Stinky Street

Stinky Street, by Austin Pillowbottom

Synopsis

After infertility causes her marriage to break down, Sarah reconnects with her high school friend. Brianne shows Sarah what she does for work, and with the perk of having first pick at a child of her own, Sarah eventually starts working for her. The story follows Sarah’s story in the world of Nannying, along with several other characters, such as her son, and Brianne’s niece and nephew. Elements include mental and physical age regression, diapers, potty training, accidents, and a touch of drama. There will be multiple ARs throughout the story, but AR won’t always be the main focus.

Foreword

Stinky Street was initially a story I wrote for someone trying to find a story whose interests fell mostly in-line with mine. The story was followed by a sequel, which later became the second chapter of the overall story. Some parts have been redacted, due to likely violations of the rules on pornography. The two scenes involve a character masturbating due to low inhibitions, so even if they aren’t pornographic, they’re venturing rather close to it. While not entirely important to the story, if you really want to read them, you can find the original stories on my ello page (Austin Pillowbottom (@pillowbottom) | Ello) or the edited and slightly retconned version on FoxTalesTimes.

Copyright info: This story is written for the public domain. You may copy, distribute, exhibit, and otherwise use this story in any way short of plagiarism.

Stinky Street, by Austin Pillow Bottom.

Prologue

It had been almost a year since Sarah found out she was infertile. She and her husband had been trying to start a family, and the news put an irreparable rift in their marriage. She and her husband were both closer to thirty than twenty and her husband wasn’t open to adoption. He soon left her in search of someone to pass his genes on with, and she had moved back to her hometown. It was there that she began spending time with Brianne, her old friend from high school. Sarah was surprised to find Brianne was a single mom. They had kept in touch over social media, but Brianne did not share any photos or videos of her two year old son, and did not mention him in comments. When Sarah asked about this, Brianne simply stated she wanted to protect Gavin’s privacy until he was old enough to decide for himself. The charms of oversharing seemed lost on Brianne.

After a few months of reacquainting, Sarah told Brianne about her marital problems, and how she ended up moving back into town. When Sarah discussed the struggle of finding work, Brianne offered to train her. Sarah was never clear on what Brianne did, and she didn’t get an explanation there. Brianne said it would be better to show her. A few days later, Brianne invited Sarah to her house.

It was there she met Nolan, an eight year old boy. The boy was simple. His speech was slurred and his sentences were fragmented, and he had no shame in greeting Sarah in only a pull-up. Sarah had not been away from home long enough for Brianne to be this boy’s mother. “Who is this boy?” Brianne told Nolan to go grab a shirt, and as he was gone, she handed Sarah a file folder. Inside was a photo of a man that bore a striking resemblance to the boy. A few pages on his early life, including several personality inventories. This perplexed Sarah even more, aand she knew this kind of information collection was entering a legal gray area. Nolan came back with a shirt on, over his pullup. “Is this his-” Sarah stopped herself, unsure if Nolan knew his father.

Brianne laughed and took the folder back. She put it in a drawer and sat down on the floor. She held her arms open and Nolan walked over and tumbled into her lap. “No, that’s Nolan.”

“The first?” Sarah replied. Brianne laughed and grabbed a small glass bottle from her diaper bag. “Time for your medicine, Nolan.”

Brianne unscrewed the eyedropper from the bottle. Nolan propped his mouth open without being asked, and Brianne squeezed the drops under Nolan’s tongue. “It tase diffwent.”

Brianne ignored him and spoke to Sarah. “This is what I do for a living. I take in people who are incompetent, destitute, or in Nolan’s case, a special kind of pervert, and I find them an upbringing they can thrive in.”

“An upbringing?” Sarah interrupted.

“Just pay attention to him. The shirt helps to make it clear.”

Nolan shrank until his shirt became a gown. The only mind Nolan paid his dwindling size was readjusting his seating in Brianne’s lap to stay comfortable. Sarah saw that Brianne was offering her a job to turn grown adults into babies, and even take one in as her own. If Brianne had asked Sarah before showing her, and Sarah had believed her, Sarah would report her to the police. Brianne’s work could be boiled down to two crimes: Missing persons who would never be found, and selling babies. But by seeing for herself, Sarah had seen a demon too fantastic to resist.

Part 1: Smallest Sliver

Martin was having breakfast at the same diner he had every Sunday morning since he moved here. He always preferred the comfort of the booths, along with the privacy they offered. The booth meant a happy medium between going out in public and being alone with his thoughts. Working at a sandwich shop meant cooking always reminded him at work, even hot meals that had nothing in common with the food he had to make. His wage and living expenses meant he couldn’t eat out for every meal. Sunday was how he treated himself to get ready for the next work week. He had the late sleep schedule as many twenty-two year olds, which meant he could enjoy breakfast after the church-goer rush had theirs. Eating out was his small way of observing the sabbath. This time of day was perfect because he could almost always get a booth instead of a table. Though he wouldn’t be taking up space if he asked, today he took a single booth opposite to the large booths.

If Martin wanted quiet, he would have stayed home, but a kid sitting across the aisle made him prepare for some annoyance. Across from him sat two women, one with her toddler. The boy sat in the high chair facing away from Martin. The boy wore a T-shirt of deep blue jersey, with horizontal stripes of burgundy on the torso. In yellow was a large number ten on the back, and the word “MESSY” on top. Martin figured the boy knew a fan of Barcelona’s MVP that had a penchant for dressing toddlers in degrading clothing.

The food didn’t agree with the toddler, or maybe it agreed too well, either way Martin could smell the stink moments after the mother took him to the bathroom. Martin experienced a lapse in appetite and put his fork down until the stench had passed. The mother’s friend coughed and waved her hand over her face as she turned to Martin. “Oomf. I’m so sorry about that.”

Martin shook his head. “It’s fine.” The tightness in his voice made it clear that Martin was trying his best to take in as little air as possible. The two exchanged a laugh. Martin took a sip of water and nodded. “The jersey fits.”

The woman shook her head. “Ugh. I’d say I don’t know what that kid eats, but I do. I don’t want to ruin your breakfast, so I’ll just say he needs more gluten.” Martin nodded and thought that was the end of the interaction, but the woman changed the subject. “Do you live here? I think I’ve seen you around.”

Martin nodded. “Just moved here.”

“What brought you out here?”

“Work.”

“Work? What do you do?”

“Sandwich artist.”

The woman nodded with her lips pressed over a smirk. “So, this must seem a big city for you.”

Martin laughed and shrugged. “No. Maybe I should have said rental costs.”

The woman looked at Martin’s plate. “Breaking the bank?”

Martin shook his head. “Nah. Just had enough of cooking for the week. I’m sorry, I didn’t ask what you do.”

“Well, I don’t have to take public transit.”

Martin turned to her in mock shock. “You walk everywhere too?”

This forced another laugh from her. “Why don’t you join us and I’ll cover your breakfast.”

Martin held up his hand. “It’s okay, I don’t want to be a charity case.”

The woman smiled and rolled her eyes. “Okay, fine. Can I buy you breakfast because I think you’re cute?”

Martin blushed. He thought she was being friendly, but she thought he was flirting. “I’ll allow it.”

Martin got up, and the diaper bag told him her friend was sitting across from her, and he sat next to her. He put his plate on the table and held his hand out. “I’m Martin.”

The woman shook his hand. “Sarah.”

Martin found Sarah and Brianne very friendly. Having lived in town most of their lives, they took it on themselves to tell Martin all about local events throughout the summer. When Martin asked Brianne if she was a fan of FCB, Brianne did not understand. Martin pointed to Gavin’s soccer jersey. Brianne pointed out that Sarah had bought him it. Sarah had then asked Martin if he wanted to join her team in the “beer-league.” Martin said he only watched soccer, and had only played in PE class. Sarah assured him that it was a very casual league, so called because every game and practice involved most players each a few beers deep.

After breakfast, Brianne drove Martin home. Sarah sat in the passenger seat, and Martin sat in the back with Gavin. Sarah had Martin write down his number on a napkin and said she would call later that week. Gavin was an odd child. Martin figured he wasn’t used to new people, or just thought Martin was interesting. The boy kept staring and kicking the footrest of his high chair, trying to get Martin’s attention. Martin always responded by smiling and leaning towards him, asking “what’s the matter, Honey?” Gavin only responded with more fussy baby noises. In the car he had done the same. “Has he got a toy or something?”

Brianne said he just needed a nap. Terrible twos meant he grew restless when he was tired. Martin could understand Gavin’s ironic plight. That seemed to be a symptom of terrible twenties as well. Martin wasn’t good with kids, but he was good with cats. When he grew fussy again, Martin leaned over to Gavin’s car-seat and held his finger over Gavin’s face. “Hey, Gavin.” Gavin looked at his finger, and Martin put his fingertip on the tip of Gavin’s nose. Gavin didn’t look pleased until Martin ran his finger up Gavin’s nose, forehead and along his scalp, one of the ways he would pet a cat. The toddler’s eyes fluttered at the tiny massage. Martin pulled away, but Gavin reached his hands out for Martin’s hand. “Really? Are you a kitten?”

Brianne noticed Martin touching her son’s face. “Why’s my boy a kitten?”

Martin continued petting Gavin’s nose and head. “He seems to like when I pet his nose like a cat.”

Sarah turned around to look at the toddler struggling to keep his eyes open. “Awe, Brianne you gotta see this.”

“Driving.”

Martin stopped when he saw they had turned onto his street. Gavin’s eyes didn’t open before they let Martin out.

When they left, Sarah smiled. “I like him.”

Brianne glanced at Sarah and then watched the road. “What kind of like?”

Sarah shrugged. “He’s nice. And good with Gavin too.”

“Do you like him? Or what kind of playmate he might be?”

“Isn’t that why we met him there?”

Brianne rolled her eyes. “There’ll be plenty of time to bond when he’s dependent on you. Anything else is just being cruel to yourself.”

Sarah hadn’t given much thought to it. Brianne had seemed so cavalier about her job. This was the first time she had alluded to the stresses of her work. “You sound like you’re speaking from experience.”

“You’re not the first barren divorcee I’ve worked with. The smallest sliver of hope shines through and it’s all you can see. Half of you only look at one picture before you decide on a child.”

“Isn’t attachment part of motherhood?” Sarah glances at Gavin. “I wouldn’t know.”

“You’re not a mother yet.”

Part 2: Chicken Soup for the School-Aged Soul

Going into work was a non-starter. Martin woke up with his sheets sticking to his skin. The chills and aches in his joints told him he had sweat the bed. He was sick. With nine o’clock approaching, he had to call in sick as soon as possible. Afterwards, he wondered why his finger tip was a deep red, as if it had been dipped in blood. In a way it had. It was only a moment later that he pulled a black red booger from his nose. It almost looked too massive to have come from his nose. He hadn’t noticed his finger was in his nose until he removed it, but now he had to get it off his finger. He got out of bed. When he looked back down at his hand, he noticed the bloody snot was gone. He looked around the floor to see if it had fallen, and then noticed the red streak running down his wall. Instead of getting a piece of tissue paper, Martin had left the booger on the nearest surface without a second thought. He shook his head and cursed under his breath. “I get a little fucking cold and turn into a child.”

He decided to clean any messes when he was feeling better. While he washed the blood and snot off his hands, he heard a knock on the door. “Yeah!” He grabbed a dishcloth and dried his hands on the way to the door.

Outside was Sarah, holding a take out bag in one hand and Gavin in the other. “Thought you could use some soup.” This chick’s power of precognition was bordering on creepy. Sarah saw the confusion in his eyes and shrugged. “Brianne had the omelette, same as you. Since I paid, I feel somewhat responsible.”

Martin nodded. “Do you want to come in? It’s a bit messy.”

“Well, can’t be worse than Gavin’s messes. Sure.”

“Do you still think he needs gluten?”

Martin was in no mood to cook before Sarah arrived, but even the smell of soup made him feel like he was taken care of. He offered to make a grilled cheese sandwich, to get some bread into Gavin, along with cheese to help give his stool some solidity.

After that, he had enough of standing up for the next few hours. He wrapped himself in the blanket his grandmother had made him when he was a child, and sat on the couch with his soup on the coffee table. Sarah had put Gavin on the floor where she could watch him from the couch, and put Blue’s Clues on the television. Gavin could feed himself, as long as Sarah was there to supervise. Afterwards, she cleaned up after him and then sat beside Martin. “Feeling okay?”

“No, but the soup is delicious. I’m sure you’re being nice, but you don’t want to watch a stranger eat soup and watch Blue’s Clues do you?”

Sarah glanced at the television and back to Martin. “I thought Gavin was watching Blue’s Clues.”

“It’s more entertaining than I remember. Maybe the fever’s got me nostalgic.”

“I can’t believe this show is still on. Gavin seems to like it.” Sarah pulled a packet of tissue from her pocket and balled up a couple. When Martin had his spoon down she leaned in close and put the tissues to his nose.

Martin shrank away. “What are you doing?”

“You’re nose is bloody.” Martin would have pushed her off, if he hadn’t been holding a styrofoam bowl of piping hot soup over his own lap. All he could do was tense up while Sarah cleaned off his nostrils. “You got bloody crusties. Did you pick your nose raw?”

When she put the tissue on the table, Martin was ready to ask her to leave, until she put her hand in his hair, and gave him a very subtle but sweet smile. “Anything else I can do for you?”

“Dear god,” Martin thought to himself. “Is she into me? She’s not after money, and I’m far too unkempt for her to be into my appearance. I can’t think of what else she’d want from me. If she’s into taking care of weak and disheveled men, I can milk it until I get better, at the very least.”

Sarah stopped stroking his hair and held her hand on his forehead. “Goodness, you’re burning up. I’m gunna take your temperature to be sure.”

Martin glanced at the toddler, paying less attention to the man mincing around with a cartoon dog than the grown man on the couch. Martin watched Sarah pull the diaper bag to her feet and pull a thermometre out. “Should we be playing doctor in front of the kid.”

Sarah smirked. “I’m not playing, you dweeb. Open up.”

“Are you a doctor?”

Sarah put the thermometre in his mouth. “Close, hold it under your tongue. I’m a third year resident.” The thermometre beeped and pulled it out of his mouth. She stared at the reading in disbelief. “Fifty-eight.”

“Isn’t that low?”

“Celsius.”

“Oh. How is that?”

“You should be dead.”

Martin stared at Sarah and then smiled in mock-relief. “Oh.”

Sarah pulled a plastic tube of sanitary wipes. “Turn over.”

Martin stood up. “Whoa, you’re really sweet, but that’s moving way too quick for my taste.”

“I’m not kidding Martin. I need to find an accurate reading.”

“Are you sure the thermometre works? Do you always interchange it for front and back ends?”

Sarah took on a really stern tone at that moment. “Martin, I know how to sanitize a damn thermometre. You gave a beyond-lethal reading, this is serious so please stop with the quips. I need an accurate reading, so can you please grow up for one minute and lie on your stomach, or do I have to throw you over my lap?”

Martin knew there was no way she was serious, until she raised an eyebrow at him, prompting him for a response. “Oh wow” he thought to himself. “She’s totally serious.”

“I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay. Lie down.”

Martin did so, and Sarah stood on her knees next to the couch. “Don’t worry, Gavin can’t see through me.” Sarah pulled the back of Martin’s sweatpants down, and she pulled his cheek back. making him tense up in preparation.

“Can I just take this moment to thank you for taking such good care of me, but is there any course of treatment that doesn’t invo-”

“No.” Sarah shoved the rod into his anus, making his body go rigid from head to toe.

“oooolllllve.”

“You can relax, it’s in.”

Martin nodded. “Let me know when it isn’t.”

Sarah pulled the thermometre out and Martin went limp in relief. “Oh thank god.”

“Oh, wah! It’s nothing. Good news, you have a normal fever.” Sarah examined the metal rod. “Stay still for a moment.”

Martin closed his eyes. His small moment of lying still was interrupted by a wet tissue running down his asscrack. “I know you’re sick, but could you be more thorough if you’re having a guest.”

Sarah noticed the wide-eyed stare Martin gave her. “Marty, what’s wrong?”

“You just wiped my ass.”

Sarah rolled her eyes and hung her head. “Oh, God. I’m sorry. I’ve been doing my rotation in the pediatric ward these last few weeks. I’m short on sleep, and I haven’t quite been able to get out of treating children mode. Being on diaper duty while Brianne’s sick isn’t helping either.”

When he realized she was crying, Martin pulled his pants over his butt and sat up. “Whoa whoa whoa it’s fine. I probably could have used a wipe anyways. And hey, I know I’m not dying now, that’s cool. Who knows what I’ve come down with, it might be safe to have you around. I mean, I feel bad having you guys couped up in my small basement suite.”

Sarah sighed in relief. “Thank you, Martin. Let me make it up to you. Why don’t you come stay the night at my place. My kit is there, and I can fix you up with medicine to forget you’re even sick.”

“I like the sound of that. Can I finish my soup? Then I’ll pack an overnight bag.”

Sarah nodded and smiled at Gavin. “Okay, Honey. Uncle Marty’s gunna come have a visit with us. Let’s go get changed.”

Part 3: Raspberry Drizzle

Outside of the pharmacology, it seemed simple enough. Brianne had a three-pronged approach to return Martin to early childhood with little pain or fear. The first was a substance Brianne called Simplicity, which reduced a person’s mental age for a little over a day. Brianne slipped Martin a small dose in his drink at the diner, and he was back to normal by the end of the day. Martin had played video games the rest of that day to unwind before his workweek started. The mental age of ten was far too close to adulthood to notice. All Martin knew was that violent games were unsettling, and soon switched emulators of retro consoles on his laptop. Brianne had given Sarah a second dose of Simplicity into his soup. This dose would give him a mental age of six once it set in. She also warned Sarah that the differences between twenty-two and six year olds were far greater than the differences twenty-two and ten year olds. Brianne included a muscle relaxant in the second dose Simplicity so that if Martin threw a fit, he would be less likely to hurt Sarah than himself.

The second avenue worked in conjunction with the Simplicity. A macromolecule that carried lipopolysaccaride through the stomach and allowed it to pass through the intestinal walls and into the bloodstream. LPS, which is found on the outside of some bacteria, would alert the body to an infection. This would cause Martin to start a fever and go into sickness mode, the brain’s way of telling someone to take it easy, so they can recuperate from an infection. Men were notorious for turning into man-babies when they became sick because they’re brains tell them they need to be taken care of. This was one of Brianne’s way of priming someone for Simplicity. By the time the perceived infection had passed, they would not be apprehensive of any care she might give, including the third step.

Brianne had a substance she called Space-Saver, and did exactly what the name suggested by making someone smaller. It would accomplish this by making someone physically younger. Sarah asked Brianne if it was through magic or something a little scientific. Brianne told her that even magic had it’s own natural laws, and left it at that. Brianne had been rather secretive about all of this worked, but understandably so. She had given her a small dose to feed Martin, which would reduce him to the age of fifteen while he slept. When Simplicity wore off, his mind would only catch up to his new physical age.

