gave you, it actually halted the process. The one that has spent the better part of a year trying to turn you into Kaylee from the pages of the Hermie scripts. It doesn’t mean the damage will be reversed, but you aren’t going to be pushed in that direction any longer. It will be your choice to make.”

Kathryn pointed at the door, “Get out of here, and if you ever come close to my daughter again, you’ll regret it. And don’t think that means I am going to call the police.”

Thomas said, “Wait what about her gender? Can Ryan be a boy? Is there a cure for that too?”

Tracy replied, “No. The gender changes are relatively new to the Genome Project. It was done as a means to deal with the disparity in male subjects versus female subjects amongst the homeless. The same way with the memories.”

I asked, “And what about Ashley and her memories?”

Tracy said, “I know you probably don’t believe me, but I will be working on restoring her memories. I’m leaving Twin Falls. And McDavid- the dose she took, which was meant for a child didn’t completely wipe her away. She thinks that she’s the new tenth grade science teacher. I would expect the unit on genetics and DNA will be vastly expanded. And I figure she should be useful to society for once in her life.”

Kathryn said, “What a saint you are. And what about Ashley? What makes you deserving of being her mother?”

Tracy lowered her head, “I’m not. By any means. But I can’t restore her memories if I’m not near her.”

Tracy opened the door, quickly buttoning her coat, and before stepping out into the frigid night, she said, “You’ve got wonderful people here who genuinely love you. Be their daughter. You’ll be happier that way. Enjoy your second childhood. Don’t look at it like a defeat, but an opportunity to be better than Ryan Sullivan. To make something of yourself.”

I glared at the woman and said, “Take care of Ashley.”

Tracy smiled wearily, “I will.”

“I’ll put the cure in the mailbox tomorrow morning on my way out of town.”

***

“You can stay here as an adult too if you like. For as long as you need to.”

I smiled awkwardly, “Um. Thanks. It might be a bit weird though.”

A vial of what looked like cough syrup sat on the kitchen table.

I said, “Knowing Tracy, this will probably erase my memory. Maybe even make me younger.”

Kathryn shrugged lightly, “I haven’t known her for very long, but you could be right.” Kathryn looked down at her phone for the third time during dinner. It was something she never did.

“Thomas late?”

Kathryn nodded, “Another grant meeting. It’s nearing year end, so there’s been a lot of meetings. But they are also calling for freezing rain. He’ll take his time.”

I nodded with a smile, “Yeah. Probably get here around midnight with how slow he drives.”

Kathryn smirked, “You’re a bad influence on him. Ever since you came into our lives, he drives ten over the speed limit now.”

I grinned, “Oh, no. What a reckless fucking driver.”

Kathryn said, “Seriously, though. Whatever you decide, we’ll support you.”

I laughed, “You sound like that parent whose kid tells them he wants to be a race car driver or like a professional wrestler.”

The change in tone with Kathryn from parent to friend was almost unnerving. I kept expecting her to tell me to go to bed or to clean up after myself. Well, she would probably still have to remind about that sometimes. She was going to be that mom who was tough as fucking nails- refusing to be friends with her kid, and then be that friend, maybe even best friend down the road. She talked to me like an adult. There was no honey-sweetie or Kaylee Bear. Just Ryan.

Since the revelation, however, I still couldn’t get over how strange I felt to have someone use my real name. Was it an after effect of the serum? Had it just been too long? I had already basically accepted the whole being a girl thing. So, it felt…

Like I was moving backwards. Or running back to something that didn’t feel exactly real anymore. Here, I had people who were fully supportive of my decision either way, and I wasn’t in position to be able to say, “Yeah I want to transition when I am old enough.”

And what about my ability to read and write? Would it be restored from taking the cure? And could I live with myself, knowing that I would get to close to people and never want to love them? It would never go beyond the love a six year old can give to her parents or dog.

