ABDL Story Forum

2 - Strawberry Fields

“I don’t know,” Renai typed, a pencil hanging from the side of her mouth, pitted and soggy from her teeth. “It’s a little weird.” As she hit send, she raised her arms over her head in a spine-cracking stretch. It had been a long day, even longer than she’d originally thought when she glanced down at the clock on her computer’s taskbar with a wince. Only a few more hours until she needed to be getting up to go to work.

Her real work, not this silly thing she was stressing about. She’d spent far too much time on it to begin with, and now, for no real reason, she was staying up much later than she should, debating about it. The main part of that little job was already done and over with, and she’d been paid. That should be the important part, yet she still found herself over-thinking it.

The box on her screen flashed, attracting her eyes over to it from the clock, which, much as she wished it wouldn’t, just kept making it later. “It’s still an example of your work,” S@mI@m’s words read. “And it really is very good.”

“You always say that,” she replied with a sigh, but she knew it was true. Weird or not, she’d pushed herself with this one, even though she wasn’t sure why she’d taken it so seriously. Probably because she’d been getting so few commissions lately, she decided. She felt the need to prove, at least to herself, that she still had a little talent.

“At any rate, it’s harmless. Weird, but harmless.”

She couldn’t argue with that. It was the reason she’d accepted it in the first place, while she’d rejected other similarly… specialized… assignments in the past. She waffled for another moment or two, then hit the upload button. She typed in her good nights, then took the few steps over to her bed, flopping down to attempt to get as much sleep as she could manage in the short time she had to do so.

Renai gritted her teeth, shooting a dirty look behind her at the district manager breathing down her neck. The other woman, Beth, looked nice enough, her bushy brown hair giving her an air of innocence, in a way - Renai thought it was just because she seemed like the sort of person she’d have been friends with in high school - yet every time she came to the store, Renai inevitably wanted to kill her before the day was through, in as painful a way as possible. There was a box cutter in a drawer just a few feet away…

Instead, she forced herself to ask the old man in front of her computer, “Do you know about our Superstar Rewards program?” for the hundredth time. That, in and of itself, might not have been so bad, except that she knew exactly how the rest of the conversation was going to go.

He’d say yes, but he wasn’t interested. She’d force a bigger smile onto her face and launch into the sales pitch, all for Beth’s benefit. The man was in there probably once a week, and Renai had grown confident enough that he wasn’t going to join that she didn’t bother with the whole song and dance. Her manager understood, her co-workers understood, everyone understood, but Beth. Renai couldn’t blame her, if she thought about it. It was Beth’s job to make sure her stores maintained their quota of program sales, or it was ultimately her head on the chopping block.

She could blame Beth for not listening to her, or anyone else in the store, when she tried to tell her that a lot of their regular customers simply didn’t want the program, and they all knew it. She could see Beth’s side of it, too, of course - she had no way of knowing whether that was true, or if all the workers were just lazy and didn’t want to do that part of their job - but she still felt herself, mentally anyway, reaching for that box cutter every time she visited their store.

He said no, to the surprise of no one. She smiled and told him that was all right and rang him out, then logged out of her computer, announcing that she was taking her lunch. She brushed past Beth and made her way out into the main floor of the mall, a little shocked, as always, at how many people she almost immediately ran into. She got there so early, when the only other people there were workers at other stores and a few janitors, it seemed unreal to see the corridor jammed with so many other bodies.

She wasn’t actually hungry, but she headed toward the food court anyway, only because the fountain was there. As fountains went, it was nothing impressive, just a trio of weak jets in the middle of a pool of stagnant water, and yet it made her feel peaceful, somehow. More-so than anywhere else in the mall, at any rate.

It was still relatively early for lunch, so the food court - and more importantly, the bench in front of the fountain surveying the tables in between the rows of vendors - was mostly empty. She slouched down on one corner of the bench, resting her head against the stone wall behind her, staring over at the workers readying for the lunch crowd. That had to suck so much worse than her job, she mused, slaving away near a hot stove, knowing that rush was coming. It was only on Tuesdays, when they got in their new releases, that her store was really swamped, and even that didn’t happen every week, just when there was some big movie that had been released. She couldn’t imagine having to put up with that every day.

Strangely, that thought didn’t cheer her up as much as she might have hoped. Sighing, she reached into her pocket and pulled out her phone to see if she’d gotten any texts while she’d been working.