Sarah encouraged Martin to take his blanket with him. Brianne’s file on him mentioned it was his security blanket when he was a child. Even when he grew uneasy about the changes in his mind and body, which were certain to happen, it would provide him a sense of homeliness no affirmations could. Martin agreed, as if he wasn’t already planning to. With the Simplicity setting in, he wasn’t going to have a sleepover without his special blanket.

For lunch, Martin had the rest of his soup, which Sarah so kindly reheated on the stove. That was when Martin first noticed something was wrong. Rather, he noticed Sarah had noticed something was wrong. He was lying on her couch, watching Ready Jet Go that Gavin had been watching before Sarah took him to her room for a nap. When she came back, she saw his finger up his nose and pulled his arm away. “There’s no gold in there, dummy.” Martin knew nose picking was gross, especially in someone else’s home. Sarah grabbed a baby wipe from the tub on her coffee table and cleaned his finger off.

“I can clean it off.”

“No, you need to conserve your energy. Look, all done.”

Sarah let go and scoffed as she left the living room to throw the baby wipe away. Martin shrugged his shoulders up to his jaw and nestled into the couch. He pulled his blanket up to his neck to comfort himself.

While Gavin had a nap, Sarah ran Martin a warm bath. Martin had been undressing himself when he found his sleeves wouldn’t let him free. It had been a good two minutes of trying to get out of his shirt that he realized the fever had him so delirious, he couldn’t navigate his way out of his own clothing. “Sarah!”

Sarah answered his call, and laughed at the grown man sitting on the floor, with his arms and head wrapped up in his shirt. “My oh my, what happened here?”

“I can’t get out of my shirt.” Sarah laughed. “Don’t laugh!”

Martin almost sounded sad about it, but he felt rather ashamed. He took his clothes off all by himself all the time. Sarah’s laughter was not making it easier to ask for her help. “I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?”

“Can you help me get it off?”

Sarah kneeled down in front of him. “Fly, Superman.”

Martin lifted his arms, and double-took with his face under the cotton. He almost forgot when he last heard it, but he instinctively knew to pretend he was Superman and to raise his arms high in the air. In one swift tug, Sarah had his shirt off his arms. Martin hung his head forward. “Thank you, Sarah.”

“You’re welcome, Sweety.” Sarah leaned against the sink. “You need help with your pants too?”

Martin shook his head and stood up. “Nuh-uh.” He stared at Sarah, expecting her to leave, but the smirk on her face told him she wanted to see for herself.

“Okay, Martin.” He thought to himself. “It’s just a bunny-ear knot.” He put his hand on the tie of his sweatpants. When he tugged on the end, the bunny-ears didn’t shrink into the head. He tugged a bit. “Oh no. I tied the ears. How do I unravel that? Come on! You do this all the time!” But today he didn’t. The muscle-relaxant in his soup had weakened his tug. The Simplicity made it impossible for him to remember that a ear-tied bunny-knot just needed a stronger tug. He pulled at his pants but he had to wiggle through, and it was still above his penis.

“Do you want Sarah to help you?” Martin looked up at her and nodded. Sarah kneeled down in front of him, and with one tug, the bunny’s ears had unraveled, and his pants fell to his ankles. Before she stood up, she gave his belly a kiss, and made a farting sound against his skin. The flapping of her lips against her skin startled him, and he let out a giggle. Sarah leaned back so he wouldn’t hit her when he leaned forward.

Sarah laughed at him, making him laugh. “Don’t do that.”

“I’m sorry, I just love your little laugh.” Martin blushed at the compliment. It was hard to stay mad at Sarah when she was being so silly. Then she looked worried. “Oh no, Martin. You sprung a leak.”

“Huh!?” She was right. Martin looked down at his boxers and noticed a tiny wet spot underneath the tip of his cock. He had let out a tiny dribble when Sarah gave him a raspberry. “Do you have accidents often?”

“No, you tickled me!” Martin began to feel uneasy. These days Martin was more worried about seeming **un-masculine, but here he almost had a fear of Sarah seeing him as a baby.

Sarah laughed and then looked sad. “Awe, I was just teasing. I’m sorry I caused an accident. Silly Sarah.”

The alliteration made Martin chuckle. “Silly Sarah.”

“Dude,” he thought to himself. “Why the heck are you repeating her? Yeah, it was funny, but not that funny.”

Sarah didn’t bother letting him take his undershorts off. She pulled them to his ankles and told him to step out. He did, and stood back from her. Then Martin saw her wince, and she turned his boxers inside out. She stood up and held his shorts up to him. Martin could smell the skid mark from where he stood. “What is that?”

Martin could feel his stomach drop. He met this woman the day before. She was taking care of him so well, and he repaid her by neglecting his own hygiene, in her own house. His jaw hung open as he stammered to find an apology.

“What’s with the stinky street?”

Martin didn’t remember his dad calling a skid mark a stinky street, but he did remember what it felt like. Martin let loose a chuckle, and then felt even more ashamed. He didn’t even expect to have a stinky street.

Sarah shook her head. “Martin, how sick are you? A little fever and you turn into a child. What gives? I’m happy to take care of you, so you don’t need to act like Gavin for me.” Martin couldn’t find the words. Tears seemed a good way to show her he was sorry. Sarah’s voice went from stern to sad again, when she put her hand on his cheek. “Do you understand, Honey?”

Martin nodded, and Sarah wiped her thumb through the tear on his cheek. “Okay. Now climb in the bath. I’m worried you might hurt yourself in this state.”

Part 4: Imprinting

Martin stepped into the warm water, and Sarah held his hands as he sat down. Sarah opened the medicine cabinet and removed a small bottle.

Sarah sat down next to the tub, and pulled the eye dropper from the bottle. “This’ll help you feel stronger, so you don’t have to be so silly. Open up.”

Without question, Martin tilted his head up and dropped his jaw. Sarah took a moment to watch him. A bowl is soup was all it took, and now this young man was waiting patiently with mouth agape, just because she said so. She wondered if she told him this medicine would take eight years off his body, he would still keep his mouth open. Sarah smiled and then held the eyedropper over his mouth. She squeezed it onto his tongue, and put the eyedropper in the bottle.

Martin swished the medicine around in his mouth. It was bitter, but far more sweet. He wanted his hole mouth covered in the stuff, but he was salivating far too much and he had to swallow. Martin noticed the small rack hanging from the shower. He noticed a couple of plastic boats in the trays. He wondered how long Sarah was planning on having Gavin over. Then he started to wonder if Gavin would mind if he borrowed the toys. Then he started to wonder what it would be like to play with those toys.

It had been a few moments since Sarah expected Martin to start bathing himself. He had been staring into space long enough. She noticed he was looking at the toys. “Do you want the boat?”

Martin jostled his head and then gave Sarah a pouty look. “Would that be silly?”

Sarah laughed at how worried he was about her opinion of him, as if this wasn’t the kind of silliness she wanted in him. “Of course.”

She stood up and grabbed the speed boat and placed it on the surface. Martin began passing it between each hand. Sarah watched him do this, and could tell Martin’s awareness only contained the boat. She grabbed the washcloth and rubbed it against the bar of soap, and rubbed it on his back. Martin didn’t even look at what she was doing, and then she started to invade more and more of his privacy. She started with his arm, and then his chest. Behind his ears, and down his back again. As she scrubbed him clean, she noticed the changes starting. It was subtle, but she could tell he was a few inches shorter than when he sat in the tub. Then she saw the tip of penis poking out from the surface.

Brianne had warned her about this. “Look, don’t be concerned if he masturbates right in front of you.”

“Huh? Does that happen a lot?”

“Oh yeah. They got the needs of a man, and the Simplicity gives them the self-control of a boy. They will have no shame in rubbing one out.”

“That’s horrifying.”

"You think that’s bad? You’re gunna be mom, so you might as well know. I don’t put duct tape on Gavin’s diapers because he likes streaking. "

[SCENE REDACTED]

She [Sarah] fiddled with his toe. “You’re pruning. We better get you out before you turn into a raisin.”

He didn’t respond. He didn’t understand. He didn’t care. She put his hand under his head. “Come on, sit up.”

Martin understood the push, and sat up. Martin put his hand on the edge of the bathtub, and stood his feet up so he was in a squat. He stared at the tub for a moment. With the mentality he had as a toddler, Martin was baffled as to why the tub wall would stand so low. If he didn’t need to step on it to climb over, he wasn’t sure what he had to do. It was good he took a moment before he figured out he could step over it, because he emptied his bladder into the bathwater.

Sarah rubbed her hand on the side of her face, unsure what to think. “You okay, Bubba?”

Martin smiled. “Peepeeee.”

His slurred speech, and unwarranted pride of making peepee told Sarah that he didn’t have the mental age of six like Brianne had planned. “That’s right, you made peepee, and into the water too.” Sure, it was bath water rather than toilet water, but it wasn’t the floor. Martin smiled and stepped out of the bath. Sarah scooched back so he wouldn’t fall on her. “Be careful.”

Martin got a scared look on his face when Sarah scolded him, and plopped his bottom down the floor, watching for any sign of approval from Sarah. Sarah realized he was far too simple for her not to coo every single word at him. “Good sit.”

Sarah almost rolled her eyes at herself. “He’s not a dog.”

Sarah forced a smile so her voice would sound more cheerful. “Let’s get you dried off.”

While she dried him off with the towel, Martin wouldn’t break eye contact with her, and Sarah knew why. She didn’t need to regress any more men to know that they were most emotionally vulnerable in their afterglow. She learned that in college. Some men cried, some men wanted to hug, and a handjob and some tender loving care had just made Martin fall in love with her.

Part 5: Catching Up

Martin felt like the luckiest boy in the world. He couldn’t remember when he felt so cared for. After his bath, Sarah dried him off so gently he thought he might fall asleep right there on the floor. The most amazing thing about Sarah was that she could tell Blue’s Clues was his favourite show when he was a little boy. All the other kids said the show was for babies, but he was the only boy in grade one who seemed to watch it. Somehow, Sarah knew he was feeling nostalgic, and she didn’t mind if it was for babies. She said something about accidents and had him step into an adult diaper. Somehow she found one with his favourite dog on it, and it even had blue paw prints on it so he would know if he had an accident. Sarah really was a special kind of woman. Somehow she knew he couldn’t remember his words, and never demanded an answer when he didn’t reply to her comments. All her comments were sweet and helpful.

“Fly, Superman.”

“Step into the legholes.”

“Do you still have your paw prints?”

Martin was upset that he needed a bib, but Sarah was so understanding. How could a woman be so pretty yet so compassionate for such a messy boy? Somehow she was. The medicine she gave him seemed to make the fever go away, and he was full of energy. He was even able to stomach spaghetti, and Sarah, being her sweet old self, wiped the sauce off his face every few minutes. She even cleaned his hands after he used them to get the spaghetti in his mouth. He couldn’t remember how to hold the fork properly, and the way he held it was giving his hand a cramp.

After dinner, Martin was starting to remember his words again. Sarah looked so delighted when he began replying to her. “Welcome back!” The remark was silly. He had been here this whole time.

Sarah let him and Gavin play with lego blocks. They were the big kind, because babies are silly and liked to eat things, even when they aren’t food. Martin figured the little blocks would be too hard to work with while his hands were so silly. Martin found the thought brilliant, and that Sarah would want to know.

“Sarah, Sarah. These blocks better the little ones I think. You know why these blocks better?”

“Why is that, Bubba?”

“They big so I can hold them while my hands are being silly.” Martin held a block up and closed and opened his fingers onto it with his free hand.

Sarah seemed unsure, but she nodded in agreement, so Martin knew she was proud. “Wow, that is certainly great.”

Martin smiled and continue building. He liked that word. It was a good word, a great word for it. He loved when he learned new words from Sarah. Great was a good word for Sarah, too.

It was stressful to watch Martin fumble around on the floor. Not because he was fourteen and already okay with wearing a diaper- pullup, Martin insisted. The scary part was that he was clumsy as a preschooler, and large enough to seriously hurt Gavin.

“Marty, I gotta go change Gavin. Do you need to go potty?”

Martin shook his head. “No, I’m okay.”

Sarah picked up Gavin. “Still? Where are your paw prints?”

Martin looked down at his crotch. He looked up at Sarah in delight and pulled up the waistband of his diaper so she could see. “Still here!”

“Great job! You’ll behave here while I change Gavin, right?”

Martin nodded. “Uh-huh! I can be behave!”

Sarah took Gavin to the nursery. She hadn’t been here often since Brianne helped her furnish it, and it still felt alien to have it in her house. Gavin was on the changing table, and Sarah began the diaper change with her phone between her shoulder and ear. Brianne answered her call. “Hey, it’s me. Are you sure you got the dose in the soup right? He didn’t even care that he peed in the tub, and he spent half an hour trying to figure out how to eat spaghetti. He eventually decided his hands were better than a fork.”

“Meh, they probably were.”

“Well, he’s recovering way faster than you said he would.”

“Did you let him masturbate?”

Sarah paused for a moment. “Yeah.”

“Well there you have it. Blood rushes to the brain, the brain soaks up the Simplicity. Then you got a man-baby on your hands. That’s why he’s maturing so fast. His brain’s eaten it all up.”

“So what do I do?”

“Give him an extra millilitre now, and put him on the potty, then put him to bed. Slip him five millilitres at midnight. Okay? Do you want me to come over?”

“Sure. He’s a bit goofy. I don’t want him to hurt Gavin.”

“Good call. I’ll be over in a few.”

Martin knew he was being silly. He shouldn’t need paw prints to know he has to go potty, but it made him feel safe after that nasty accident he had in the bath. He didn’t know what had gotten into himself. It must have been Sarah playing tug-tug with his peeper. All that water must have gotten sucked up in there. Martin giggled at the thought. “Water can’t go up the peeper. Silly Bubba.”

Sarah was a doctor, so she knew this is what yucky food does to boys. The pullup was nice and cushy, but he was starting to miss his underwear. Even though he was having accidents, he never thought Sarah would be nice enough to help him while he was on the potty. In hindsight, he didn’t need her there, but he loved having her around while he made a stinky. Martin couldn’t dream she would be so confident in him to let him wipe himself, especially after he had been eating spaghetti messy.

“When can I have underwear?”

“After you sleep. You don’t wanna wet my bed, do you?” Sarah held the syringe up. “Open wide.”

“Your bed?” Martin dropped his jaw for her.

Sarah squeezed the plunger and let the medicine drip onto Martin’s tongue. “Yeah. You don’t wanna sleep on my couch. It’s so thin you might fall off and bonk your head! Okay, swallow now.”

Martin closed his mouth. “It’s not as yummy as the other stuff. Can I have that medicine?”

“Not just yet. Maybe tomorrow. Are you done making poop?” Martin nodded. Sarah handed Martin the wet-wipes. “Okay, stand up and clean your bum.”

Sarah checked his bum when he finished wiping. He did a terrible job, and there was even poop on his cheek. “Great job! You’re so smart.” She pulled the adult diaper up and walked him to the sink. Martin was so happy to show her how good he was at washing his own hands. He did such a good job at brushing his teeth, that Sarah even let him bring his blankey to her bed, and she cuddled him until he fell asleep. Before he fell into dreamland, he remembered the big-boy word for the happy feeling Sarah gave him. “I love you, Sarah.”

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Re: Stinky Street

Part 6: Itchy Street

Martin knew something was wrong. Sarah’s room stunk of stale urine. His pullup was lumpy and cold and stuck to his peeper like a wet blanket. When he saw Blue on the front, with a pale patch of blue beneath her, Martin knew he had lost his paw prints.

Sarah was indeed a fan of Barcelona. She had given him her own Jersey to wear to bed. “Fly, Superman.” Martin winced as he remembered how silly he was being. Sarah’s jersey had been stretched out by her breasts. The shirt hung low over his. It hung low over all of his body. When he stood up, it almost covered his pullup, save the the sag he acquired overnight.

Brianne was over, and she was really nice. She was so happy to see him, and even hugged him. She noticed his paw prints were gone, and Martin wasn’t sure how she knew he had them in the first place. Boys his age aren’t supposed to have accidents, and he thought his silliness was a secret between him and Sarah. Brianne was far too familiar with him. She patted his pullup, and squished the sag. Martin backed away. “You can’t touch me there. You’re not a doctor like Sarah.”

Martin was serious, and thought he sounded stern, but Sarah and Brianne burst into laughter, even Gavin started laughing. What the heck did he know? What could he find so funny? Martin stomped his foot. “It’s not funny! I’m serious!”

Sarah cleared her throat. “I’m sorry, Bubba.”

Martin could hear the sadness in Sarah’s voice, and he felt relief that she didn’t mean to be nasty to him. Martin sat next to her, and leaned against her arm. “She touched my peeper, Sarah,” He whispered in her ear. “She can’t do that, right?”

“You’re right, Bubba. Brianne is very naughty.” Sarah was ready to rescue. “Brianne, go to the bathroom and think about what you did.”

Brianne gave a thumbs up before she left the room. This made Martin mad. She wasn’t supposed to be happy about a time-out. Brianne had already been discussing with Sarah about the possibility that Martin had imprinted on her. Seeing how he reacted to her invasive touch confirmed that he developed an attachment to Sarah. Normally, Brianne would let the Simplicity wear off until his mind was close to his current physical age. But since Sarah was planning to adopt him, the attachment had to be nourished.

After Brianne’s time-out, they had breakfast. Martin didn’t make any mess, but he was getting antsy about getting out of his stinky training pants. His penis felt gross and his buttcrack was itchy. The training pants were too thick to scratch through.

Sarah saw Martin was trying to scratch his ass-crack through his diaper. She and Brianne exchanged a look. Sarah remembered the conversation they had the night before, and she knew it was time.

“Isn’t it too cruel?”

“It’s much kinder this way. It’s easier on him if he has a diminished sense of self. And skid marks were a problem for him as a child.”

“It’s not his fault though. We’ve been drugging him with liquid innocence. I should have helped him wipe last night.”

“It’s a good thing you didn’t. No matter how old he feels when he’s up, he’ll be devastated.”

“I don’t want to devastate him!”

“You can give him all the affirmations you want when we’re done. For now, you want him to crave your approval.”

“What about a good mom, bad mom routine?”

“Now you’re thinking like a nanny.”

Sarah put her coffee down and took a deep sigh. “Bubba, why are you scratching your bum?”

Martin looked up at her and gave a faint smile. “I’m not, I’m poking at my pull-up.”

“Oh okay. Could you come here?”

Martin stood up, sending his chair sliding back. He walked over to her and held his arms open for a hug. “I love you, Sarah.”