Kathryn said, “If you don’t take it though, and you decide to stay, we’ll have to have a chat. You know lay some ground rules. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure we can keep you out of school if your reading ability stays like that. At this point, your teacher is talking about remedial classes.”

Fuck. Like the kind Ava took? The one where the nice brown-haired lady took her to this little room and she came back with a sticker on her shirt every Tuesday and Thursday.

“But there is a big push to also have you visit a child psychologist. It’s not going to be nearly as easy to hide in Twin Falls as it was in LA either.”

I frowned, “Are you saying I should go live with Greg and Eve? Even if I don’t decide to take the cure?”

Kathryn shook her head frantically, “No! No. Not at all, sweet- no, I’m not saying that at all. We want you to be happy though, and safe.”

I sighed heavily, “How much did Eve tell you? Or was it Agatha?”

Kathryn said, “It’s not that we don’t trust you staying home by yourself. But there are laws. And they are stricter in Minnesota than California.”

I responded, “You’re like a doctor who says I can save your life and then just gives you a bed in a hospital without any care. You can’t say that you will support me without backing it up.”

Kathryn frowned, “I’m just trying to be honest with you, Ryan. I thought you’d appreciate it. We have to look at this realistically. If we have to, we’ll move to St. Paul or Minneapolis if it means keeping you safe and your adult mind intact. But we can’t think for a moment that we can stay here in Twin Falls with you not attending school and not have people ask questions. Lots of uncomfortable questions.”

I nodded, “Then I should just take the cure. And fuck it. If Tracy screwed me over, well it’ll be too late anyway. And maybe you’ll have the baby you always wanted.”

Kathryn looked down at her phone again, and then right back to me, “Don’t talk like that. Do you really want to give up love that way though? I know you were young, but didn’t you ever experience? I mean. You had girlfriends? There were a lot of numbers in your-”

I cleared my throat, “The only one that mattered was Hannah. And maybe this other girl, but I’ll never know now. And I don’t know. It’s just-“

Kathryn’s phone vibrated, and she practically flung it off the table trying to catch it.

“Thomas is leaving now, so we’ve got some time. Do you want to watch a movie or something?”

I nodded my head rapidly and blurted out, “Frozen?”

Kathryn raised a brow, and I sunk into my seat, “Well, I was thinking something else. But we can if you want.”

I replied, “Yeah. I didn’t mean that at all. Anything but that.”

We settled into some fluffy rom-com. It was mindless, but it also wouldn’t give me nightmares for weeks either. Kathryn had previously been so obsessed with ensuring everything I consumed was kid-friendly, it was actually refreshing to sit down with her and watch something without a hard ‘G’ rating.

The main character, who always seemed like she was in a hurry, had these big, jangling hoops earrings, which I proceeded to stare at for most of the movie. My mind went to the little studs in Ava’s ears that sparkled under the lights in the gymnasium. Did I still need to ask Kathryn? Or did I just tell her, “Hey, drive me to the mall so I can get my ears pierced.” I would probably be more polite than that. Fuck, the Pattersons were really rubbing off on me.

As the movie ended, Thomas still wasn’t home. The freezing rain had stopped, but the roads were still treacherous. Think driving your car down an uneven skating rink.

“Hey, I’m sure he’s fine, you know that stuff is fucking terrible to drive in. I remember coming back from a hunting trip with my dad. We were living in North Dakota, surrounded by all these missile silos. Anyway, my dad, who is basically a race car driver compared to Thomas, slowed the fuck down. Like I’ve seen people walk faster than we were going. We slid home.”

I smiled, “Plus, Thomas is a really careful driver. I mean he’ll be home in like three hours- but-“

Kathryn smiled, but it was strained. She interjected. “I know. I’m more worried about the other people on the road.”

Kathryn attacked her phone with her fingers, texting at blistering speed. I rarely saw her flustered in this way, and it was usually something I had done to knock her off her game. Over the next hour, I watched as Kathryn returned to her phone multiple times, barely paying attention to the next movie we watched.