Her eyes widened as she saw the icon indicating she had and, more importantly, the number beside it indicating how many. Was it spam? Or some kind of joke? Or someone trying to reach her to tell her something terrible had happened? She was almost afraid to investigate further, yet if she didn’t, she knew it would drive her crazy for the rest of the day. She clicked the icon to take her to the text screen, unsure what to expect, or what to hope for.

Sure enough, they all seemed to have come from the same source, which was, to her surprise, her artwork site. It was set up to text her whenever somebody left a comment, and apparently quite a few people had done just that. A smile crossed her face, a happy tear flowing from the corner of one eye. She was pretty sure that, over the entire life of her site, she’d never had this many comments. A lot of times she assumed that she’d never even had that many visitors. Had it finally happened? Had she been discovered?

And then she remembered the picture she’d put up the night before. Her face fell, her stomach twisting inside her. It had seemed harmless enough, but it wasn’t really, was it? She’d known from the start that it wasn’t a normal request. She’d never imagined it would offend so many people, though. Did that mean something was wrong with her, that it hadn’t bothered her? That she’d agreed to do it in the first place? What if this was the final straw that finally killed off her already dying stream of commissions?

She shut off her phone and shoved it in her pocket, determined not to think about it any more, not until she was back home and could actually try to do a little damage control. This was just what she’d needed, she fumed inwardly, one more thing to stress about that day. Even though she’d given up soda months ago, she marched up to one of the vendors and ordered one to carry with her as she walked through the mall, done with trying to calm herself with the fountain, though she found herself chewing on the straw more than actually drinking from it.

Although she’d planned not to think about the situation, by the time she got home that night she had still managed to write out and revise her statement of apology in her mind several times. She didn’t know how much good it would do, as she was sure most of the replied were just people saying how horrible and disgusting it was, and that they’d never visit her site again, but she knew she’d have to do something.

S@m was online when she logged onto her computer, sitting down at front of her desk with a bowl of reheated Chinese. Her phone was sitting on her desk, still off, and she hadn’t dared to open her browser yet. She’d set her artwork site as her homepage, mostly since that let her know right away if someone had commented and she had somehow missed the alert on her phone. She knew that made her something of an attention whore, but she couldn’t deny that it was nice to know somebody else had seen her work, and, in theory, appreciated it. After all the time she put into it, wasn’t that the least she could expect in return?

“How bad is it?” she typed as her greeting.

S@m was silent for a minute, giving her enough time to expect the worst, and think about how, if she was quick enough, she might be able to redirect her browser to another page before hers loaded, so she wouldn’t have to look at it. Then she could reset her homepage… Maybe she’d start up another site somewhere else, and just abandon that one. She couldn’t imagine giving up her hobby completely, or just doing it for herself, as much as it felt like that was what she was doing most of the time.

“You haven’t looked yet?” S@m answered finally. A moment later, that continued with, “You really should. I promise, it isn’t bad.”

Mentally, Renai added a ‘that’ into the last sentence, then changed it to, ‘all’. S@m was nice and all, just overly optimistic about some things. Among all of the hate, the original commissioner might have replied and said they liked it, anyway, which was, she was sure, the only part of it that could be considered not bad.

“Do you think I could change my style enough that if I started another site, nobody would know it was me?”

She knew she was acting stupid, though she did hope for a slightly more helpful response than, “I don’t think enough people knew who you were before for it to really matter =P.” She pouted to herself, ignoring the chat and letting herself get more absorbed in eating her supper. When she looked back up, those words had been joined by, “Come on, you know I’m joking. Besides, they know who you are now.”

That didn’t comfort her at all. “This is all your fault,” she fumed. “I never should have let you talk me into posting that dumb picture.”

“You still haven’t checked your page? Stop being a chicken and just do it.”

There were times Renai wasn’t sure why she chatted with S@m, and this was one of them. She knew it was especially thin-skinned of her, but she still didn’t like being called a coward. She liked it even less when S@m said, “I’m not talking to you until you quote one of the comments.”

Annoyed, she took her now empty bowl to the kitchen and rinsed it out, then changed from her work clothes into her pajamas before sitting back down and typing out, “OMG, this is so disgusting, what’s wrong with you, sicko?” S@m, apparently, didn’t buy that, since there was no reply. She wasn’t sure whether that was a good sign or not. Were the replied even worse than that? Or was S@m right? Could it really be not that bad?