“Oh okay.” Sarah hugged him, and then pat his back. “Okay, Honey. Can you look at the window for me?”

Martin turned around, and all he saw was the fence between there and the neighbour’s house. Then he felt a cold draft enter his training pants and down his bum. Martin turned around. “Hey, what are you looking at?”

Sarah looked disappointed. “Oh, dear. Let’s go to the bathroom.”

Brianne stood up. “What is it?”

Martin backed away. He didn’t like how Brianne was looking at him. She looked like she was about to catch him red-handed for being naughty.

Sarah shook her head. “Brianne, don’t worry about it.”

Brianne didn’t listen to Sarah. She put her hand on Martin’s shoulder and told him to turn around. Martin was too scared to disobey, and Brianne pulled at the back of his training pants. “Jesus Christ! Martin, did you not wipe properly?”

Martin was baffled. The last time he pooped, Sarah was so proud of how well he did. “You said I wiped good!”

Brianne was mad at Sarah. “Sarah? He needed you to check? Why the fuck is this guy here if he can’t even wipe his own ass? Look at this!” Brianne grabbed Martin’s shoulder to turn him away from Sarah, and then pulled the back of his diaper down. “Look at this! You may as well be wiping him!”

Brianne stood up straight and leaned in close to yell in Martin’s ear. “No wonder your ass is so itchy.” Brianne smacked his buttcheek. “This is why you wipe, so this doesn’t happen. You understand that, don’t you? Do you even want your underwear back?”

It was too much. The itching, the failure at something so basic as wiping, the idea Sarah might make him wear diapers forever and ever, and all the swear words Brianne had dropped left Martin no choice but to bawl. “I’m sorrrry-he-he-heee.”

“Let him go!”

Brianne let go of his shoulder, and Martin ran into Sarah’s arms for a hug. He looked up at her in desperation “Please let me have my undies back! I’m feeling better, I promise!”

“Of course you can.” Sarah looked at Brianne. “Why don’t you worry about your own son’s bottom!? He’s two already, and you haven’t even tried potty training him!”

Brianne held her hands up. “Okay, okay!” Brianne picked Gavin out of his high chair.

“Apologize!”

“I’m sorry, Martin.”

Martin didn’t remove his face from Sarah’s chest. He just wanted to pretend Brianne was gone.

Part 7: A Hiking We Will Go

Martin had misjudged Brianne. Sarah was far nicer. She was understanding about his stinky street. She wasn’t accepting of it either. She made it clear that he should try to keep his bottom clean. It was nice that she believed in him, even if he was acting stupid for a man his age. She told him not to be afraid to ask for help. She cleaned up his bottom extra clean with baby wipes, and even gave him his underwear back. Well, it wasn’t his. He already paved a stinky street in his boxers yesterday. But Sarah had undies for him. And they weren’t women’s undies either. No, these were briefs, which fit snug and tight around his peeper. Much more huggy than his boxers. Even better, they had purple piping, adding some whimsy to his otherwise boring wardrobe of undergarments. Martin did feel some apprehension when he saw the character printed on the butt. “Isn’t Barney for babies?”

“Oh, Honey. I’m sorry. I thought you used to love Barney.”

Martin put his hand on her shoulder. “No, I did. It’s very-” Martin paused to remember the word. “Thoughtful. But can I wear pants over it?”

“Oh of course. We don’t want Brianne to be looking at your undies, do we?”

Martin smiled. Sarah was so clever. “Yeah.”

Martin was skeptical about going for a hike. He didn’t feel feverish, but he was badly sick the day before. Sarah gave him a doctor checkup so he would feel safe on a hike. She let him use her stethoscope to listen to his own heartbeat. She even let him hear what kind of noises happened in his butt. That was when Sarah taught him a new word: hysterical. His laughter meant his butt sounded hysterical.

After Sarah gave him a clean bill of health, they went with Brianne and Gavin for a small hike by the lake. Gavin couldn’t walk a lot before he would need to sit in his stroller, but Martin held his hand for Brianne. Gavin was little enough that Martin could lift him up by his wrist, and Gavin could swing back and forth for a moment at a time.

Sarah and Brianne followed the two boys playing the repetitive game. Brianne called out to Martin. “Hey, Martin. What’s your favourite shape?”

Instead of walking back to them to join the conversation, Martin continued playing his game with Gavin. “Uh, trapezoid, I guess.”

Brianne waited for him to ask, but that was the end of that. “Mine’s a rhombus.”

“Oh yeah.”

Brianne spoke quietly to Sarah. “He could probably use some more medicine soon.”

Sarah stared at Martin for a moment and then Brianne. “Was that some sort of assessment question?” Brianne nodded.

After walking, they came upon a meadow, full of dandelions. Martin wanted to run out and blow them all bald, but he knew he was older than that. Sarah flattened out Martin’s blanket over the dandelions and they all had a picnic. Brianne was right about Martin needing medicine. Before he would accept it without question, but this time, he had nothing but questions. “I’m getting better.” “Do I still need it?” “But I just hiked I’m okay.” “It makes me feel funny.” Sarah had answers for him. She had plenty of experience from when she was a practicing physician. She knew how to explain the importance of medicine to children. It all boiled down to “just because you feel better, doesn’t mean you’re all better.” It seemed counterintuitive to Martin, and a moment of pondering brought back the small piece of wisdom from his adulthood.

After the boys had eaten, Sarah and Brianne watched Martin and Gavin play in the meadow. Martin gave a dandelion to Gavin, and told him to blow. Gavin didn’t understand, and waved the dandelion around. Martin picked another one and showed him. “Look it, like this.” Gavin did it, and thought the seeds blowing in the wind the funniest thing, and Martin was glad he could share such fun.

Sarah chuckled at the two, and then looked at Brianne. “You were right.”

“About what?”

“Forming attachments. Is there. Is there a medicine to make him bigger?”

Brianne shook her head and spoke with a stern voice. “No, Sarah.”

“We can’t let him back out into the world like this, huh?”

“If he was still twenty-two.”

Sarah shook her head. “If I had just waited a few minutes to given him the Space-Saver, he could be home, and calling his family. I didn’t even ask if he wanted to be little again.”

Brianne nodded at the boys playing on the field. “Look at him. Who cares if he wanted it, he’s enjoying himself.”

“You sound like a rapist.”

“Whoa. Where’d that come from? Are you having second thoughts? I can take care of him, you can see him after he’s little. I can even find another boy for you.”

Sarah sighed. “He didn’t jerk himself off, last night. I did.” Brianne remained silent. Sarah brought her knees up and rested her chin. “He got a boner in the bath. I figured I’d let him have one last orgasm while he could. I felt like I was doing him a favour. Then he started to get younger, and it felt wrong. He had no idea what I was even doing. He couldn’t talk, and he peed right there in the tub. He doesn’t deserve this. He’s a sweet guy.”

Brianne shook her head. “A lot of the people I meet are sweet. That’s how they end up such easy targets. If the world had any place for sweet men, Gavin would be starting kindergarten this autumn.”

Brianne had alluded to Gavin’s regression, but this was the first time she told Sarah that it was still happening. “How long has he been two?”

“Long enough. I always wonder if he’s happy. If he can’t wait to get big. Or if he even knows what he’s missing. Those questions don’t go away. I’d tell you to ask Martin while you can, but he might not respond well to any of them.”

Sarah looked back out onto the field. She saw Gavin failing at blowing a dandelion. “Where is Martin?”

Part 8: Martyana Jones

Martin felt like exploring. He was on an expedition in a far and mysterious land, and it was his job to chart the uncharted Woods of Marty Lake. He had to find curiosities found nowhere else in town, and bring them back to the King and Queen. Martin had already discovered the Dandelion Sea and had been planning his journal entry, but there was no time to enjoy blowing them out. He saw the woods past the meadow, and knew he must venture on. Every explorer needs to bring provisions, and Martin brought none. He didn’t bring crackers to snack on, or candy bars to barter with the locals. He didn’t take water to stay unthirsty, and he didn’t bring toilet paper to stay clean. Martin was feeling wary now. This game of pretend was starting to unravel all because he forgot to plan ahead. Then breakfast kicked in.

Martin stopped to lean on a tree when the cramping set in. “Goodness, I don’t eat eggs well.”

Martin wished he asked Sarah for help. He had wandered out of the meadow and into the woods. He had to go to the bathroom and he didn’t want to explore anymore. He knew he could squat anywhere in these trees and no one would see him poop, or even care if he left it in the dirt. He didn’t have any toilet paper or even baby wipes. He was afraid of paving a stinky street, but he was more afraid of running out of time before he got back to Sarah. Sarah had already put him in diapers because he was feeling yucky. He didn’t want to be a different kind of yucky. He’d never get to wear underpants again if Sarah saw him like that. He missed her touch. She was always been better at keeping him clean.

“Sarah?” Martin looked around the woods, and didn’t see his best friend anywhere. “Sarah!?”

Martin knew he was going to need a bath, one way or the other. Oh goodness, the bath. Sarah was an expert at bathtime. Marty always thought his butt was the grossest part of him, but Sarah was so clever and she knew better. She washed his peeper way more thoroughly than the rest of his body combined. [REDACTED] Now he really wanted Sarah to clean him up. “Sewah!”

Standing up was not an issue until the first step back to the meadow. The ground stayed in place, but down couldn’t make up its mind. When gravity went to his left, he put his left foot out. When it went to his right, he put his right foot out. When it went to his front, he put his hands on the ground. When it went to his back, he put his bum on the ground. It was easier to stay upright like this while down kept changing directions. The hard part is figuring out what to do about the cramp in his bum. Sitting with his knees bent meant the poop was pointing straight out of his bottom. Martin knew what the cramp met, and how to make it go away. When we gotta go poop, we go poop, and so he did. He forgot about the part in between, when you get Sarah to take you to the potty.

Martin had to get back. Standing up was a waste of time. He had to crawl, no matter how silly it looked. He had already pooped his pants, and there was no way to look even more like a baby. He called for Sarah over and over as he crawled through the twigs and moss and grass. When he got to the meadow, he could see Sarah and Brianne running towards him. Thank goodness they could hear him. With help on the way, he decided to stop fighting gravity, and there was no way it could make him fall if he was already lying down. He rolled onto his back feeling the mess squish on his bottom. He could almost hear his mommy shouting “bonk!” to announce he had bonked his head on the ground.

Brianne gave him some medicine. It was the really yummy stuff Sarah gave him before his bath. Martin wished he wasn’t so big. Sarah and Brianne couldn’t carry him like this, especially while Brianne had Gavin in her arms. They had to hold him up, and he had to do his best to stand up while they dragged him back to the blanket. By the time they got back, his poop had pulled his pants nearly off his bum. The turd even fell through the legholes in his undies and down through his shorts.

Martin couldn’t tell what they were saying, but Sarah ran her fingers through his sticky accident on his front. He could tell she was mad. This time, it was Brianne who thought it was funny, and Sarah was the one spanking him. He cried and cried, trying to find the words to say it, but he didn’t and Sarah had no way of knowing he was sorry.

After that, they took his clothes off, and Sarah wiped his bottom, legs and peeper clean. They almost ran out of baby wipes doing it. They seemed even bigger now that he could only lie on his back. He knew he deserved it, but he didn’t want a pull-up again. He wanted his undies. This pull-up wasn’t for big kids like him. This one opened up at the sides, and all he had to do was lift his bottom until Sarah could put it under his bum. He wasn’t ready to do that. He tried to sit up, but Brianne was quick to yell at him and hold his shoulders down. He didn’t care if it had Mickey Mouse on it, he wasn’t going to wear baby-pants out here.

Martin was too silly, and they didn’t need his cooperation to get a diaper on him. After they diapered him, Sarah fed him with the water bottle. Martin was indeed thirsty, but he was still mad at Sarah. Naughty Sarah. Good girlfriends don’t make boys wear diapers. Only mommies and daddies can do that.

Sarah and Brianne were speaking a secret language for the next little while. Martin sure felt smart as they walked down the trail. Every minute, he was able to learn a new secret made up word of theirs, and he was fluent before they reached the car. Martin was a clever boy, and there was no fooling him for long. Smarty Marty.

He had to wear a harness with a tether on the back. His chance to explore the Forest of Marty Lake was over. There was no getting away from Sarah while she held on to the other end of the leash. At least Sarah didn’t carry him. Somehow they had gotten even bigger, and it only made sense. Every big kid knows wearing diapers makes you a baby, but Sarah and Brianne forgot that, and put him in a diaper anyways. He tried to tell them, but they didn’t listen. They just said “you can’t turn back into a baby” but he was living proof. As soon as they got home, Martin was going to demand his undies back. He wasn’t going to be a baby if he had anything to say about it. Nope, nope, nope.

Part 9: Cornered

Sarah was uneasy. Martin was raising a fuss in the backseat, and there was no spanking or time-outs while they were driving. Martin’s masturbatory episode meant his mental age was recovering much faster than it would in abstinent circumstances. Brianne gave him some Space-Saver in the meadow, and hoped that ten was young enough to stop him from playing with himself.

Sarah was worried his mind would catch up to his physical age by the time they arrived at the department store. In hindsight, Sarah knew telling him where they were going was a mistake. He didn’t want to go clothes shopping in just a diaper, even if it was to get clothes for himself. Having grown out of diapers a few minutes prior, he was demanding they go back to his house before they went shopping. At his current age, that wasn’t an option. Not only would his own home show him just how small he’d become, his neighbours might see how small he’d gotten. Even in a store, if he figured out what was happening to him, he was bound to make a scene. They couldn’t afford making a scene. Everyone had a camera in their pockets. If Martin was recorded saying the wrong thing, all four of them would be in grave danger. They had to make him complacent soon and Brianne had ideas for that.

Martin had acquired an artifact from his brief babyhood at the lake. Sarah noticed it too. Martin had been sucking his thumb in between talking. Even as his mental age recovered from the Simplicity, he didn’t grow out of it. Now that the main source of his frustration was being treated like a baby, thumbsucking would provide good evidence that Martin wasn’t a big kid.

Sarah was becoming apprehensive. The moment she met Martin, she saw him as a baby- her baby. The idea that the baby she was about to adopt was already masturbating frustrated her. It seemed to be the one thing he actually deserved to be scolded for. And yet, as he got younger, she started to see him as a man- a victim. Brianne had said he’d lose his inhibitions, and pleasuring himself would become irresistible. Sarah knew she was the cause of his shameful behaviour. She knew Brianne thought Martin’s sense of self had to be degraded for him to accept a second childhood, but she was starting to feel sorry for him. Parading him through a store in just a diaper, especially at ten years of age, seemed unnecessarily cruel. It was hard to believe such a humiliation could help him accept being a little boy again. She’d rather hold him until he felt all better. She wanted to join Martin in screaming and kicking, but once the car was parked, it was time to get into character.

Martin knew he was running out of time. Sarah and Brianne were getting out of the car, and he was out of ideas about how to convince them to take him to go get clothes first. “NnnnOOOOOOOoooooo!” When Sarah unbuckled his seatbelt and pulled him by the arm, he was starting to think she wanted him to be a baby, and a spank on his diapered bum seemed a small betrayal. The real betrayal was that she didn’t want him to calm himself down. When ever he put his thumb in his mouth, she would pull it out of his mouth and told him to stop acting like a whiney baby. If he couldn’t suck his thumb, how was he ever supposed to comfort himself?

Martin couldn’t understand what was so wrong with wanting clothes. He was old enough to know letting his underpants show was naughty, but somehow wanting clothes was worse, and he earned a time out in the foyer. When they passed through the first automatic door, he was ready to give up, but as he followed Brianne, Sarah pulled him back. “Oh no, mister. We’ll go in when you’re ready. Go to the corner.”

Martin was wondering if he would ever have Sarah’s love again. He hadn’t had a timeout for years, and if Sarah was resorting to this, he knew his behaviour was hardly worthy of her affections. She wasn’t his mommy, and he was regretting ever thinking she would have the patience of a mommy. But this was not enough to convince him to waiver. Standing with his nose against the wall with his diaper-butt pointed at all the customers coming in and out of the store seemed better than going inside.

In the store, Brianne had a shopping cart with a box of Easy-Ups, a package of Easy-Ups, a package of swim diapers, and a bottle of sun screen. Gavin sat in the basket with his head on a swivel, watching for people who were walking by. Any time he saw someone new, he would hold his hand up and shout “Hi!” Some people said hi, some waved, and some ignored him. Brianne always found it so funny when he sneered at whoever didn’t say hi back, and then his face would change back to a smile when he saw someone else. “Hi!”

The pharmacist smiled at him. “Hello, Gavin! How are you?”

Gavin only replied with a bright smile. This man was polite enough to actually use his name. This man was the friendliest person here.

Brianne smiled. “How’s things, Gary?”

“Oh, the same.” Gary nodded at the training pants in the cart. “Is Gavin graduating already?”

Brianne smiled. “No, sadly. He’s gunna be a stinker for a little while longer.” Brianne pulled the packages of Easy-Ups out of the cart. “Do you have any of these in size eight?”

Gary nodded. “Of course. Let me go get them.” Gary took the package to the back, and later came with a slightly larger package. “Here you are, girl. And what about the box?”

Brianne shook her head. “Oh, no thank you. These are just the right size. Come on, Gavin. Let’s go get Martin some clothes.”

As they started to move, the pharmacist waved. “Bye, Gavin!”

Gavin smiled and waved back at him. “Hi!”

“Okay, Martin. Are you ready?”

Martin turned around and sulked. “Can we please go get clothes?”

Sarah kneeled down, and she still looked upset with him, even though she spoke calmly. “Bubba, we came here to get you clothes in the first place.”

“But I’m only wearing a diaper.”

“Yeah. Because you were being silly and made a mess. Is that why you ran off into the woods? Because you wanted to make a mess?”

Martin shook his head. “What? No, I-”

“You know you’re not supposed to act like a baby, so is that why you ran off? Did you not want us to catch you playing baby?”

Martin couldn’t believe the question. Why would he want that? “It was an accident.”

“Are you sure?” Martin nodded. “Promise?”

Martin nodded. “I promise.”

Sarah turned to see Brianne coming out of the store. “Sorry for taking so long, but Bubba’s better now.”

“Yeah? You gunna behave yourself, Bubba?”

Martin pinched his eyebrows at Brianne. “You don’t get to call me Bubba.”

Sarah could see Brianne’s laughter was hurting Martin. “Come on, Brianne. He has a name.”

Brianne rolled her eyes. “Sorry, Martin. I got you some clothes. Does that make it up?”

Martin shrugged. “Sure.” It was a good start.