To be honest, I was fucking worried too. Thomas was a really good guy with a terrible sense of humour.

Eventually, Kathryn completely stopped paying attention to the movie. The scene reminded me of pretty much every single fucking time my dad went overseas, but Kathryn was way stronger than my mom. Usually.

There she was, however, staring at her phone the same way my mom stared at the TV screen. It happened every time there was news of American casualties. She would flip through the 24 hour stations, despite knowing that they would never announce the names without contacting the families first. To me, she was a fucking pussy. My dad told me to be strong, that it was a part of life, especially when you were a soldier.

I remember being eight years old and consoling my mom after she watched a report about a roadside bomb. Eight fucking years old. I had to tell her to be strong. How was I supposed to respect her? Or anyone who was basically an emotional wreck?

Kathryn was a Feinstein- ice water in the veins and iron will, yet I could see the terror in her face, the way she couldn’t find even an inch of comfortable space on the couch.

“I know I’m being silly. He’s probably fine.”

I nodded, and then hugged my legs closer to my body. My mind hadn’t even registered that I had adopted the pose a few minutes ago, but it was clear I was as worried as my would-be mother. Seconds later, Kathryn’s fear-filled mask broke into tears. Unlike my mother, however, she covered her face, seemingly ashamed of her outburst.

Instead of turning away in disgust, I crept closer to her and proceeded to lean against Kathryn’s shoulder. I was too small for her to actually cry on my shoulder, but she seemed to appreciate the contact as she removed her hands from her face. She had comforted me so many times as I lay shivering in her bed, it really was the least I could do.

“Greg told me about the pin you carry around. It was your dad’s. I guess you- did this a lot when you were a kid? I’m sorry- you know I’m not usually like this.”

I swallowed hard, “Not- not like I should have. I was kind of an asshole with my mom. She was really emotional. And I wasn’t there for her.”

Kathryn had demonstrated that you can still be strong, but also vulnerable at times. There was nothing wrong with revealing your fears to those who loved you. They weren’t going to take that information and devise a plan to fuck you over.

They weren’t going to call you a pussy.

I heard the gentle squealing of brakes that needed to be changed. Moments later, headlights filled the living room. Fitzy started barking and made his way toward the front door with me in close pursuit.

The bleary-eyed man who entered was accosted by a little blonde haired girl with a thick braid. She was seemingly attached to his right leg as he tried to enter the door from the cold. Tears were in her eyes as she crushed her face against his thigh. He hobbled into the room and then pulled the girl into his arms, letting her cry on his shoulder.

Letting me cry on his shoulder.

Kathryn said with a hint of irritation yet also relief, “Thomas, why didn’t answer your phone?”

He replied sheepishly, “It died. It was a skating rink out there. I mean literally. I saw kids skating on the road playing hockey. They were moving faster than my car. I’m sorry for making you worry. I should have brought the extra charger.”

Thomas maintained the hug, and while it should have felt weird. Alien, especially with the fact that Thomas knew who I actually was, it didn’t seem to matter.

I leaned in and whispered, “D-Daddy, I’m glad you’re OK.”

The man looked at me in shock, and then in an instant, his expression changed to absolute joy.

***

“Are you sure about this? You could keep it you know. Just in case.”

I held the vial, uncorked, over the sink as Kathryn watched. Thomas was only a few steps away.

“I don’t want to end up an emotionless prick- I played that part already. I know that’s not exactly what will happen, but I don’t think life is worth it if there’s never a chance to fall in love, to experience a relationship that grows into love.”

I sighed heavily, “And I don’t want to be alone.”

Kathryn smiled gently, “Well you wouldn’t be alone. And you would have us and Greg and Eve if that is the direction you wanted to go. I’m sure you would have plenty of friends, but I understand how having your development stunted is a deciding factor, but you know what that means, right?”

I nodded slowly as I watched the liquid drain down the sink.