She sighed, moving her mouse over to her browser icon and clicking, heart starting to race as the program blinked into existence on her monitor, then immediately began loading her page. That damn picture came up first, staring out at her. Even it was too ashamed to look at her, as the girl - some character from a show she’d never seen, though the commissioner had sent her several reference pictures - ducked her head, cheeks flushed red. Her light pink hair was tied into a pair of ponytails, though that was, apparently, not unusual, since that was how it had been in at least two of the original pictures. To highlight just how embarrassed she was, one foot was pointed inward, heel slightly raised, and one arm was reaching across her body to clasp the other’s elbow over her skimpy halter top.

None of that was terribly odd by itself, certainly not worth getting herself worked up about. What was odd was the pacifier between the girl’s lips, and, more importantly, the diaper between her legs. It had been years since she’d had any reason to see a diaper, so she’d had to go to the Pampers website to get an idea of what they looked like, and wound up simply copying the look of them, the thick white padding accented with purple at the waistband and leg elastic. Instead of Elmo to decorate the front, she’d drawn a strange little creature that had been floating around in the reference pictures, one she’d assumed was the mascot character of the show.

When the request had first come through, she’d assumed at first, rather naturally she thought, that what the customer was really looking for was a chibi. She’d seen other artists who had drawn chibis that were pretty much just a baby version of the character, and those were cute enough, though she’d never done any herself. When she’d messaged the buyer back to confirm, however, she’d been told in no uncertain terms that wasn’t what they wanted. The girl was supposed to be her regular age, usual outfit, at least for the top half, just in a diaper. The idea to add the pacifier as well had come to her first, once she’d decided that, strange as it was, she was going to do it, and then the pose soon followed, since it only made sense that, being a non-infant and wearing a diaper, the character would be ashamed of the situation.

As always when she stared at one of her drawing for too long, she began to nitpick it, finding little things that looked wrong, that she should have fixed before sending it back to her client. They had seemed happy enough with it, enough not to request any more changes anyway, but they always clearly wanted to see some anime girl wearing diapers, so how good could their judgment really be? Begrudgingly, she had to admit that it might not be too bad. There were a couple small changes she would have made if she’d noticed them before, though not nearly as many as she usually found, and nothing blindingly obvious that she knew she should have caught before posting it. All in all, maybe it was a terrible piece of art.

Or so she thought. She still wasn’t sure what her fans thought of it, or that she truly wanted to find out. She was there, however, on the page… She couldn’t punk out now. Gingerly, she tapped the down button, scrolling the page down centimeter by centimeter until just the first comment was visible. Steeling herself, expecting the worst, she started to read it. A little shocked, she moved on to the next, and then the next.

Most of them were from people she’d never seen before, unusual screennames, though near the bottom there were a couple of her regulars, one saying it was cute, the other proclaiming it ‘good, but weird’, echoing her own sentiments, both about the picture and the rest of the comments. “I want those diapers!” one of them requested, while another asked, “Did you wear a diaper to get the look right?” A few got somewhat creepy, saying they wanted to change the girl’s diaper, or have her change theirs, but, to her shock and relief, there wasn’t a single outraged, “I’m never looking at this page again!” among them.

Head spinning, she clicked back to her instant messenger, typing out, “What is going on?”

While she hadn’t technically done what she’d been told, S@m apparently took that as a reaction to her having finally checked the page. “I’m pretty sure they liked it.”

“Yeah, I guess… What’s wrong with them?”

“Nothing,” S@m said back, after a pause that was just a beat slower than usual. “It’s just a good picture.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not all there is to it,” she replied cynically. “How did all these weirdos even find me?”

There was another break, a tiny bit longer this time. “Are you going to take it down, then?”

She chewed on her bottom lip as she thought about that. It was, by far, the picture that had gotten the most attention on her site, and even if people came to look at it, they could still check out her other ones. But did she really want to be known for that picture? All she managed to type was, “Maybe.”

S@m was pretty quiet the rest of the night, though that was okay with Renai, since she was tired from staying up so late the night before and her stressful day. She checked a few other sites, not bothering with her e-mail, then went to bed.