Part 10: The Proving Pot

Martin thought the day was done. A hike at the lake and a shopping trip seemed a complete get-together, but Martin was getting excited about a trip to a water park. Martin was also thinking he had been wrong about Brianne. Even though he was acting like a whiny baby, she bought him a pack of underpants. Martin was hoping for Blue’s Clues on them, but he got underwear with different dogs on them. Martin had never seen Paw Patrol, but if they were good enough for underpants, maybe he ought to. Brianne just told him he had one thing to do. At the car, Brianne put the bags and box of training pants into the trunk. While she was taking the cart back, Martin sat in his seat, facing out of the open door while Sarah was giving him another drip of medicine. Just a small dose, now that he was getting better.

“Can I have my clothes now?”

“Not just yet, Bubba. We got one thing left to do.”

When Brianne got back, she opened the truck again and pulled out a big blue bucket. “Okay, Marty. You’re not so silly now. This should be a breeze.”

“What should?”

Brianne put the bucket down on the pavement, and Martin saw that it was a potty. Martin shook his head. “I gotta go to the bathroom.”

“Are you sure?”

Martin nodded. “Can I have my clothes now?”

Sarah looked at Brianne, who nodded. Sarah looked at Martin. “Bubba, those are for big kids.”

“But I am a big kid.”

“Are you sure? You’ve only gone in your pants today.”

“But I need clothes to go in the store.”

Sarah shook her head. “No buts, Bubba. What if you didn’t make it? You’ll ruin your brand new clothes.”

“No, I won’t.”

Sarah looked at the potty, and then back at Martin. “Only one way to know.”

The cars beside them seemed to provide enough privacy, save for the space running between them. If this was how he could get out of diapers, it seemed much better than going inside dressed like this. Martin pointed at the potty. “Can you stand in front of me and Brianne behind me so people can’t see?”

They agreed, and Martin climbed out of the car. Martin started to untape the Huggies he was wearing, but Sarah pushed his hands away and did it herself. While he squatted down onto the bucket, he saw Sarah checking the inside of the diaper. “I didn’t need it.”

Sarah nodded. “I can see that.” She rolled it up and looked at Martin. A smile flooded her face and she clapped. “Look at you. You’re sitting on the potty.”

Martin returned her smile, and then got mad. “Of course I am!”

“Okay, go potty.”

Martin pouted. “Stop it.”

“Awe, don’t be sad, Bubba. I’m proud of you.”

It seemed okay, but Martin became worried when he realized he didn’t have to go. “I don’t needa go.” He heard rustling, and turned his head. Brianne was standing behind him, opening up a pair of Gavin’s Huggies. His heart dropped when she smiled at him. She was ready to pounce.

He looked back at Sarah. “It’s okay, Bubba. I believe in you.”

He pushed and pushed until finally, a fart burst from his butt, making a funny echo inside the bowl. Martin giggled for a moment, and he felt a little drizzle leave his peeper. “Okay, I’m done now.”

He stood up and Sarah looked inside the potty. “That was just a fart, silly.”

“Nuh-uh. Look it.” Martin pointed at the droplets inside. “I peed there.”

Sarah was so happy. “My oh my! Would you look at that!”

Brianne bent over to look down into the potty. “Wow. Good job, Bubba.”

Martin was about to scold Brianne for using Sarah’s name for him. Sarah interrupted his fussiness by holding up a pair of undies. “Martin. Look what you get when you go potty.” They looked so thin and comfy Martin squealed. Sarah laughed at his excitement and held them down above the ground. “Step in, Bubba.”

Martin put his hands on her shoulders for balance, and she pulled the undies up. “They’re tight.”

Brianne picked up the potty. “You just need to grow into them.”

Sarah ripped the tag off a new T-shirt. “Okay Superman. Fly.”

Martin lifted his hands high in the air, and Sarah pulled the shirt over him. “Uh-oh. Where’s my Bubba?” She pulled at the hem and his head popped through the collar. “There he is!”

Martin giggled. “I was still in there.” Sarah was being so silly.

“Of course you were, why was I so worried? Silly Sarah.”

Martin giggled again. “Silly Sarah.”

Sarah helped Martin get into his new shorts, and clapped her hands. “Okay, Bubba. You ready to go to the water park?”

Martin jumped and squealed. “Water park. Water park.”

“Okay, get in the car.”

Martin climbed in. “Water park. Water park.”

Part 11: Splashdown

“Water park” brought a metropolis of sky scraping waterslides to mind. When Brianne parked the car and announced they were here, the tallest structures Martin could see were some trees. Martin had seen this playground before. It was a mini-water park hiding in plain sight, waiting for summer to come before it revealed itself. The rainbow made of half-circular metal bars coloured in Roy G. Biv were sprinkling water beneath it. Jets of water were shooting straight up out of the ground, seemingly at random. There were slides that had sprinklers on the top so you could slide down through a little waterfall. The most intriguing features were the three turrets, that you could swivel and pitch and spray others. The park was calling to him as they approached, but they stopped on the grass a few metres away from the playground.

Martin didn’t grow into his clothes like Brianne said he would. She must have meant the clothes would grow onto him. In the time it took to drive here, they were fitting just right. Sarah and Brianne were serving snacks on his blanket. Martin didn’t care how hungry he was, there was a water park waiting for him. All he could hear was the shrieking and laughing from the other kids. All he could hear was the fun he was missing out on.

“Won’t I get cwamps?” Martin cleared his throat, and remembered he had to curl his tongue for the R sound. “Cerrrramps.”

Sarah chuckled. “That’s only for swimming, silly.”

Martin looked at the park. There was a concrete sill that the water slides fed into. The sill wasn’t deep enough to swim in. Martin was running out of ideas. He worried he just might have to wait.

Luckily, all Sarah expected him to eat were some apple slices. Gavin only had to eat two because he was little. While Martin ate, Brianne was getting him into his swim pants. Martin thought pink was for girls, but Gavin was too little to care about that. Gavin didn’t get to play before he had swim pants so Martin still had time to eat. “Okay, Gaga, time to change your bum.” Brianne let Gavin play with a pull-up to distract him while she got his pants off. “Who’s on your diaper?”

“Dowa!”

Brianne put Gavin’s feet in the legholes. “Yeah! Who’s with Dora?”

“Booss!”

“Yeah! You’re so smart.”

Martin rolled his eyes at them. Brianne was mean and stupid too. “Bubba, you still got one left.” Martin took the last apple slice from the plastic tub. When Brianne stood Gavin up, Martin worried he’d get to play first. Brianne had to put him in his swim shorts to hold them up, so Martin had time to finish his snack.

“Oh no. We forgot to get Martin swim shorts.”

Martin knew where this was going and shook his head. “I can wear these shorts.”

Sarah laughed and tousled his hair. “You can’t wear those in the park. They’d get all wet and fall down. We don’t need a full moon in the park.”

Martin laughed. Brianne did too. “Gavin won’t need all these swim pants.”

Martin stopped laughing. They were really gunna do this again, after he already proved he can still use the potty. Sarah came to the rescue. “Oh don’t tease the poor boy. We got three more pairs of undies. What’s one soggy pair?”

“What’s four?” Brianne sneered.

Martin looked back at the park. Other than the babies, none of the kids were playing in their underpants. “Is that allowed?”

“It is if I say so.”

Martin smiled at Sarah. Sometimes her rules were mean and even confusing, but sometimes it was nice that the woman who made those rules loved him so much. All the other kids had to get their clothes wet, but being Sarah’s Bubba came with special privileges.

“Fly, Superman.” Martin lifted his arms and Sarah took his shirt off. “Stand.” Martin stood up and she took his shorts off. After he stepped out of them he stared at Sarah patiently. “Okay, go play!”

Martin ran off, and Gavin followed him. Sarah laughed. “I think he’s starting to get used to this.”

“I think he already is.” Gavin stopped and turned around. Brianne smiled at him and pointed at the playground. “Go get Martin.”

Gavin turned around and ran off to play.

While the turrets were occupied, Martin crouched through the rainbow sprinklers. He let out a squishy but quiet fart, and went on. He was all soggy, but rainbow sprinklers weren’t that fun. He looked at the turrets, and the same three kids were still playing with them. He decided to go on the slide. It wasn’t very tall. It was more a slide for babies, but at least it was a water slide. Martin landed his bum in the water, and laughed. He wondered why he hadn’t used slides in so long. Somehow he didn’t notice how boring being a grown-up was. Martin climbed up the slide, and as he did, one of the parents was yelling at him, saying that he could only go down. Martin stuck his town out at the man. He wasn’t Sarah, and he didn’t make the rules. He saw Sarah approaching, and Martin wondered if the man was right. “Bubba, you’re not suppo-”

That was when Martin learned why we don’t climb up waterslides. A girl about Gavin’s age went down the slide, and made his foot slip on the slippery slide. Martin grabbed the edge, and rolled out of the way, but he rolled over the edge and hit the pavement. “Bonk!” Martin stood up and looked around the park. He couldn’t see his mommy anywhere. He rubbed the back of his head and looked at Sarah. “Did you bonk your head?”

Martin had a blast from the past. Back before he was talking, Mommy always called out “bonk!” when he bonked into or onto something. He had forgotten about it for so long, he started to wonder when he could have told Sarah about it. “How do you know that word?”

Sarah laughed. “What? I just saw you bonk. Everyone knows that word.”

Martin didn’t. He knew bonk was a word, but he didn’t know it was something you do. He thought mommies just said that when you bonk.

“Did you get a booboo?”

Martin nodded. “I bonked my head.” Did he say that right? It didn’t sound right.

Sarah walked up to him, and he put his hand down. She ran her fingers through his hair looking for a booboo, and then kissed his head. “There is that better?”

Martin laughed. The kiss didn’t make the booboo calm down, but it was indeed nice to have a kiss from Sarah. “Yeah, all better.”

Gavin was watching a large metal post with a bucket up top. The fountain filled the bucket until it tipped over and water poured out, and the bucket turned back up. Martin saw Gavin take a quick step back whenever the water hit the ground. He walked over to the fountain. “Gavin look.” Martin stood under the bucket and made a theatric shiver when he got splashed. “Brrrrr” Gavin giggled. “Wanna try?” Gavin stared at him, and Martin held his hand out. Gavin walked closer, and stopped when he saw the bucket tipping. Martin got soaked again. Gavin dropped his jaw in surprise. Martin had tricked him into thinking it was safe. Martin held his hand out again. “Come on.” Gavin came over and took Martin’s hand. Martin put his hand over his eyes. “Cover your eyes.” Gavin copied Martin and they got drenched by the bucket. Martin opened his eyes and saw Gavin had lost his footing and fell onto his head. Martin called out “Bonk!” and laughed.

Gavin didn’t find it funny. He started to cry, and Martin saw Brianne walking over. Martin thought he was in trouble, but Brianne wasn’t mad, just worried. “What happened, buddy?”

Martin pointed at Gavin. “He got spla-” Another bucket of water interrupted Martin, and he laughed. “He got splashed and fell over.”

Brianne picked Gavin up. “Awe, my poor boy.”

“I thought he wanted to get splashed.”

“I know, Bubba.” For once, Brianne didn’t sound mad at him, and he decided not to scold her about using Sarah’s name for him. “Thanks for trying to have fun with him. He’s just too small for a lot of things.” Brianne bounced up Gavin in her arms. “There, there. You’re fine. You just need a nap.”

Martin yawned. “No I don’t.”

Brianne smiled. “I think Martin might too.” Brianne held her hand out. “Come on, Martin. Let’s go home.”

It was a tempting offer. On the one hand, he wanted to play in the park some more, but he had a busy day too, and it was catching up with him. Martin took her hand.

Part 12: Freeway

They went back to Brianne’s house. Martin went to sit on Brianne’s couch, but she stopped him. “Uh-uh. Not in those soggy undies. Go to the bathroom, we’ll change your bum.”

Martin didn’t like the sound of that. Sarah nodded at him. “Go on, Bubba.”

Martin left and Brianne turned to Sarah. “You have an appointment.”

“Where?”

“At your old house.” Brianne looked to the hallway, and whispered to Sarah. “Martin’s been reported missing.”

Sarah nodded. “Oh.”

“Yes, and they want ask you about him. But you haven’t been home all day because you were having a playdate with your Godson.”

Sarah shrugged. “What should I say?”

“You’ve read his file. I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

Martin didn’t like Brianne’s bathroom. The decorations were nothing like Sarah’s, and Gavin had too much stuff here. There were diapers in the cupboard, shampoo with Elmo’s head on the top in the bath, and far too many bath toys. There were too many temptations for Brianne to be nasty, and try to treat him like a baby. The thought made him cringe and he had to suck his thumb. Brianne didn’t like that. For some reason she came into the bathroom instead, and pulled his hand away from his face. “Martin, are you a baby?”

“No. Where’s Sarah?”

“She had to go home for a little bit, she’ll be right back.”

“Why did she leave me?”

“Because you needed a bath.” Brianne sniffed the air, and pulled at the back of Gavin’s swim pants. “No, it’s not you.”

“But I don’t want a bath from you.”

Brianne start at Martin as he dug his fingers into the back of his underpants. She sniffled at him, but he didn’t figure out what she smelled. He was almost checked-out. “Did you pave stinky street?”

Martin removed his fingers from his bum. “No.” He sniffed his fingers and Brianne pulled his hand away.

“Martin! Ew!”

“What!? I was making sure my bum’s clean”

Brianne sighed. “You don’t want Sarah to be mad, do you?” Martin was more afraid of making Brianne mad, but he nodded anyways. “How about I throw those undies in the laundry, and I won’t look to see if you paved stinky street, and no one has to know. How does that sound?” Great. He hadn’t pooped since his accident, so if his bum was itchy, he must have had a little accident when he made that wet fart at the park. “Gavin’s gotta have a bath, but I don’t know if he’ll be done before Sarah’s back. We don’t want her to see you dirty do we?” Martin shook his head. “You’re a smarty, Marty. Do you know how we can save time?”

Martin looked at the tub and shrugged. “I think I can fit in there with Gavin.”

“You think so?”

Martin nodded. “Yeah. He’s real little.”

Sarah hadn’t been back at her old house for a few weeks now. It was empty save for basic furniture that gave it the appearance that someone lived here. A quick look in the medicine cabinet, or even the silverware drawer, was enough to shatter the illusion. The idea that her official residence was this obviously empty house made her feel vulnerable. She wanted out of this hallow shell as soon as possible. Lucky for her, a few minutes after walking in, there was a knock on her door.

Sarah opened the door to two suits standing on her door step. “Sarah Basset?”

“Yes.”

“May we come in?”

“What’s this about?”

“I’m Detective Angela Cardinal, missing persons. I was hoping to ask some questions about Martin Talbot.”

Sarah nodded. “I saw him two days ago. How is he already missing?” Brianne’s crash course in interrogation taught her to stay relaxed without letting her guard down. While detective Cardinal spoke, the man beside her kept his eyes on Sarah.

“May I ask your relation to Mister Talbot?”

Sarah shook her head. “There was no relation.”

“Was?”

Sarah realized she was the last person Martin saw before he went missing, and after, and she could have been seen at his apartment the day after she bought him breakfast with her debit card. “Yes. I thought he was cute. I paid for his omelette. My friend Brianne got sick later that day from her omelette. I figured Martin would be sick too, so I brought him soup the next day.”

Sarah had the detective intrigued. “And then what happened?”

“I invited him over and, that.” Sarah shook her head. “Martin was a sweet guy, but I had to ask him to leave.”

“Leave?”

“Martin was wearing,” Sarah looked around for any neighbours who might be out. “He was wearing a diaper. Which as a doctor, I’m used to. Except it wasn’t out of necessity.” The detective was about to ask her to elaborate but Sarah went on. “I don’t like to seem insensitive to kinks, but I didn’t understand it completely and I had Brianne’s toddler with me. I didn’t want Martin around. I told him it was a dealbreaker and he left.”

“Did he say where he was going?”

Sarah shrugged. “I didn’t care to ask.”

The other detective checked his phone, and then held it up to Detective Cardinal. “Angie.”

Detective Cardinal looked at the phone, and then to Sarah. “Thank you for your time, Miss Basset.” She handed Sarah her card. “If you think of anything else, feel free to call me.”

Sarah closed the door and sighed. A buzzing sound interrupted her moment of relief. She followed the noise to the drawer beneath the television, where she found a small flip phone. “Hello?”

Brianne’s voice was on the line. “Nicely done, girl.”

“You were listening? How?”

“Of course I was. How else was I to know you were okay. And you handled it like a pro.”

“Are you sure? One of them got a text and they left in a hurry.”

“I’m not surprised. Martin’s credit card was just used to purchase a hotel room about an hour south of here. Now come over. I got something to show you.”

The rubber ducky wasn’t as fun as it looked. It only really floated around. But while Brianne cleaned Gavin off, Martin distracted him by using the boat toy to teach Gavin how to play Pass. Martin could see Gavin didn’t take baths with lots of big boys. Any other toddler would just keep the toy and make him cry. Gavin seemed so shocked that he could push the boat to Martin only to have Martin push it back. Gavin repeated the process, always waiting for Martin to declare “Mine!” but he never did.

When Gavin was clean, Brianne diapered him on the floor and then put him down for a nap while Martin finished bathing himself. He almost asked Brianne “Aren’t you gonna help me?” but he remembered he didn’t need help for something as simple as a bath. Especially from Brianne.

She was nice enough to help him dry off, and she was a lot more gentler than he thought she would be. She was probably used to toweling off baby skin, but that suited Martin just fine. After such a long day, he could do with a gentle rub-down. He wasn’t going to accept her help his with Paw Patrol underpants though. When she held them open for him, he took the packet and grabbed another pair. It’s a good thing he was standing so far from the wall, because he fell onto his back trying to get them on. When he hit his head on the ground, just like Sarah, Brianne declared “BONK!” It wasn’t funny. It really hurt but he wasn’t going to let Brianne see him cry. “Lift your bum.” Martin planted his feet on the ground and arched his back.

Brianne pulled his underpants up, and Martin put his bum down and sat up. “I can do it!”

Brianne nodded. “I know. It’s done.”

Brianne made him some leftover spaghetti in the microwave. It sure smelled yummy, but Martin was losing his appetite when Brianne took the tray off of Gavin’s high chair and told him to climb up. This high chair was much bigger than the one Gavin had at Sarah’s house. The adjustable tray meant it could fit babies of all sizes, but he wasn’t a baby. “Martin! Your bum is rashy enough as it is. Do you want me to smack your bottom raw or are you gunna behave?”

“I’ll behave but I don’t need a high chair.”

“No buts. Sarah told me what a messy eater you are. Climb up. Now!”

Martin hung his head. It seemed Sarah kept no secrets for him, and he wanted to go home before she came back. He climbed in and Brianne pulled the straps over his arms and buckled them over his chest. Martin thought it far too much a precaution for his messy eating, especially when Brianne pulled the centre strap over his peeper. Martin’s opinion of Brianne was returning to the norm. He wiggled and the straps gave little leeway. Martin knew Brianne for using any excuse to treat him like a baby. If she wanted to spoon-feed him, there wasn’t anything he could do to stop her in this chair.