“The writing has been on the wall for a long time. Even if Tracy is telling the truth, that the last dose I got actually stopped the serum, the damage is done. I hate to admit this, and it’s nothing against you guys, I mean you’ve been really great. A bit strict, OK actually really strict-“

Thomas said, “Don’t blame me, she’s a Feinstein. She’s a bad influence on me.”

Kathryn leaned down and gently squeezed my shoulder.

“I can’t fucking read or write properly. You have no idea how much I want to watch Frozen right now. Like sometimes it’s all I can think about, especially in that excruciating hour before bed time. Even though I keep telling myself that it’s not true, a part of me believes that Santa is real. And I walked out into traffic on Christmas Eve. Yeah I did. There’s no denying that. I’ll probably do it again.”

“It’s like I think- I think I need parents. But I also kind of- I want them too. Every time you come to get me from gymnastics, it’s like I want to scream your name. I want you to watch me on the balance beam, and to smile and cheer. And be proud of me. It feels like I have this hole inside of me that desperately needs that.”

“Beyond that too. I-I like spending time together. I don’t think even the serum could force the happiness I feel when you braid my hair. Or the comfort I feel when you and Thomas snuggle with me after a nightmare. That’s not something that can be recreated by a chemical concoction. Even just watching the movie tonight or throwing the ball around with Thomas. I-I want that.”

Thomas said, “You know we can’t, I mean you’re not an adult-“

I nodded, “I know what it means, and I’m ready for that. I know what comes with the territory. You’ll have to be tough sometimes. You wouldn’t be doing your job if you weren’t. And I’m not exactly able to reason that well anymore, so I’ll need it. Now that you mention it though, there are definitely some things that will have to change though.”

I said, “I’m fucking brushing my own teeth. Even with everything else, that’s still humiliating. I mean if I miss a spot you can jump in, but fuck. I’m sure I’ll be able to think of some other stuff too.”

Kathryn said, “On one condition. You work to curb that mouth you’ve got.”

I nodded, “Yeah. I’ll try. And can you…like keep talking to me like this? I get that you won’t be able to all the time, but I feel like before you were talking to me like a stupid kid. All that bullshit about the flowers and growing. It was insulting. Just talk to me like a human being. Plus, I’m always going to understand stuff like that better than any kid my age.”

Thomas said, “Well to be fair, we thought you were actually six.”

I shook my head, “Yeah I know, but believe me. Kids hate it. Like it’s patronizing as hell. Just be straight. If Fitzy runs away or gets hit by a car, you’re going to tell me the truth. Not some bullshit about going to a farm upstate.”

Kathryn raised a brow, “Were we really that bad?”

I smirked, “You said that if I didn’t get enough rest that I would never grow. Like I would be the same size my entire life. Not cool.”

Kathryn shook her head, “That’s not what I meant. More like, you might not reach your full po- OK, yeah sorry about that. I was trying to trick you into going to bed.”

Thomas asked, “And what about your name?”

I replied, “Kaylee. It may have been the name given to me by Ms. Daniels, but I feel like, I want to take it, and make it mine. Ryan just doesn’t feel right any longer. It doesn’t fit. I mean I still know who I am, and who I was. I’m never going to forget that, and Ryan is still going to be part of me, but Kaylee is there too.”

“And she’s me. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be Kaylee from the pages of the script. Yeah I like to wear dresses, and I love gymnastics. And Frozen is the fucking shit. But I’m not going to let it define me either. I still want to take karate. And snowboarding looks pretty fun. I’m not just going to be this little wallflower who hides in the shadows and waits for the world to happen around her. I want those bastards to know that yeah I’m Kaylee, but I’m not their creation.”

“So, if you guys are cool with that. I mean not that you have a choice,” I grinned and then said softly, “I’m willing too. To you know try some little girl things. See if I like them. No promises though.”

My parents approached me, brought me into their arms and hugged me.

I never wanted them to let me go.

Fin



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