“Hey, Renny-ron,” Josh smiled, the forced joviality in his tone revealing, if his stupid nickname hadn’t, that he was being forced to actually do his job as manager. Well, that and the fact that Renai was sure he was about to ask her the same question he’d already asked her, both in person and through the other employees, at least four other times that day. “How are you doing with your Superstar sales?”

The first time or two, she’d felt bad when she had to tell him, “I haven’t gotten any yet.” He was easy enough to work for, mostly because he wasn’t great at his job. Sometimes that made things harder, such as when Beth was there to inspect the store, but day-to-day it made things much less stressful. If you didn’t have time to get around to doing something, it was fine. If your sales numbers weren’t exactly stellar, that was okay, too. There was always time later to get the numbers up, or to vacuum that one corner of the store nobody ever got to, or re-organize that shelf. Or there used to be.

By now she was just sick of answering the same question. “Josh, just tell me how bad it is,” she said instead.

His face fell for a moment, then hardened. “You know this is coming from Beth, and not me, right?” Renai nodded, stomach churning, knowing full well that wasn’t a good sign. “She thinks you’re too flippant with the customers about the program, and that’s why you’re not selling any. I told her that works just fine when you get the right customer, but…” He shrugged. “I have to write you up if you don’t sell any today.”

She did her best not to change her expression, having been preparing herself to hear just that, or even worse, but now that the words were actually out there, she felt a little like crying. She’d never been written up before, not here or at any other job. She was sure it was just like at school, where that note on your permanent file sounded scary but had no real bearing anywhere else… She’d never gotten any of those, either, though.

“I tried to talk her out of it,” he attempted to console her.

“It’s fine,” she said, forcing a smile. When he was gone, however, back in his office, she gave Beth a call. She wanted to yell at the woman, tell her she should try to sell the stupid program herself if she thought it was so easy. Instead, she said, “The customers just don’t want it. It’s not that big of a town… Everyone who comes in on any kind of a regular basis already knows about it, and they either have it already or don’t want it.”

“It isn’t about what they want,” Beth countered, “It’s what they need. It’s your job to convince them that they need it. That’s what you need to do.”

Renai resisted the urge to tell Beth what she needed, though the idea was quite tempting.

At the end of the day, she wanted nothing more than to just go home and sulk, but she was all too aware that her refrigerator was all but empty, so she made a stop at the grocery store instead, listlessly pushing her carts through the aisles, trying not to think about how much everything cost.

She had enough for now, that wasn’t the problem; she simply didn’t want to think about what would happen if she got fired. She’d taken the first step towards that already, and had been even more scared at that when she’d found out there was only one step beyond that. She’d asked Callie, the co-worker who had been there the longest, how many write-ups were needed before she could be fired, expecting the answer to be three. She was sure she’d been told that at some point in her training, but it was long forgotten now. It turned out the answer was just one.

She needed food, however, and it was probably better to go ahead and get it now, since she did still have a job. She tried not to think that way too much, but she did find herself stocking up on some things, just in case.

As she headed toward the checkout lanes, she found herself slowing down a bit as she passed the baby aisle, peering in at the rows of diapers stacked there, surrounded by wipes, powder, oil… They even had a small stand of pacifiers.

She blushed and sped back up, shaking her head at herself.

“Did they hire you as a salesperson?” S@m asked.

“I don’t remember what was in my job description,” Renai typed. “I’m sure if they want to fire me, they’re more than capable of it. Can we just change the subject?”

She scrolled through the new comments the picture had gotten that day, still surprised at how many people didn’t seem to find it odd. A few of the newcomers to her site had even praised her older pictures, which made her happy, at least until she remembered why that person was there in the first place. “I feel like I’m just using that picture as a gimmick to draw people in,” she confessed to S@m.

“Isn’t the attention nice, though? Aren’t you at least a little grateful for it?”

“Sure, I guess… I just wish it wasn’t coming from such freaks, you know? Why wasn’t any of my other stuff popular enough to draw in this many people? Why did it have to be that? I don’t really want to be known as ‘The Artist Who Did That One Weird Picture of the Girl in a Diaper’.”

“Maybe they are freaks,” S@m said, “but at least they’re looking at your page. That’s more than you had before, isn’t it?” Just a few minutes later, S@m said goodnight and signed off.