That didn’t happen though. She put the spaghetti on the tray with a plastic spork and let him dig in. His hands weren’t as naughty as last time he tried. He could hold the fork somewhat properly, but he did miss his mouth a few times as he got closer to finishing. Brianne just cleaned his face with a baby-wipe when he was done. Instead of letting him out, Brianne was cleaning the dishes. Martin clutched the outside edge of the tray. “Brianne, I gotta go.”

“Sarah will be back soon. Relax.”

“No, I mean I gotta go potty.”

Brianne dried her hands off and stood in front of Martin. “Is it an emergency?”

Martin nodded. Brianne unbuckled him and held his hand as he climbed out. He stood there, with his legs crossed. He hunched over as if he was going to curl into a ball and fall over. He looked up at Brianne. “Let’s go already.”

As expected, Martin needed an escort to the bathroom. If he was wearing a diaper, she could just stand there until he had an accident. Even though Paw Patrol might be for babies, his underpants definitely weren’t. The medicine in Martin’s spaghetti would have him simple soon, and if she didn’t want to mop the floor, she had to get him on the potty fast.

Brianne put her hands on his shoulder. “Okay, let’s go.” Martin kept his legs crossed, and hopped all the way to the bathroom. Brianne kept a few paces behind, and when she entered the bathroom, Martin was already on the toilet. Martin’s legs crunched up as he pushed and Brianne noticed his underpants were not at his ankles. “Martin! Wait!” Martin sighed in relief. Brianne held her palm on her forehead in devastation. Martin looked down at his underpants, watching the pee drip through the fabric and drip-drop drip-drop into the toilet water. Martin looked up at Brianne and gave a big dopey smile. “Poopoo.”

Brianne nodded. “That’s right, Bubba. You made poopoo in- on the potty.”

Martin smiled in elation, and went to stand up. Brianne walked up to him. “Hold on, wait just there.” Martin stared at her as she came over. “We gotta wipe your bum.”

Martin leaned forward, and Brianne looked over his shoulder. She pulled the waistband of his of his undies and shook her head. “Oh dear. Okay, Bubba, stand real slow.” Brianne kept a hold of his shoulders as he stood up. “Okay, stay still.”

She eased his undies down and he stood still. Brianne held his ankles and guided his foot through the undies so they wouldn’t touch the poop. She picked the underwear off the ground and emptied the bulk of the mess into the toilet. Martin pointed at the underpants. “Stinky street.”

“Oh, Bubba. That’s more than a stinky street. That’s a filthy freeway.”

Martin giggled. “Filthy Freeway.”

Brianne put her hand on his shoulder and sat him sideways on the toilet seat. She grabbed half a dozen flushable wet wipes and cleaned him off, and then she opened the big package of Easy Ups.

Martin saw the little boy on the package and shook his head. “No diapers.”

“Silly Bubba, these aren’t diapers.” Brianne held up the training pant and smiled. “These are potty pants. Babies don’t go potty, do they?”

It seemed simple enough, but Martin couldn’t help but think the boy on the package looked far too little to be big. He didn’t think it would fit. The frilly sides were far to small to fit him, but as Brianne pulled the pant up his legs, the sides stretched out until they were almost flat. Just like his Paw Patrol pants, these had little symbols printed all over, even on the sides. Martin couldn’t remember the last time he watched Thomas and Friends, but the pants sure looked cool with Thomas on the front. The blue stripes that ran underneath Thomas and around Martin’s butt made the pant look just like underwear. Even the padding was thin enough that it didn’t look like a diaper. “Aren’t you a handsome boy.” Martin blushed.

Once he was dressed, Brianne lay him on the living room floor, and put his grandma’s blankey over him, and let him watch an episode of Barney and Friends. For the most part, the songs were slow-paced, but they brought so much nostalgia to him, he couldn’t help but bob his feet along until he fell asleep.

Later, Sarah came back, and Brianne pointed at Martin. Sarah covered her mouth. “My oh my. Look at him, he’s so sweet.” She sat beside him and put her hand on his head. Sarah saw he had his thumb in his mouth. “How old is he?”

“Still eight.” Brianne handed her the vial of Space-Saver. Sarah turned Martin so he was lying supine. She prepared the dropper, and gave Martin’s cheek a light smack. Martin opened his eyes and smiled. “Sarah.” He closed his eyes again.

“You just need some medicine, Bubba.”

Martin didn’t open his eyes, but he propped his mouth open. Sarah dripped the medicine into his mouth, and Martin smiled at how yummy it was.

Part 13: Starting a Family

Martin woke up on the couch in the middle of the night. He was back at Sarah’s house. He vaguely remembered seeing Sarah at Brianne’s, but it seemed more like a dream. He pulled his grandma’s blanket off of him, and found Sarah had put him in pyjamas while he was sleeping. Martin tried to remember feeling more loved than falling asleep on a floor and waking up in a bed. Even so, a living room wasn’t the comfiest place for a little guy to wake up in. It was actually kind of scary.

Martin remembered from all the days of waking his parents up to do so quietly. He stood beside Sarah’s bed and whispered. “Sarah.” The fact that it was only because he had two parents was lost on him. “Sarah.” Sarah didn’t stir. “Sarah.” Martin nudged her shoulder a few times. “Sarah.” Sarah moaned and opened her eyes.

“Ah!” Sarah screamed.

“Ah!” Martin screamed.

“Ah!” Sarah screamed as she sat up.

“Ah!” Martin screamed and then he stomped his foot. “Stop yelling!”

“Jesus Christ.” Sarah turned her lamp on. Martin covered his eyes from the light. “What are you doing up so late?”

“The living room is dark. Can I sleep in here?”

Sarah sighed. “Yes, of course. You could have just climbed in.”

Martin shook his head. “I didn’t wanna wake you.”

Sarah stared at Martin, trying to figure out how Martin could reconcile waking her up and not waking her up. She decided she was better off with not trying to understand preschooler logic. “Come on up.”

Sarah leaned back into her pillows and Martin nestled into her side. Sarah reached over and brushed her finger on his nose and up his forehead. Martin smiled. “That’s nice.”

“Really? Are you a kitten?”

Martin chuckled. “No.”

Martin soon fell asleep in her arm, and Sarah nestled into her bed. Just as soon as the moment had come, it was gone, and morning was here. Sarah woke up, and for once Martin was awake sooner than her. She expected to find him in the living room, and when she got out of bed, she found the nursery door open. Martin was sitting against the racecar bed, playing with a couple of dinosaur figures. “Morning, Bubba.”

Martin gave quick smile and looked back at his figures. “Good morning.”

Sarah sat down next to him. “Didn’t expect to find you in here.”

“Sorry. I know the door was closed, but I was curious.”

“It’s okay. What do you think?”

Martin shrugged. “I don’t know, same as everyone. Sometimes I think about what it would be like to live in the woods forever. Then I remember chocolate bars don’t grow on trees.”

Sarah laughed. “I meant about the nursery.”

“Oh. It’s spooky.”

“Spooky? I was going for comfy.”

Martin shrugged. “I dunno. The Blue’s Clues blanket on the bed looks like the one I had, before Gramma made me my blanket. And the toys are a lot like mine.” Sarah nodded. Here she thought Brianne was just filling the room with anything a little boy might need, and yet the attention to the details of Martin’s childhood was meticulous. “Why is there a nursery in your house?”

Sarah sighed. She was new at this, but Martin seemed too lucid for the real answer. “I can’t get pregnant.”

“So why is there a nursery?”

“I was trying to get pregnant. We couldn’t, and saw a doctor. And then I found out why. Now my husband is my ex-husband. We both wanted a family. I wanted to adopt. He wanted his own kids.” Martin kept his eyes on the T-Rex he walked around on the carpet. Sarah realized he wasn’t asking about her life story. “Do you ever want to start a family?”

“I used to.”

“You don’t anymore?”

Martin put the T-Rex figure down and looked at Sarah. “Is that why you made me little? Because you can’t make a baby?” Martin could see he’s scared Sarah. He shook his head. “It’s okay.”

“How did you know?”

“I think I always did. You pet me like a kitten last night. I remembered when I met Gavin, and how little he looked. Then it all made sense.”

Sarah nodded. “You really are a smart boy. Brianne said you wouldn’t.”

Martin hung his head. “I kinda wish I didn’t.”

“God, you must hate me.”

Martin shook his head and started crying. “Don’t say that.”

Sarah sighed. “I suppose it’s too late to ask, but do you want to be little again?”

Martin chuckled and then frowned. “No.” Sarah nodded. “Can I be big again?”

Sarah frowned back. “No.”

Martin nodded and started playing with his T-Rex again. “How little am I gunna get?”

“You’re already little.”

Martin looked up. “How much more medicine do I need?”

Sarah shook her head. “Bubba.” Sarah sighed. “Martin. How do I make this right?”

“Can I still stay with you?”

“You still want to stay with me? You don’t want to see your parents?” Letting Martin see his parents at this size was not an option for Brianne, but Sarah was ready to take Martin home at his request.

Martin shook his head with fear in his eyes. “Please don’t. My family lived in a world where this doesn’t happen. I don’t want to do that to them.”

Sarah almost started to explain what that would mean for his family, but then she realized that would be for her benefit, not his. It would only shift her guilt onto Martin. Sarah nodded. “Okay.”

“Do I need more medicine?”

Sarah bit her lip. Martin had one more dose of Simplicity left before he’d be like any other little boy. But she didn’t want any other boy. “No. You’re done.”

Martin smiled. “Thank you, Sarah.”

“Thank you? For what?”

Martin shrugged and a shy smile flooded his face. “I dunno. Who else gets to be little twice? In a way, I still got to start a family.”

Sarah put her arm around him and kissed the top of his head. Martin looked up at her and smiled. “Can I kiss you?” Sarah nodded and Martin gave her a peck on the cheek. “I love you Sarah.”

“I love you too, Bubba.”

Brianne came over to take a look at Martin, but Sarah had him wait in the nursery. She handed the kit back to Brianne. “I’m sorry, I failed.”

Brianne laughed. “Failed what?”

“I know this was like, a job interview, but I can’t give Martin the last dose.”

Brianne took the bag. “How come?”

“It’s a long story. He’s actually happy, and I don’t wanna ruin that. I’m happy with him too.”

Brianne put Gavin on the floor and laughed. “I’d say you passed.”

“Are you listening to me? I said I can’t make him a real boy. He can’t be mine.”

Brianne stood up and shook her head. “Sarah, you already did great with all the others I showed you. I’d say you’ve done quite well. And hey, you actually formed a bond with Martin. And he did you. He is yours.”

Sarah shook her head. “What?” She took a moment to examine Brianne’s wry smile. “You wanted me to fail?”

“No. Failure would be if you didn’t care about him at all. I wasn’t going to let you adopt him if you didn’t care about him. You’re a mom now.” Brianne patted her shoulder. “The job is yours.”

[B]Chapter 2: Triage

Part 14:[/B]

“We have to get out of this fucking town.”

Tiana shook her head. “It’s fine, Elliot.”

“How can you say it’s fine? Look around us. These people are smiling and chatting like nothing’s wrong.” Elliot ducked his head and put his hand over his eyes. “They’re making eye contact.”

“There is nothing wrong. People just pass the time differently here.”

Elliot leaned on the table and spoke in a hushed but dire tone. “Not one child here has asked us if we have games on our phones.”

Tiana looked around the diner. Elliot was right. The children from the birthday party had all been walking past their table while she and her cousin were waiting to regain reception, but not one child inquired about the games they had. “We have to get out of this fucking town.”

“Okay, you get the bill and I’ll call a cab.”

Tiana slammed her hand on the table. “We’re not leaving just because there’s no reception, Elliot.”

“Either of you like a top-up?”

Tiana smiled at the waitress and pushed her mug forward. “Yes please.”

“You know how serial killers feel about cellphones? Who knows how many serial killers live here.”

Tiana shook her head. “There aren’t any serial killers here.”

Elliot pointed down at his bowl. “There’s a finger in my chili.”

The waitress stopped pouring Tiana’s coffee and grabbed Elliot’s chili off of the table. “Ugh. Not again.”

The waitress stormed off to the kitchen and Elliot glared at his cousin. Tiana shrugged at him. “For all we know, someone was caught skimming.” Elliot kept glaring at Tiana. “Relax. We’ll have plenty to do at the campground. We won’t even remember we have them.”

After Tiana paid the bill, the two went outside for an after-meal smoke. Elliot saw a woman standing beside the restaurant window helping a little boy get dressed. Elliot approached her. “Excuse me, ma’am. Would you happen to know where the nearest wifi hotspot is?”

“D-those are bad for you.”

“Hush now, Bubba.” The woman stood up. “I got bad news for you. There’s strict restrictions on radio waves in the valley. They don’t want the observatory to be blinded by light pollution, even to light we can’t see.”

Elliot was starting to wonder why Tiana even wanted to come to this town. “Oh my. That is good to know.”

The little boy grabbed his mother’s hand and glared at Elliot. “D-those are bad for you.”

Elliot looked at his cigarette and nodded. “You’re probably right.”

The woman tugged on the boy’s arm. “Bubba, don’t be bossy.”

Elliot smiled. “It’s okay. He’s a bright young man. Thank you for your time.” He walked back over to Tiana, and she saw him clutching his stomach. “You okay?”

Elliot nodded. “Yeah, I-. Oh God.”

He dropped his smoke and sat against the wall. Tiana picked up the cigarette for him. “Elliot, are you okay?”

Elliot shook his head. “Call an ambulance.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Finger Chili.”

Part 15:

After she had him dressed out of his swimwear and into his street clothes, Sarah brought Martin into the diner for lunch. Their morning had been spent at the lake. Working in the afternoon meant she wanted her son to tire himself out before handing him off to Brianne. Though Brianne had many activities she could do with the boys, Martin was still distrustful of her. Whether Martin would get his daily exercise in Brianne’s care depended on how cooperative he was feeling.

It had been three weeks since Sarah took Martin in, and they packed up and left to a small town where many of Brianne’s colleagues lived. Sarah had yet to meet any of them. Martin was quite happy to move. Despite the depletion of his sex-drive and any understanding of adult relationships, Martin saw Sarah as a life-partner rather than a mother, even tough their very asymmetric relationship consisted of cuddles, bedtime stories, and bathes. In fact the only distinction between his relationship with Sarah and any other parent-child bond was that Martin didn’t call Sarah “mama.”

Sarah had Martin in her lap, and she was having Martin practice reading with the kids menu. A lot of things frustrated him about being three, but reading was one of the things he still thought he was good at. Sarah certainly seemed to agree. Every correctly read word was met with praise, and every mistake met with encouragement, even when he mistook his b and d. Sarah wasn’t going to be too critical of his reading. His speech had suffered a grievous blow, and she didn’t want to point out correct reading as a mistake.

“What happened?”

Sarah looked up from the menu, at Brianne. “Huh?”

“The ambulance out there? I thought you’d be all over that.” Sarah turned around and looked at the front door. She couldn’t see an ambulance through the windows. “Well it just left.”

Sarah shrugged as Brianne sat down. “I was facing this way.”

Brianne bounced her son in her lap. “Say hi, Gavin.” Gavin waved at Sarah and Martin. “Hi!” Martin and Sarah said “hi” back. “Good afternoon, Bubba.”

Martin took a deep breath, and let out a long burp. Sarah bounced her knee under him. “Martin, don’t be gross.” Sarah could cajole him all she wanted. The girls found burps gross, and he thought it funny. Whenever Brianne used Sarah’s name for him, he would burp or fart as payback.

Sarah looked to Brianne. “Small world. Was it a coincidence or not?”

Brianne tilted her head and had a wry smile on her face. “Was what a coincidence?” Sarah’s pager beeped and she stared at Brianne. Brianne shrugged. “Guess you’re busy today.”

Martin looked up at Sarah. “Not alone.”

She lifted him off her lap and sat him beside her. “It’s okay Bubba. Brianne will take good care of you.”

Martin stood up and leaned on the back of the booth, watching Sarah abandon him with Brianne. Martin turned around and slid on his back down the cushion of the booth. He glared at Brianne with folded arms.

Brianne nodded. In order to make Martin attach to Sarah, she had to play the bad guy, which meant he may never like her. “You wanna get out of here?”

Martin shook his head. “I’m hungry.”

“Hello, Brianne. Who’s this with you?”

Martin looked at the waitress. She was pretty, but if she liked Brianne, he didn’t like her. “This is my Godson, Martin. Martin, this is Lauren.”

Lauren smiled at him. “Aren’t you just a handsome little thing.” The compliment made Martin blush, but he wasn’t going to let flattery win him over. “Have you decided on what you’re going to eat, sweety?”

Martin grunted the smile off his face and folded his arms. “Fish sticks.”

Brianne stared at him. “Eh! Manners!”

Martin harrumphed. “Please.”

“Thank you.” Brianne looked back up at Lauren. “And don’t put any fake fingers on his plate. He’s three and Halloween was nine months ago.”

Lauren chuckled. “And only three months away.”

Part 16

The emergency room was hardly as loud as the others Elliot had been to. Tiana had been sitting beside him since they moved him to a corner unite, with a curtain between them and the rest of the ER. They had been waiting a few hours hours when the doctor came through the curtain. The same woman he saw at the diner stood before him in a labcoat, looking over his chart. “Mister…” She double-took him, and then stared. “Nice to see you again, Mister French. I’m Doctor Basset.”

Elliot sat up. “Elliot, please.”

The doctor looked at Tiana. “Sister? Girlfriend?”

“Cousin.” Tiana tapped Elliot’s arm. “I’ll leave you be. Do you want anything from the cafeteria?”

“Some chocolate milk, please.”

Tiana left and Doctor Basset put the chart down on the tray and began putting on a pair of latex gloves. “Abdominal pain, is it?” Elliot nodded. “Lift up your shirt please.” Elliot exposed his abdomen, and Doctor Basset began palpating. “Does it hurt there?”

“A little lower.” Doctor Basset moved her hand down his belly, and Elliot flinched.

“There?” Elliot nodded. Doctor Basset pushed down and Elliot let out a loud fart. Doctor Basset started laughing. Elliot laughed too, but not as long as she did. She sighed when she saw Elliot blushing. “I’m sorry.”

Elliot forced a smile. “It’s okay. It actually feels better now.”

“Really? All better?” Elliot nodded. Doctor Basset wiggled her finger on his chin. “You were just gassy, was it?” Elliot flinched away. Her behaviour seemed far too unprofessional. “I’m going to do an ultrasound just to be sure.”

Doctor Basset left, and came back a few minutes later with an ultrasound machine on a four-wheel stand. While Doctor Basset examined the inside of his abdomen, Tiana came back with a carton of chocolate milk. “So what’s the word? Are you long for the world?”

“Gas.”

“Gas?”

“Gas. It was mortifying.”

Doctor Basset laughed, and grabbed some napkins from the tray beneath the ultrasound’s monitor. “And gas is all it was.”

Tiana shrugged. “Well, that’s good news.”

Doctor Basset nodded as she wiped the gel off of Elliot’s belly. “Oh yeah, real good news.”

“So I can go?”

“Just a few things.” Doctor Basset looked at Tiana. “Make sure to toilet him after every meal. You don’t want him to get any build-up like that. Maybe reward him with some animal crackers. And maybe check his shorts. That fart sounded quite wet and he has yet to excuse himself. Talcum powder can also help with the smell, I’ve found. And maybe one day he’ll figure out what that kind of pain means.”

Elliot and Tiana stared at Doctor Basset. Tiana broke the silence. “Do you think this is a joke?”

“I think this is an emergency room. And despite what my three-year-old may tell you, a gas-cramp is not an emergency. I have patients that actually need my help. I don’t need to be wasting my time with boys who are big enough to know when to toot.” Doctor Basset took her gloves off and threw them in the trash. “Now, I’ll go fill out your discharge papers, and when I’m done, I’ll hopefully have a bed for my next patient. Good day.”

Doctor Basset left and Tiana scoffed. “Can you believe that? We should make a complaint.”

Elliot shook his head. “Fuck it, let’s just go.”

Naptime was cut short when Brianne decided she didn’t feel like carrying Martin to the car as well as Gavin. Martin was almost jealous of Gavin for being small enough to stay asleep, but he was never going to tell Brianne that, especially after he saw Brianne put some special medicine in her juice bottle. Sarah and Martin had a long talk about what her new job would entail. She would be working at the hospital and Brianne would be taking in boys and girls and turning them into little boys and girls. Sarah said she and Brianne would never let him drink any special medicine, but he did have a few rules he had to follow. One rule was that he can never ever acknowledge that any of Brianne’s kids are getting little, especially in public. The closets in Brianne’s and Sarah’s rooms were strictly off-limits. He felt he would be better off if she didn’t say that, because all he wanted to do was explore the closets now that they were off-limits.

Brianne drove the two boys to Sarah’s work, but they weren’t picking up Sarah. Brianne’s niece and nephew were in town, and they had stopped at the hospital for a check-up. The niece sat in the front seat, and the nephew sat between Martin and Gavin’s carseats. Martin recognized the nephew’s face and stink. He was at the restaurant asking Sarah about the town. He still smelled like the stink-stick he was sucking on, and Martin didn’t like him. Martin could tell the man was scared of him, and the man had been ignoring Martin the whole drive, instead talking to the ladies in the front of the car. That suited Martin just fine.

“Elliot had like, the worst doctor.”

Elliot glanced at Martin. “Oh, she wasn’t that bad.”

“No, she was talking to me about Elliot like I was his mom, and I should toilet him, and she was all ugh, my son knows when he has gas. Like, you’re a fucking doctor. Shouldn’t you know people get blockages sometimes? Not that it’s any excuse to talk to your patients like that.”

“To be fair to her, I’m not in the normal age range for that kinda stuff.”

“Yeah, abnormal, not unheard of. Why are you defending her?”

Brianne glanced at Martin in the mirror. “She sounds like a much worse doctor than your mommy, doesn’t she?”

Martin nodded. “Sarah’s a best doctor.”

Tiana held the water bottle to Elliot. “Thirsty?”

Martin looked up at Tiana. “Don’t mind if I do.” Elliot took the water bottle. Martin watched him drink the juice Brianne had put the special medicine into. Elliot looked at Martin and held the water bottle up. “Thirsty?”

Martin leaned to the opposite side of his carseat. “No thanks, I don’t like that juice.”

“Suit yourself.” Elliot handed the bottle back to Tiana, and Martin sighed in relief. He started to wonder if Brianne had recruited help in finishing the job Sarah hadn’t.

Part 17

Brianne’s house was furnished with more boxes than furniture. She and her housemate had just moved in a few days ago, and aside from the bedrooms, little else had been unpacked. A playpen had been built on the floor, beside the entertainment stand. Brianne had her laptop on the entertainment stand, overlooking the playpen. Although they didn’t have wifi, Brianne had downloaded many episodes of kid shows for the boys to watch on demand. Brianne didn’t need to contain Martin in the playpen, but he was okay with spending time in there with Gavin, as long as someone helped him in and out of it.

The three adults were too sophisticated for Mickey Mouse’s Clubhouse. Instead they passed the time with Monopoly. Aside from television shows playing on a laptop, the lack of internet in this town made every hour feel more like the early two-thousands than the late tens. Elliot and Tiana couldn’t remember the last time they had played Monopoly, but the rules had stayed the same. The rule of Monopoly is that the rules are never the same. After Tiana’s father left, Brianne hadn’t kept in touch with either of them, which meant they were re-learning her rules of the game.

“Did you name Gavin after my dad?”

“I’m sorry?”

Tiana nodded at Gavin. “Calvin. Gavin. Those are close, eh?”

Brianne looked at her son and then she her shrugged her eyebrows. “I never even thought of it like that.”

Elliot rolled a six and a two, and then advanced the car. “When did you last talk to him?”

Brianne shook her head. “Sooner than I can remember. What about you guys?”

Tiana shook her head. “I barely remember him. I don’t even know if he’s alive.”

“I’m sorry.”

Tiana shook her head at her aunt. “Meh. It was years ago.”

Elliot felt a chill on the tip of his penis and stood up. “Uh oh.”

Brianne and Tiana watched him leave. “Uh oh.” Martin echoed.

Brianne looked at Martin standing at the edge of the playpen. “Martin, there’s no gold in there.” Martin pulled his finger out of his nose and wiped the snot on the playpen. “Martin.” Brianne handed the boy a packet of tissues. “Don’t be gross.” Brianne grabbed the metal paper bin and held it beside the playpen. Martin wiped his snot off and tossed the tissue into the bin.

“Ten bucks says Elliot had an accident.”

Tiana smirked. “Already?”

“It never takes boys much.”

“What doesn’t take boys much?”

Tiana and Brianne looked up at Elliot as he walked back in. “Sugar. Tiana tried to offer the boys juice.”

Martin looked away from Minnie Mouse to reconcile his and Brianne’s version of events.

Tiana held up the juice bottle. “Thirsty?”

“Don’t mind if I do.” Elliot reached for the bottle and stood a slug. He sat down on his bottom, and tipped over, hitting his head against a table.

Martin saw this, and had a knee-jerk reaction to Elliot’s injury. “Bonk!”

Brianne looked into the playpen. “Martin, don’t be rude.” She winked at Martin and he smiled.

“Oops. Sorry.” Elliot sat up, and rubbed his head.

Brianne shook her head. “It’s just a table. You guys hungry?”

Tiana looked at her cousin, who was busy watching the cartoon. “Yes, please.”

Part 18:

Aunty Brianne had made them instant macaroni and cheese. By the time he had finished, Elliot had ruined his shirt. Brianne acted frustrated, but he could tell she was just acting. It was quite funny, but he pretended to be sad. He knew she didn’t mind if he mucked up a shirt with cheese sauce. His parents were always the ones worried about appearance. “You have to look nice for your aunty.” The fact that he didn’t was his and Brianne’s little secret. It was a fun game to play, but the fun wasn’t enough to drown out the shame of needing help to get undressed. This was an aspect of childhood he did not remember fondly, and had all but forgotten until now.

Brianne had taken him into the laundry room. He had a little accident, just a few drips before lunch, and he went to go clean up. On his way to the bathroom, he forgot what he had stood up to do, and went back to watch television. He hadn’t been a kid for a long time, but Brianne remembered what he had to do. “Ellie! What is this?” She wagged her finger against the tiny wet spot on his boxers. “You’re not a basketball player, why are you dribbling?”

Elliot was at a loss for words when he looked down at himself. “Uh oh” seemed to say it all.

“Why did you uh oh? Can you step out of those shorts?” Elliot stood up and dropped his boxers to his ankles. He lifted his leg but the shorts clung to his foot. He tried lifting the other foot, and again the boxers refused to stay on the floor. He wanted to get away from the brown spot as soon as possible, but his aunt had already seen it. “Oh no. You did more than dribble, honey-bunny. I think your doctor was right about you.”

His doctor, and as luck would have it, his aunt’s housemate. Elliot had all but forgotten about Sarah. One of the many faces he saw at his aunt’s house over the years. She didn’t remember him at the hospital, but she was going to remember him today. As soon as he was dressed, they were all going to pick Sarah up from her shift at the hospital, and Elliot would be in for a whole weekend of lectures. Elliot could hear it in his mind.

“He didn’t seem cleanly at all,” Sarah would say.

“Oh no, he sure isn’t. Did I tell you about his uh oh? Dribble in the front, fudge in the back.” Brianne would say.

“I can wipe all by myself” Martin would say.

It took Elliot a moment to remember he was nearly a grown man, and unlike when he was a child, an accident was no reason for what his parents called bedtime pants. It was a relief to see Brianne had an extra pair of underpants in his size. She hadn’t bothered to send him for his own bag. The briefs didn’t give his parts the freedom of movement that boxers did, but the Superman print made him feel like too much of a superhero to warrant a complaint. Brianne stretched the waistband out and let them snap against Elliot’s hips. She nodded with satisfaction. “Okay, let’s go get Sarah.”

Brianne stood up and threw his boxers and shirt in the washing machine. She started the machine and stared at Elliot. Elliot pointed at his jeans on the floor. He knew he was still feeling silly and would need help getting them back on. Brianne didn’t know that. She followed his finger and nodded. “Oh of course. Thank you, Ellie.” Instead of helping him into them, she threw the pants in the wash with his boxers. She held her hand out. “Let’s go, then.”

He wasn’t sure what to say, but Brianne seemed certain she had done the right thing. Elliot knew he was no one to question her judgement, and he took her hand. Tiana carried Gavin in one arm, and held Martin’s hand with her other. She was already packed up and ready to go. They had all been waiting on Brianne to finish the clean-up that he should have known to do himself. Tiana didn’t seem mad though. She seemed quite delighted at the sight of him. “Oh, wow. I love your Superman undies, Elliot.”

Elliot didn’t say anything. He tightened his grip on Aunty Brianne’s hand. If Tiana decided to get too mean, his aunty would surely protect him, and she did. “Don’t be mean, Tiana.”

“Oh, okay.” Tiana could tease him all she liked, though. Brianne had told him about her secret power, and if he asked really really nicely, Tiana would need far more silly undies than Superman briefs.

Elliot wasn’t sure why he had to sit in the very back of the van. There was plenty of room for him next to Tiana, but Brianne insisted on sitting him between Martin and Gavin. “We’ll keep the stinkers in one place.” Elliot may have found it a funny word, but he hadn’t been a stinker for a long long time. He didn’t need a towel folded up on his seat. He had one little dribble, and one uh-oh didn’t mean he wasn’t done potty training.

“It was only a small dribble, Aunty.”

“I don’t want to hear it. You’re nineteen. You shouldn’t be having accidents, and I definitely don’t need to tell you something twice. Do I?” Elliot folded his arms. “Yeah, harrumph all you like.” Brianne closed the door and went to the front seat. Elliot saw Martin staring at him with a sad face.

The boy held up his plastic tub of animal crackers. “Cookie?”

Elliot sighed and took an animal cracker. “Thank you, Martin. At least someone is on my side.” Brianne started the car and their road trip began.

Part 19:

“Dowaaa!” Gavin cheered. The monitor hung from the roof of the van, playing the television show for the boys in the back. Martin focused more on the world passing by the windows. Gavin cheered and pointed whenever Dora asked a question. Elliot tried to stay tuned into Brianne and Tiana’s conversation, but the mini-television was stealing his attention more often than not. By the time they reached the hospital, the perceived boredom had shifted from the television to the ladies. The mystery of Gavin’s fascination for Dora soon vanished. She was no longer patronizing them with really basic questions. Dora was offering to take them on an adventure. Elliot was too old for Dora by the time it was on TV, so he had no idea what to expect from each episode.

“We did it!”

“We did it!” Elliot repeated. Then he saw Tiana and Doctor Basset looking at the back of the car. He hung his head and looked down, pretending to play the Game Boy that didn’t work in this town.

The road was winding back and forth up the mountainside. Across the valley he could see the domes of the observatory, and all the grasslands surrounding the small miserable town his aunty lived in. The sharp turns were starting to stir Elliot like a spoon stirring ice cream until it turned into soup. But he wasn’t ice cream, he was a man full of noodles. “Aunty. I gotta go potty.”

Tiana laughed. “Really? Is potty where nineteen year olds go?”

Elliot nodded. He didn’t find it funny, and he didn’t care why she did. “Yeah.”

“What’s wrong, Ellie?” Brianne called from the driver’s seat. “Are you gunna uh oh?”

Elliot shook his head. “I need a potty.”

Martin looked at Elliot, and remembered his first accident. Martin was lucky enough to sleep through it, but waking up was no way for a boy to start a day. Now that he was three, Sarah was much nicer about getting him to the potty. “Sarah, I gotta tinkle.”

Sarah turned around. “Bubba. Are you sure?”

Martin nodded. “I gotta go real bad or I get all wet. I don’t have late time.”

Sarah shrugged at Brianne. “How about later?” Brianne nodded. Sarah faced the back. “Okay, Bubba. We’ll find a stop soon.”

Elliot didn’t have late- long time either. “Aunty, I’m gunna-” Martin leaned away from Elliot when he saw the yellow jetstream spraying out of the man’s mouth. Tiana froze when she felt the noodles pouring down her neck. “Ewwwww!!!”

Sarah faced the windshield and covered her mouth. “Oh my god. Pull over.”

Martin felt his stomach turn into a knot. It wasn’t the kind of belly-pain that goes away when you let your bladder go. Martin had a worse pain than his swelling training pants. “Sarah, I think.” Martin gagged. “I think.” Elliot’s range was far more impressive than Martin’s, but he too managed to ruin his clothes.

Brianne shook her head. “You know what. We’re like ten minutes out. We may as well just drive.” She put her fingers on the switches, and rolled all the windows down.

Sarah took a moment to watch the road, with her hand over her mouth. “It’s just motion sickness. We didn’t share any food.”

Brianne looked over at Sarah. “Huh?”

Sarah shook her head. “It’s just a reflex, from when our ancestors shared food.” Sarah took a deep breath and sighed. She looked back at the boys. “Are you okay, Bubba?”

Martin nodded. “I’m all wet really gross.”

“What about you, Ellie? Did you uh-oh?”

Elliot stared at Doctor Basset. The wind flapping against his ear drums made it hard to understand anything she was saying, and he didn’t really want any lectures from her.

Soon they were at the camp ground, and the river was their first stop after parking the van on their lot. Elliot sat in the edge of the water because his legs were too flimsy to stand. Martin didn’t undress until after he got himself wet, so he had an excuse for a sopping pair of training pants. Sarah pulled him out of the river by the arm. “Martin, clothes.”

“Sorry, Sarah.” Martin dropped his shorts and training pants to his feet. He held his arms up and Sarah held his hands for him to step out of his clothes. He saw the padding had turned yellow, but Sarah made no remark of it. She just told him to “fly, Superman” and took his shirt off of him when he held his arms up.

Gavin had been the only kid not covered in half-digested pasta. Tiana undressed and dipped in the river to rinse her hair out. Martin sat naked next to Tiana on a towel that Brianne had laid out on the shore. The two grown-ups had to help Elliot get out of the underwear he had soaked in the river, as well as wrap a towel over his private parts.

They went back to the campsite, where Tiana and Brianne built the tents while Sarah cleaned Elliot up. Martin and Gavin sat next to each other on the grass, eating crackers. Sarah had given Elliot one of Martin’s letter books, but Elliot was too checked out to recite his alphabets. Martin decided that as Brianne’s nephew, Brianne ought to have been the one showering Elliot with attention. Martin walked over to them and held his arms out. “Hugga Bubba.”

“Not now, Bubba.”

Martin stomped his foot and marched back to Gavin. Daniel Tiger told them to find their own way to say “I love you.” Sarah paraphrased “hagga magga” into “hugga bubba,” and she and Martin used it to declare snuggle-time. This was the first time she had ever turned down hugging her Bubba. Martin dropped his bum next to Gavin. It seemed like Elliot was the new kid in the playpen and Martin was yesterday’s jam. Yes, like yesterday’s jam. Martin looked at his little friend and wondered what he thought of Martin when he joined their family. Martin wondered if Gavin could even think about anything.

Part 20:

Gavin was starting to seriously reconsider his and his sister’s compatibility as housemates. She had annoying quirks that Gavin tolerated for the most part. Brianne would cringe when he ate his own boogers, and then she’d get mad when he put it on the wall or furniture. She would say a bunch of words that didn’t mean anything, but Gavin knew the dynamic had changed. He was the baby and it was Brianne’s responsibility to clean up his boogers. He was doing them both a favour by leaving his snot on Brianne’s laptop. His airway was clear and Brianne could deal with them at her earliest convenience. It was hard to see why she was mad.

It was nice having Martin and Sarah around. They kept things fresh. Martin was nice, but like many Adults who hadn’t yet reached full size, Martin’s idea of play was more perpendicular than parallel. Just the day prior, Martin invited Sarah into the nursery for a tea party, without asking Gavin if he was ready to receive any guests. When an Adult pours him a cup of tea, he expects at least some kind of refreshment. Anything other than air would have been acceptable. Gavin saw himself as a very progressive toddler. He didn’t consider himself age-ist. He had no problem with Adults playing make-believe, but toddlers live in the real world. The scariest thing about Martin’s tea party was that Gavin knew he would soon be playing make-believe. He was closer to two than one, and it wouldn’t be long before he drifted into the senility of childhood.

Our hero endured it all with stoicism and an average of only four tantrums per day. The real issue Gavin was having with his family was camping. He remembered it from when he was an adult, and it isn’t fun when you don’t live in the land of make-believe. For those that don’t know, camping is when adults pretend to be homeless for a night. Gavin didn’t have such a need for novelty. Give him some animal crackers and a warm lap and he’s happy to watch the world go by. Gavin knew people who were homeless. Hell, he was even homeless at one time. This whole weekend was going to be an obscene glorification of The Struggle.

Playing houseless did have it’s advantages though. After Brianne and Tiana built the tents, Sarah and Martin had built a fire. When Brianne wasn’t looking, Gavin took the chastity tape from the diaper bag and threw it into the inferno. Once Brianne changed this diaper, there would be nothing to stop him from playing with his penis like there was no tomorrow.

Once the kids were cleaned off and the tents were built, it was time for dinner. Campfire-roasted wieners and s’mores were on the menu. Sarah and Brianne dressed Elliot and then helped their respective sons dress.