Renai wasn’t nearly as tired that night, so losing her chatting partner was a little rougher. She remembered she hadn’t checked her e-mail the night before and decided to do that to pass the time, expecting, as usual, to have nothing but spam in her inbox.

Instead, she was shocked to find nearly a whole page of e-mails whose titles indicated they were about new commissions. She knew, even before she opened them, what sort of pictures were being requested, but she still found herself feeling a bit giddy to see so many people interested in hiring her. A few of the e-mails were from people who apparently didn’t understand that the prices she had listed weren’t just a suggested tip, but a good number of them were real, live requests. A lot of them even said they’d never done this before, either because they hadn’t found someone willing to draw for as cheap as her, or, more impressively, they hadn’t found anyone as good as her who was actually open for commissions. To keep her ego in check, she reminded herself they were probably just judging her based on whatever artists happened to be into the whole diaper thing, sure there couldn’t be that many.

It was also helpful in preventing her head from getting to big to think of what these commissions were of. Nobody was saying that she had to post them to her page when she was done with them - if she even took them, she corrected herself - but even if her pre-diaper fans didn’t know about it, she would still feel like she was selling them out, and for a crowd she wasn’t even sure she wanted to be associated with. Clearly, there was a market here, but if you looked hard enough and were willing to sell yourself out to them, you can find one of those anywhere.

All of this attention was flattering, she couldn’t deny that, but the more she thought about it, the more wrong it felt. This wasn’t how she wanted to be known. Naive as it was, she still harbored dreams of some gallery happening across her site, loving it, and offering her a show, or at least asking if they could sell her work in their shop. They’d never do that if her site was full of pictures of people dressed and acting like babies. They might think one was quirky… Or even that could be pushing it.

She went back and forth on the decision quite a few times, once again staying up far too late while she thought about it as she boredly surfed some other sites and shot off a couple e-mail to some of her new hopeful commissioners. In the end, when she was ready to just make a decision and stick with it so she could stop thinking about it and go to sleep, she wound up taking the picture back down.

When she’d woken up the next morning and tried to fix herself a few quick slices of toast, she’d been quite annoyed to find that, even with everything she’d gotten at the store the day before, she’d forgotten the butter. She kept her head ducked as she walked back into the grocery store that night after work, sure all the same workers would be there, and that they would recall seeing her there not twenty-four hours before and realize what a scatter-brain she was.

She didn’t bother with a cart. She did get a basket, though once she got to the dairy section she felt silly carrying even that when she only needed one thing. She looked around nervously, awkwardly starting to slide the basket off her arm to set it on the floor, then stopped suddenly as she saw an employee walk into view and start straightening things. She pretended she was trying to decide on a brand, trying to wait the employee out, before finally just grabbing two containers and walking away.

Instead of heading straight for the checkout lanes, though, she found herself heading the opposite direction, toward the back of the store. Was she really that scared of some teenage boy who probably hadn’t even noticed her there somehow psychically deducing that she’d been considering leaving her basket there, making slightly more work for him?

She found her footsteps slowing as she laughed inwardly at her own paranoia, at least until she noticed she was once again coming close to the baby aisle. Blushing, feeling a little like she was being haunted by it, she rushed past it, not quite able to stop herself from sneaking another peek.

She didn’t usually start her computer experience by checking her e-mail, since she so rarely got anything worth reading, but that evening she did. There were a couple more requests, and some e-mails asking why she’d removed the pictures. More importantly, there was a reply to one of the e-mails she’d sent the night before. She clicked on it and read it, though quickly wished she hadn’t, or, rather, that she’d somehow been able to read it a few days earlier. It wasn’t definitive proof, but it made enough sense that it didn’t have to be. It was just the last piece that made everything else fall into place.

“I’m sorry,” was the first thing she said to S@m that night, once she’d signed onto her messenger.

“Are you apologizing to me for taking down the picture? That’s your business, not mine. You have to do whatever makes you comfortable.”

Renai sighed, trying to figure out how to phrase what she wanted to say. She decided it was probably best to just come out and say it, rather than make things more difficult than they were. “It was your picture, wasn’t it?” S@m had nothing to say to that - Renai hoped it was either from shock that she’d figured it out or that she’d think that, and not anger that she’d suggest S@m would want such a thing. “I asked some people how they heard of my site, and they said someone posted a link to it, saying they’d commissioned that picture. And one of them told me the person who did that goes by C@inH@.”