Brianne was walking back from the car with the cooler when she saw her son holding the roll of duct tape. Gavin toddled to the fire pit. “Sarah, can you get Gavin away from the fire.” Before Sarah stood up, Gavin tossed the tape into the campfire. “Gavin!”

“Uh oh” Martin declared.

Gavin stepped back from the fire and giggled at the stinky smoke rising from the pit. Brianne walked up to the fire and watched the duct tape melting into the ash. “You little bugger!” Brianne put the cooler down. “Well what’s done is done.”

Sarah nodded. “Guess our valuables are staying in the car.”

Gavin spent the rest of dinner leashed to Brianne’s hip. Elliot was dozing off when he finished his first wiener. His speech was slurred but returning. If he got any sleepier, his mind was too juvenile to stay sitting upright, so Brianne took him to his tent for a nap.

After the little ones were full of hot dogs and sugar, Sarah took Martin to the bushes to toilet, and then carried him into their tent. She helped him out of his street clothes, and he lied down on his sleeping bag while she chose a pair of pyjamas for him. She saw him pressing his hands on his training pants, looking over the outer layer. “You didn’t have an accident, eh?”

Martin shook his head. “Just Tsecking. My Thomas pants don’t have fading pictsures.”

Sarah nodded. “You’re doing much better these days. Getting a feel for your new body?”

“A feel? That’s an act-word.”

Sarah laughed. “Fly, Superman.” Martin lifted his arms straight up and Sarah pulled his pyjama top over him. “It’s a saying. Like when you learn something you do by feeling. Like cooking, or writing.”

“Or stitsing?”

“Stit sing?”

“No, not stitsing.” Martin held his fingers in “okay” handshapes and pretended to sew with a needle and thread. “Stitsing.”

Sarah nodded in agreement. “Ah, of course… Stitching.”

“Yeah.”

“Legs up.”

Martin leaned back onto his pillow and held his foot up. Sarah pulled his pyjama pants over his leg. Martin put that foot down and lifted the other. “What if I need my night light?”

Sarah laughed. “I thought you might ask that. Bum up.” Martin put his feet flat on his sleeping bag and arched his back while Sarah pulled his pyjama pants over his bottom. “Bum down.” Sarah grabbed a small flashlight from the corner of the tent. “Always be prepared when you go camping.” Sarah flipped the lever and turned it around. “Winding this charges the battery, so if it doesn’t work, it might just need a charge. Okay?”

Martin took the flash light and winded it up. “Cool.”

Sarah unbundled a pair of socks. “Yeah. Do you remember how to do shadow puppets?” Martin nodded. “Do you know any good stories?”

Martin shook his head. “I don’t want a story tonight.” There was a snap and Martin sat up, pushing his feet away from Sarah’s hands. “There’s something out there.”

“It’s just the fire, Bubba.” Sarah fixed the socks to make sure they were tight on his feet.

“Oh, okay.” Sarah folded the sleeping bag over Martin while he fiddled with the flash light. Martin closed his eyes. “Thank you, Sarah.” She rubbed his chest through the sleeping bag until he fell asleep. Whenever Martin heard a noise he didn’t remember, he would look at Sarah, and when he saw she was calm, he knew there was nothing to worry about. When Martin was asleep, Sarah left the tent and sat by the fire. Brianne and Gavin turned in soon after Martin, and Tiana sat next to Sarah, roasting marshmallow’s.

“I know I shouldn’t say it out loud, but is Martin like Gavin?”

Sarah nodded. “They have their differences.”

“Like memory?”

Sarah observed Tiana for a moment and nodded. “He turned three almost four weeks ago, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“How’s he doing with that?”

Sarah looked from the fire to Tiana. “It isn’t Martin you’re worried about, is it?” Tiana looked away and pulled her marshmallow away from the flame. Sarah chuckled. “I was starting to realize just what I had done. He figured it out. Brianne said some kids do. And he was grateful of all things. I know there’s things that frustrate him now, like counting, or shoe laces. But he said he felt like the luckiest boy in the world. Gratitude was the last thing I ever expected. Such a sweetheart.” Sarah smirked when she realized she had evaded Tiana’s question. “Don’t worry about your cousin. His best years are still ahead of him.”

Tiana nodded and finished eating the Marshmallow. “Thank you. But if I don’t stop eating these now, I’ll burst.”

Sarah smiled. “Yeah. You get some sleep. Busy day tomorrow.”

Tiana went back to her tent, and saw Elliot was sitting up. She couldn’t discern much else in the tent. “Morning, sunshine.”

“Don’t tell aunty.”

Tiana sat on her sleeping bag and zipped the tent up. “Brianne’s asleep. Tell her what?”

“I think I need a new sleeping bag.”

Tiana sniffled. “Oh no. She won’t be mad.”

Elliot shook his head. “She will. She was mad at the house when I had a little dribble. She’ll freak if she sees my sleeping bag.”

“Okay, I think there’s a spare one in the car. Give me that one and I’ll put it by the fire.” Elliot nodded and scooched out of his sleeping bag. “Throw your underwear in there.”

“But I’ll be naked.”

Tiana scoffed. “It’s dark and I don’t care.”

Elliot slid out of his underwear and shoved them into the sleeping bag. Tiana rolled it up and left the tent. Sarah held the car key up as Tiana approached the fire pit. She took the key from Sarah’s hand without a word.

Tiana returned to the tent with two sleeping bags. “I think Martin has the same problem, becuase he has several more in there.”

“Please don’t do that.”

“What?”

“Call me a baby.”

“I wasn’t. I don’t care. I’m just glad you went years without an accident.”

Tiana did pick a bad time to move in with Elliot’s family. They were almost twelve and he still wasn’t allowed to have any drinks an hour before bed time. They still shared a bedroom to this day. Elliot couldn’t see the sleeping bags, but he felt them with his hands. “They’re too small.”

“I know. I got two. I think you’ll have to use one as a blanket instead.”

“Ah, alright.”

Tiana could hear the stress in his voice. “Are you crying?”

Elliot sniffled. “No.”

Tiana hugged him and kissed him on the cheek. “Don’t cry. Accidents happen.”

“I’m not crying.”

“Good. There’s no need. Okay?” Elliot pushed away and nodded. “Good. Get some sleep.”

Part 22:

Being this far north meant the sun rose far earlier than Elliot or Tiana were used to, not that the sun was enough to wake anyone at their age. Brianne carried Gavin out of their tent. Sarah and Martin were sitting on the log by the firepit. Martin was eating apple slices and dipping them in peanut butter.

“Morning.”

Sarah nodded. “Morning. Did Gavin sleep in overalls?”

Brianne nodded and handed her son to Sarah. “He burned the last roll of duct tape.”

“Gross.” Sarah took Gavin into her lap.

Brianne looked at the log across the firepit from Sarah. “Is that Elliot’s sleeping bag?” Sarah nodded and Brianne took a deep breath. “ELLIOT!”

Sarah saw the worried look on Martin’s face. “She’s just working, Bubba.”

They could hear scrambling from Elliot’s tent. He emerged shirtless, with a Paw Patrol sleeping bag wrapped around his legs. Brianne smiled. “Morning, sunshine.”

Elliot’s face went from scared to confused. “Is something wrong?”

“Why is your sleeping bag out here? Why is it damp?”

Martin raised his hand. “Why are you wearing my sleeping bag?”

Elliot laughed. “Funny story. See, after my small case of motion sickness, I woke up rather thirsty. And I grabbed a water bottle and went to the fountains. Then I fell asleep and rolled onto the bottle. And it broke open. I didn’t want to wake you so I borrowed some of Martin’s sleeping bags.”

Brianne nods. “Oh okay.” Elliot sighed when his aunt looked away. “I know what pee smells like, Elly.”

Elliot took a second to respond. “Tiana did it.”

Tiana snorted as she walked around the side of the tent holding a tray of paper coffee cups. “Nice try.”

Elliot glared at her. “Where’d you come from?”

“Coffee run.”

“Why’s there only three cups?”

Sarah snorted as she took hers from Tiana. “Yeah, a diuretic is just what you need.”

Elliot had almost forgotten he was camping with Doctor Basset. “Well, either way, I’m not taking the fall for your little accident.” Elliot took a sidestep to show Tiana’s sleeping bag. “My sleeping bag is dry as a bone.”

Tiana nodded. “Except for your period blood, of course?”

Elliot looked in the tent. Tiana’s sleeping bag was closed, so he couldn’t see the fabric. He grimaced at his cousin.

Sarah chuckled. “Accident or period, he’ll need some padding tonight.”

Brianne laughed at Elliot’s petrified face. “Relax, Ellie. Accidents happen. But if we need to go get you bedtime pants, please let me know now. Go get some clothes and have a shower.” Elliot nodded and ran to the car, still holding Martin’s sleeping bag over his bottom.

Martin looked up at Sarah. “What if I have an accident? D-that sleeping bag is all gross now.”

“You have your Thomas Training pants.”

Brianne squinted. “Pun intended?”

Martin grimaced at Brianne. “Hello, we’re having a conversasin.”

Sarah tapped Martin on the head. “Martin, don’t be rude.” Martin took a deep breath in and let out a burp. “Martin!” Martin glared at Sarah. “Do you want a timeout?”

Martin’s scorn turned to fear in half a second. “Ess-cuse me, Brianne. I’m burpy.”

Brianne smiled. “It happens, Bubba.”

Part 23:

Elliot realized how off he was feeling when he heard Dora the Explorer playing in the far back seat of the van. He could almost remember being immersed in the show on the way to the campsite, but that would have been impossible. He was too big to even stand hearing her voice, and yet he spent the entire drive down the mountain deliberating if he would seem silly if he asked his aunt if he could sit back there.

His clothes seemed to have expanded overnight. His shorts hung on his hip a little bit lower than usual and his shirt hung a little lower. It wasn’t a problem in the car, but he would look silly once they got out. If he didn’t know any better, he would think Brianne was “nannying” him, but she only does that sort of thing for work. The more likely explanation would be heatstroke, or allergies, or something he ate. Probably that finger chili. Who knew what sort of diseases the previous owner of that finger had.

It didn’t seem like a good camping trip if they had to go back into town just to have breakfast. Though Martin was a picky eater and he insisted that hotdogs aren’t breakfast food. All the ladies didn’t feel like hotdogs either.

Tiana decided to have a smoke. She asked Brianne if she could ask her for some advice. Brianne stayed outside while Sarah took the boys in. “What’s up?”

Tiana rubbed her arm. “Is it too late to call this off?”

Brianne looked around the parking lot. “Maybe. Why?”

Tiana shrugged. “I don’t know. He’s only seventeen, but it’s already weird looking at him.”

Brianne folded her arms. “And what happens when he comes to? What happens when he sees his reflection? You don’t think he’ll find looking at himself weird? He knows what I do. So do you.” Brianne shook her head. “I know it sucks, but his parents already paid for it. I’d rather handle it myself than someone else.”

Tiana shook her head. “Fine.”

Brianne stepped close. “I’m not happy about it, either. My sister will answer for it. I promise.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Let’s just say I get a steep discount, and leave it at that, okay?”

Tiana nodded and Brianne went inside. She finished her cigarette, and decided some half-baked revenge promise wasn’t enough from her aunt. What would be enough escaped her.

Elliot sat on the deep end of the booth, with Martin between him and Sarah. The same waitress who tried to feed him a finger had paper placemats and a cup of wax crayons. Sarah asked for one extra to the two for Martin and Gavin. “No reception.”

Lauren nodded. “Ah, yes. He seemed quite restless yesterday. Colouring’s much better than a phone, anyways. Don’t you think?”

Her sugary tone was grating on Elliot’s nerves. What was it about him that made women think they should talk to him like a child? He could speak up, but the mat was already in front of him, and the black lines over the white background beckoned to be filled in. The lack of colour seemed to be just what his fingers needed to stop fidgeting. As soon as Lauren left, he grabbed the crayons from the cup and began colouring.

Martin grunted. “Hey, manners!”

Elliot scowled at Martin. “Fuck off.”

This earned Elliot a smack upside the head. “Eh! Watch your language in front of my son, you brat!” Sarah put the crayon cup upright beside the crayons on Elliot’s colouring mat. “Do you see what’s wrong with this picture?” Elliot didn’t know the answer, but he knew it wasn’t that the picture wasn’t coloured. “Bubba, do you know what’s wrong with this picture?”

Martin didn’t want to be complicit in making Elliot feel small, but he was plenty happy to educate an ignorant grown-up on proper crayon etiquette. Martin leaned onto the table and put the green crayon into the cup. He stared at Elliot, waiting for it to click. He put the red crayon into the cup, and then the blue. Once the yellow crayon was all that was left on Elliot’s mat, Martin moved the cup back in the middle of the table.

Sarah nodded at Elliot. “Now do you see?”

The one crayon at a time rule came back to Elliot. “This isn’t a daycare.”

Sarah nodded. “You’re right. A daycare just might help you remember your manners. What do you say to Martin?”

Elliot wanted so bad to protest Sarah’s patronization, but he knew she was right, and he was wrong. “Sorry.”

“For?”

Elliot sighed. “Sorry, for being a crayon hog.”

Brianne and Tiana sat down. Brianne sighed. “Ah, the one crayon rule. That takes me back. We’ll have to teach Martin about that so Gavin doesn’t get any bad habits.”

Martin shook his head as he grabbed the green crayon from the cup. “I’m a crayon hog never.”

The way Martin held his head up while talking irked Elliot. Martin was staring down his nose at his colouring, but speaking to Elliot. He sure was smug for a boy still potty training.

Lauren came back with three chocolate milks and a coffee. Tiana saw two glasses had blue straws, and the third, that Lauren placed in front of Elliot had a green straw. She wanted to say something before he drank any, but Elliot did not give her a whole second before his mouth latched onto the straw. He didn’t even lift the glass up. One hand was colouring, the other held the paper in place. His neck worked, his eyes worked, why not multi-task? Tiana sighed. Speaking up with Brianne between her and the aisle would likely earn her a colouring mat of her own.

Lauren asked if Tiana or Brianne wanted a drink. Brianne ordered a coffee. Tiana shook her head. “I’m not thirsty, thank you.”

Part 24:

Elliot had to stop colouring when the food came. He could tell he needed a break anyways. His line-observance had been getting sloppy. His mouth-observance had been getting sloppy too. A good half of his omelette was ending up in his lap and even inside his shirt. He gave up on making a fool of himself. He would feign being full and take the food to go, and he could use all the crayons while Martin and Gavin ate. His stomach was getting cramp again anyways, but he wasn’t going to have Sarah give him another lecture. He let out a fart, and everyone gasped.

Brianne covered her mouth. “Ellie! What do you say?”

Elliot continued colouring. “Excuse me.” Elliot jumped when he felt something poking down the waist of his shorts. He looked at Sarah, who pulled her hand away. “What are you doing?”

“It sounded pretty wet? You don’t want to go check your bum?”

Elliot scowled and continued colouring. Martin plugged his nose and looked at Sarah. “Ew. He’s stinky.”

“Eat your food, Bubba.”

Elliot had another, stronger cramp. Brianne saw Elliot wincing and he let out another fart. “I remember that face.”

Tiana coughed. Brianne waved her hand in front of her face. Sarah shook her head. “Seriously, I don’t mind standing up.”

“Sorry. I guess gas cwamps aren’t an emerdency.”

Tiana looked up from her food. Elliot’s eyes were on his colouring mat. He hadn’t even noticed his problem with his R or J sounds. Then she saw him wince again, and it was taking him longer to fart. “Ellie, don’t do it.”

Elliot didn’t listen. He was sick of the cramps and he was going to get rid of the gas once and for all. This fart wasn’t as loud, but it sure sounded bubbly. It even felt bubble against his back.

Elliot was leaning forward as he coloured, and Martin could see the poop oozing over the back of Elliot’s shorts. He screamed. “He pooped his pants!” He pushed at Sarah. “Move move he pooped his pants!”

Elliot looked up. All the girls were staring at him. Martin was right, and he was right to climb under the table to get away. The little boy ran out from under the table and into the aisle. Martin pointed at Elliot in desperation. “He pooped his pants! Ew!”

Sarah held her hands up at her son. “Bubba. Relax. It’s just an accident.”

“Accident?” Elliot thought to himself. “I haven’t had an accident since- well, last night.”

Lauren came over to the table. “What’s going on?”

Brianne cleared her throat. “Can you get us some napkins?”

Lauren’s eyes widened at the ooze behind Elliot. “Ew. No. I’ll take care of it.”

Brianne shook her head. “No, really. Leave it to me.”

“Out!” Lauren pointed at the door. “All of you! Out!”

Brianne pulled out her wallet. “How much do we owe you?”

“Out!”

Brianne pulled out a bundle of cash. She put the bills on the table and patted them. “That should cover it. Let’s go.” Brianne picked up Gavin and Tiana followed her.

Sarah stood up and Lauren stepped aside. “Come on, Ellie.”

Elliot shook his head. “Don’t make me stand up.”

Lauren glared at him. “Get out of here, Smelliot!”

After his bedtime pants were discovered at a sleepover, Smelliot had been his nickname for the rest of grade six. He hadn’t heard that name in a long time, and he didn’t want to hear it again. Martin jumped up and down on the way to the door. “Smelliot, smelliot.” Okay, but after Martin was done chanting, he didn’t want to hear that name again. Elliot kept his eyes on the ceiling, ignoring all the people choking from the smell and plugging their noses. He couldn’t ignore the people who were laughing, but he was out of the restaurant soon enough that it didn’t matter.

Then Brianne handed Gavin to Sarah, and grabbed Elliot by the arm. “You’re coming with me, Bud.”

Brianne walked him to behind the restaurant near the garbage bins. There, Brianne unrolled the hose, and told him to undress. Elliot shook his head. “Do you want to ride in the car clean? Or do you wanna walk poopy pants?”

Elliot fell to his knees and groveled. “Please, aunty!”

“Now!” Elliot stood up, kicked his shoes off and dropped his shorts. “And your shirt!” Elliot took his shirt off, and saw Brianne was right. There was poop on the back of it too. “Hold still.”

Martin heard Elliot screaming, and apologizing all the way from the van. He didn’t want to know what Brianne was doing to Elliot. Martin tugged on Sarah’s shorts. “I gotta go.”

Sarah nodded and handed Gavin to Tiana. She went to the back of the van. Martin followed Sarah and when she opened the trunk, he saw the training potty he had to sit on a few weeks before. It was much bigger, but he remembered it well. He stepped back as Sarah put it on the ground. “Go in here.”

Martin shook his head. “No, please. I’ve been good.”

Sarah shook her head. “Huh? Don’t you gotta go?”

Martin started crying. “Please, I’ll stop having accidents I pwomise. I’ll even wear unda-pants like a big boy. Please don’t make me go in there.”