Again, S@m didn’t respond. Renai began chewing on her lip nervously, hoping she wasn’t completely off base with all this, that she hadn’t offended someone she considered one of her closest friends, even if they had never met. “That actually makes more sense than this screenname,” she teased. “I’ve always wondered if it was supposed to be pronounced Satm I Atm.” Still nothing. “Look, I don’t care if it was you, or if you like this stuff. I’m sorry I called you a freak…. I didn’t realize I was, you know? It’s just… Well, you have to admit it’s a little overwhelming.”

Finally, the icon indicating S@m was typing flickered at the bottom of the box. Renai’s heart beat faster as she watched it, unsure what to expect once it stopped, and the words themselves appeared.

“If I’d known you were going to find out anyway, I’d have asked for a discount.”

Renai chuckled softly in relief. “If I’d known how much it was going to bring to my site, I might have given you one.”

They chatted for awhile, back to their old selves. It was still odd to think about S@m being into the whole diaper thing, but she told herself that was just because it was such a personal thing to know about someone who was essentially just a lot of words on her computer screen.

“So,” came the question she was dreading, “are you going to put the picture back up?”

That was the question, really. She didn’t need to check her e-mail to know there was still nobody lining up at her doorstep waiting for ‘normal’ pictures. Even with her latest picture gone, she’d gotten a few more comments on her older work, only one of which was to ask where her diaper girl had gone. She knew she was never going to make it as a mainstream artist doing diaper pictures, but there really wasn’t anything wrong with doing them anyway, was there? It seemed silly to get so hung up on them, especially now that she knew that S@m, at least, would enjoy them. And, apparently, so would a lot of other people.

But if her page was full of those drawings, why would someone not into that sort of thing bother to dig past them to see that she did normal things, too? She didn’t want to give up on that part of her ‘career’, meager as it was. That was why she was doing this all in the first place, after all.

S@m seemed to understand her silence, letting her have her peace to think it over, for a few minutes anyway, before pointing out, “You could always set up a second site, you know.”

It was so simple she felt like an idiot for not having thought of it herself. That was perfect, wasn’t it? The best of both worlds? But what would it say about her, running a website full of pictures of people in diapers, pictures she’d drawn?

It means I could use the money, she told herself. That’s all.

She made it through another week, somehow. That was how she thought about her job now, she realized, the thought hanging over her head, a cloud of depression - as something to survive a week at a time. She’d squeaked by the week before with just enough program sales to satisfy Beth, though she had no idea how she would manage to repeat that performance this week. She was already off to a bad start, having just finished her Monday without selling any before heading to the grocery store.

She’d talked about it with S@m, who seemed to think that they technically weren’t allowed to fire her over that, since hitting some quotas on a stupid reward program wasn’t in her job description as a customer service representative. That would be, S@m maintained, at least grounds for receiving unemployment. She wasn’t sure if that was true or not, but S@m hadn’t steered her wrong yet, so maybe it was. If so, she almost wished they would fire her. Commissions were still trickling in at a decent pace, slower than they had initially, though she hoped that would change once she had a few more of her diaper pictures finished and posted on her new site. But even without an uptick she had enough that, with unemployment, she’d be able to get by until she found something else, something better.

She found herself, once again, walking by the baby aisle, but this time instead of hurrying past, she set her jaw, straightened her spine, and walked right through. She told herself it was research, that she knew so little about taking care of babies that she’d forgotten most of it, and the stroll could help remind her.

Nobody knows what you’re doing, she told herself, drying a sweaty palm on the side of her work pants. Calm down.

She stopped in the middle of the aisle, taking it all it, absorbing the shape and size and color of it all, noting what designs were being used on diapers now, how the bibs were decorated, what scents baby powder came in. It’s just research, she reminded herself.

She paused as her eyes fell on the display of pacifiers. Seeing them up close now, she could tell that the one she’d done in that first drawing had been wrong. She tried to make a mental note of how the mouth guard was shaped, where the holes were…

She picked one up to get a closer look - for research! - and turned it over and over, heart thumping in her chest. She glanced back at the display to check the price. It wasn’t that much, she thought. And she wasn’t sure if she could get it quite right, just from memory. Blushing, she tossed it into her cart and, with one final look around, started to leave, chewing nervously on her bottom lip as she went.