Sarah looked at the potty, and then at Martin. It was the training potty he sat on the afternoon before he shrank down to age three. She kneeled down, and Martin took another step back, tripping on the curb and landing on the grass. Sarah stood up while he scrambled to his feet. “Okay, Bubba. I’m putting it away.”

“I don’t wanna be a baby.”

Sarah put the potty in the trunk and kneeled down again. “You’re not going to be a baby, Martin. Come here.”

Martin shook his head. “I wanna be big.”

Sarah nodded. “That’s good. You’re gunna get so big. Hugga Bubba.”

Martin took a few slow steps and Sarah picked him up. Sarah saw Martin staring at the potty and closed the trunk and stepped away from the van. “You’re not going to be a baby, okay?”

Martin looked into her eyes. “Pwomise?”

Sarah nodded. “Promise. Can you hold it for a few minutes? We can’t go in the restaurant.”

Martin nodded. “What if I can’t?”

Sarah brushed his bangs to the side. “Then you won’t need to feel bad at all. Because it’ll be Sarah’s fault for not bringing you a safe potty. We can even get you a new toy for trying so hard to hold it. Okay?” Martin nodded. “Can you give me a kiss?” Martin kissed Sarah’s cheek, and then she kissed his. “Atta boy.”

Sarah put Martin and Gavin back in the car. Brianne and Elliot came back. Elliot sat in between Gavin and Martin’s carseats, and put a blanket over his private parts. “Where are your close?”

Elliot sighed. “In the garbage bins.”

Martin looked to the front of the van. “Are we going back to the camp?”

Brianne started the van. “We just gotta make one stop first.”

Part 25:

Brianne drove to the pharmacy. Sarah and Martin were the first out, and they ran inside before the others got out of the car. Brianne got out of the car and held the side door open. “Out.”

Elliot shook his head. “I don’t have any clothes.”

“You will. Out.”

Elliot had no legs to stand on today. He pooped his pants, pure and simple. Any illusion of competence had been shattered, which meant he had to do whatever the grown-ups said, no matter how big he thought he was. His cracking voice made him feel even smaller.

Once Elliot was out of the van, Brianne went inside to retrieve Gavin. She grabbed the blanket from Elliot’s hands and threw it into the car. “You won’t be needing that.”

Elliot thought he did, but Brianne closed the door before he could speak. She held Gavin up by his bum with one hand, and she grabbed Elliot’s with her other. Tiana stood aside and sat against the wall next to the only payphone still in existence while the others went inside.

Brianne gave Elliot a twenty dollar bill. He didn’t feel like he earned a present. One of the employees saw them enter and pointed at Elliot. “Ma’am. Please put some clothes on your son.”

“My nephew! Had a little accident. A big one, actually. You can fuck right off.”

“That’s a bad word.”

Brianne glared at Elliot. He always had to declare a bad word when he heard it, but he was rethinking that habit. Brianne grabbed his hand. “Come on.”

Brianne walked her naked nephew through the store. Everyone was staring at him and everyone was mad. Elliot started to tear up. “I wanna wait in the car.” Brianne ignored him, and they turned into the diaper aisle. Brianne plucked a package off of the shelf. It was a different packaging than when he was a kid, but he recognized the logo. These were bedtime pants.

Brianne knew what he was going to say before he even said it. “I don’t want to hear it.”

The cashier’s eyes widened at the naked teenager approaching her till. Elliot looked at Brianne. “Go on.”

Elliot slouched and put the diapers on the counter. The cashier nodded. “Ah, that explains.” She shrugged and waved her hand at Elliot’s state of undress. “Gotcha.” She held up the package higher than Elliot was comfortable with, and scanned the package once she found the barcode. “Anything else?” Elliot stared at the display of lighters while he put the twenty dollars on the counter. “Just the bedtime pants then.” She handed him the change, but Brianne stepped up and took it. “Do you need a bag?”

“No thank you, we’re fine.”

Elliot looked over his shoulder, and to his relief no one was staring at him buying diapers. He sighed and was ready to get out of here. They walked past the tills, and as he stepped to the exit, he heard plastic tearing. “And where are you going?”

Elliot turned around and saw Gavin sitting on the floor, and Brianne opening the package. He shook his head. “Please not here.”

“I’m sorry. Did I say if it please your hiney? Come here.”

Elliot slouched his shoulders and threw his head back as he walked over. He started crying. “Please, aunty.”

Brianne oped up the bedtime pants. “Wah wah. Step in already.”

Elliot held onto her shoulders and as she pulled the pants up he saw everyone staring and giggling at him. Some people even had their phones out. Elliot started to wail. “Please I don’t wanna wear bedtime pants.”

Brianne didn’t bother indulging in the euphemism for his new underwear. “You wouldn’t need a diaper if you went poopoo in the potty.” This remark earned uproarious laughter from the store.

Tiana stood up to get another cigarette from her pocket. As she lit up, she noticed Elliot through the window. He was bawling as their aunt adjusted the waistband of a diaper on him. Then she saw the payphone and decided enough was enough. She pulled the phone off of the receiver and dialed 9-1-1. To her relief, it didn’t require any change for that number. “Nine one one, what is your emergency.”

That was an odd question. Operators only answered like that on television. Maybe that was how they answered in the states, but in Canada they always asked “Fire, ambulance or police?”

Then she saw a man walk by, holding a crying little boy by the hand. The boy’s shirt looked like it it belonged to the man, and the hem was almost dragging on the ground. Then she heard the man say “you wouldn’t be a baby if you went peepee in the potty. That’s where big boys go.”

“Ma’am?” Then she knew something was wrong. She hadn’t spoken, but the man knew she was a woman.

Then she saw the small camera in the top corner of the booth. “Shit.”

Brianne patted Elliot’s diapered bottom. “Why are you crying? You’re so cute in your diaper. I just wanna gobble you up.” Elliot giggled, and when he caught himself he cried even more. Brianne’s pager went off, and she glanced at Gavin to make sure he was still close. She looked at the message on her pager’s display.

“10 o-clock payphone contain tertiary threat”

Brianne looked to her left and saw Tiana in the payphone booth. Tiana looked through the window and made eye contact with her aunt.

Part 26:

As they waited in line for the cashier, Sarah saw Martin digging his fingers into the backside of his pullup. Because of his emergency, they ran to the bathroom before Sarah grabbed his flushable wipes. The padding was too thick to itch his bum. Sarah pulled his hand away. “Stop itching, we’ll wipe off in the car.”

Martin pouted. “I hate potty paper.”

Sarah nodded. “Me too.”

As promised, she let him pick any toy from the shelves. Sarah had forgotten that this town was run by nannies and many stores had anything you would need to get someone into one little space or another. This pharmacy had several toy aisles adjacent to the diaper aisle. Martin decided he was still old enough to drive, and picked out an electric plastic car that he himself could fit in. This toy ran at a little over a hundred dollars.

Sarah heard about small children being asked to wait in front of a piece of candy for a few minutes, and if it was still there, they could have two. Sarah decided to put Martin’s gratification delay to the test. “Martin, I don’t have enough money for that. Would you like to buy a smaller toy?”

Martin looked at the car and pouted. “But you promised I could pick any.”

Sarah nodded. “Well, if you don’t want a toy now, we can come back in a few weeks for a new one.”

Martin pressed his lips together. “Hmm.” Then he smiled. “Okay!”

Sarah smiled. “Great.” Martin walked passed her, and Sarah’s smile disappeared. “What? Bubba, where are you going?”

Martin turned around and sneered at her. “Aren’t we done here?”

So, Sarah had to try another strategy to avoid buying the truck: buy a small toy now and hope he forgets. Martin didn’t see anything wrong with her counter proposal, or that it was even a counter proposal. He settled for a bath and pool toy of Bucky, Jake the pirate’s ship, for now and a giant kid-sized truck next week. She had a feeling Martin would remember. From what she remembered of her childhood, if you make a promise to a child, you better believe they’ll hold you to it.

Elliot had been causing a scene over having to wear bedtime pants. Sarah could tell from the other end of the cashiers that he was far younger in his head than in his body, and he looked even younger when he was lying on the floor hunched over his knees. He had fallen into a full-blown tantrum, but there wasn’t a single person here who would hear his pleas. Anywhere else, Brianne would undergo an arrest for child abuse. In this town, he was just another kid acting out both his past and future.

Gavin sat on the floor, sitting close to Brianne’s feet, watching for someone to walk by. Gavin saw Sarah and Martin and waved. “Hi!”

Brianne was holding her pager with a stunned look on her face. Sarah and Martin approached. “Something wrong?”

Sarah followed Brianne’s gaze out the window and saw Tiana in the phone booth. Brianne put her pager in her pocket without breaking eye contact. “Sarah, can you please take the boys to the van?”

“What’s going on?”

Brianne saw Tiana putting the phone on the receiver, holding eye contact with her aunt. Brianne shook her head. “Don’t do it, Tea.” Brianne took a step forward and Tiana fled, running along the store until she was past the windows, and out of sight. Brianne stopped walking and huffed. “Damn it, Tea.”

Sarah shrugged. “Are we going after her?”

“She won’t get far.” Brianne shook her head and picked Gavin off the floor. “Come on, Gaga. Let’s go home.”

Martin tugged at Sarah’s shorts. “Are we in trouble?”

Sarah shook her head. “I don’t know, Bubba.”

Brianne lifted Elliot by his arm. “You wanna get out of here?”

Elliot nodded and sniffled. “Uh-huh.”

Part 27:

After a few minutes splashing in the river, Elliot had a hard time remembering what he was worrying about on the drive back to the campgrounds, or even on the walk to the river. None of the other campers here would be able to tell the difference between his bedtime pants and regular underpants. They looked much thinner than they would on a child. These one’s weren’t all white like the ones he wore as a kid. These ones were blue just like underwear, and the blue and white camouflage print over the padding actually looked cooler than regular underwear. Just as his fears went away, Brianne called him back to the towels.

“It’s too warm. We can’t have you getting thirsty.” Brianne was so smart. He was so wrapped up in splashing around that he would keep playing until he shriveled up like a raisin, which is pretty hard to do in a river. He sat down to drink his juice while Brianne put sunscreen on him.

“Will it keep me from turning into a raisin?”

“Huh?”

“Like if you stay in the bath too long, you turn into a raisin.”

Brianne laughed. “No, Ellie. You can’t turn into a raisin in a river.”

“Why?”

“Because.” Brianne shrugged. “There’s no soap in the river.”

“Soap turns you into a raisin?”

Brianne glanced at Sarah, who was sitting with the boys in the water. Sarah was a much better conversationalist than boys with the mind of a five year old, but she was busy supervising their kids. Although, talking with Elliot made Brianne feel more nostalgic than the rest of her charges. “Yes, Ellie. Soap turns you into a raisin.”

“Why do we use it then?”

“Because it turns germs into raisins.”

“Why?”

“Because soap turns germs into raisins faster than it turns you into a raisin.”

“Why?”

Brianne sighed. “Because germs are teeny-tiny. Is your juice done?”

“Not yet.”

Brianne took the bottle and shook it. “Good enough for now.” She gave him a pat on the back and he stood up and ran to the water.

Sarah saw him flailing his arms and held up her hands. “Whoa, Ellie, be careful.”

Elliot veered away from the little ones and tumbled into the water. Sarah’s earlier rule about not letting him play with the little ones was still in place. They didn’t want him to hurt them because he’s so big. Elliot looked to the other side of the river, and decided he wanted to swim to it. The only thing stopping him was the dread of swimming where the water was deeper than he stood. He looked back to his aunt. “I don’t have my floaties.”

Brianne chuckled. “Ellie, why do you need floaties? Aren’t you a big boy?”

She was right. Martin and Gavin both had floaties on their arms, but they were really little. Elliot wasn’t sure if he needed floaties. He was sure he did until Brianne reminded him he was big now. The timeline was hard to reconcile. Devoting so much brain power to the confusion made him feel dizzy. Brianne walked up to him, but she didn’t seem worried. She actually looked quite happy. “What’s on your mind, Ellie?”

Elliot pointed across the river. “The side to the swim.”

“You wanna swim to the other side?”

Elliot nodded. “Yeah.”

“You don’t need floaties for that.”

Elliot shook his head. If he didn’t have floaties, he’d sink to the bottom and have to go to a school of fish. “Yeah.”

“You’re just a fraidy-cat, eh?” Elliot shook his head. “How old are you?”

Elliot held up all ten fingers, but he didn’t have enough to show how many. Didn’t that mean he could just say the number? Shouldn’t a this-many year old man be able to say it? It was all to confusing, and he had to sit down. Whenever his kindergarten teacher wanted them to pay attention, she would tell them to sit down. It took him over a decade to realize she did it because standing took so much attention. He sat down in the water, and Aunt Sarah declared “Bonk!” It was certainly a bonk to sit his bum down right on a rock, but his soppy bedtime pants sure cushioned the blow.

Brianne laughed at him, sitting with the river right up to his shoulders. “What are you sitting there for?”

Elliot splashed his arms on the surface. “Kiss koss, appa-sauce.”

“Chris-cross, applesauce?”

It sounded like a question, but Elliot knew she was really asking if he could do it. and he crossed his legs under the water and smiled at his aunt. “What’s with the cheeky smile?”

Brianne had her snorkel handy. She figured Elliot wouldn’t be able to walk for long, and was liable to drown himself. She gave him her snorkel. “Bite down.” Elliot bit the snorkel. “Okay, can you scuba back to the shore?”

Elliot closed his eyes, and started crawling on the riverbed with his head under the water. Brianne walked backwards, holding the snorkel above the water. Elliot was sad the water was getting lower. It wasn’t as fun snorkeling in the shallow end but he crawled lower and lower so he could keep snorkeling.

Finally he was at the edge, and there was no room for his head to keep snorkeling. He spat it out, and Brianne kept walking backwards, coaxing him to follow her. She reminded him of a mommy coaxing a baby to crawl, and thought she was being silly. He stood up and waddled after her. “Why are you walking like that?”

Elliot looked down at the bedtime pants. They had inflated in the river. “My pants are super dooper wet.”

“I know. Did you uh-oh?”

Elliot giggled at Brianne being so silly, and pointed at the river. “No, it’s all de water in dere.”

“Oh, that’s good.”

Elliot looked down at the soppy pullup. He bobbed his hips back and forth, making the absorbent padding swing back and forth. Brianne laughed. “I remember that dance. Is that your change-me dance?”

Elliot laughed. He barely remembered doing his change-me dance. He remembered Mommy and Daddy saying that from time to time, but he had all but disregarded those memories. Brianne giggled at Elliot pondering the remark, still swinging his diaper sag back and forth between his legs. “Okay, we’ll change your pants.”

Elliot was glad she was calling them pants again, instead of the D-word. He was also glad that she brought extra bedtime pants to the river, especially because these ones had gotten so big in the water, that they were about to fall off. He wasn’t happy about the package she was opening. He already bought his own at the store, but she was opening a second package, and except for the blue helicopter and the camouflage sky on them, these were all white.

He wanted to protest, but his soppy pants already fell to his ankles, and he’d rather pants that only sort of looked like the D-word than walk back to the tent naked. “Step in, handsome.”

Elliot held onto Brianne’s shoulders while she pulled his new pants up. Martin and Gavin had grown a lot more in the river, and Sarah was already packing up their towels. “How come Gavin and Martin don’t have to change?”

Brianne laughed. “Those are swim-diapers, silly. Silly babies don’t mind walking around in wet diapers. Not you, eh?”

Elliot nodded. “Yeah.”

Martin grunted, and pulled on Sarah’s bathing suit. “Can you take my Dora pants off?”

Sarah put her hand on Martin’s head. “We’ll change at the tents.”

Part 28:

Elliot had gotten littler. He was still a big kid, but he sure wasn’t acting like one. He couldn’t have hotdogs because they were choking hazards, and Brianne said he wouldn’t remember to chew, so Elliot had a cup of Gavin’s ravioli. Elliot was eating with his hands while Sarah and Brianne kept teasing him. They were being really mean, but he smiled at their bullying. They said things like “do you need a bib?” or “do you need help? are you a baby?”

Elliot was disgusting Martin. Martin couldn’t understand how Elliot couldn’t see they were making him act like a baby, but what made him angrier was Sarah paying so much attention to him. Instead of squirting ketchup on his hotdog, she squirted it into his hand. “Sarah, look.” When Sarah looked at him, he wiped his hand on his face and laughed.

Sarah didn’t find it funny. “Martin, don’t be gross.” She handed him a baby wipe, as if he was supposed to clean himself off, even though Elliot was the big kid. Martin realized he was wrong. Elliot had been drinking the special medicine, and since Gavin was already a baby, Martin was actually the big kid now.

Martin was waiting to finish eating before having Sarah take him to the bathroom, but being three years old made it a lot easier to play pretend. Martin closed his eyes and pretended the log he was sitting on was a potty, and filled his training pants with pee. Sarah didn’t notice his training pants swell, which suited him. She was busy teasing Elliot and he still had half a hotdog left.

After he finished his hotdog, Martin hopped off the log and grabbed one of Gavin’s diapers from Brianne’s bag. Brianne broke off from her conversation with Sarah. “Martin, what are you doing?”

Martin walked up to Sarah and handed her the diaper. Sarah took the diaper in her hand. “Thank you?” Martin had his hands in a fist and crossed his forearms in an X. He turned his hands until they were facing the other way up. Sarah shrugged. “What?”

Brianne had been teaching Gavin a few signs from ASL, and knew Martin had picked up some vocabulary. “He wants a change.”

Sarah wasn’t sure what to think. She thought he would find training pants and being three would have been enough for him, and he wouldn’t want to be a baby anymore. “Martin, you’re not a baby. Clean yourself off, already.”

Martin stomped his foot and threw the baby wipe in the fire. “Well he’s not your baby!”

Martin was storming off when Sarah yelled. “Hey! Get back here mister!”

“What!?”

“Do you want a time-out?”

“I was going for a time-out! It was uh. A self-impose time-out!” Sarah glared at him and curled her finger for him to come back. Martin sighed and walked back to the firepit, but instead of going to Sarah, he went to Brianne, and climbed onto the log on the opposite side of Brianne.

Brianne glared at him. “Don’t look at me. I’d give you worse than a time-out.”

Martin hugged one arm around Brianne’s and mumbled. “Please tell her Ellie’s your nephew, not hers.” Martin noticed Sarah looking at him, and he leaned back so that Brianne was in between him and her.

Brianne shook her head. “That’s no reason to be a brat, Martin.”

Martin huffed. “But she only wanted me because she wanted a baby, but now Ellie’s the baby.”

Brianne glanced at Elliot, who was thankfully oblivious to English. Elliot poked at the front of his bedtime pants. “Pee pee.”

“Martin, what did I tell you?”

“He’s hogging Sarah. He’s badder than a crayon hog.”

Sarah spoke up. “Bubba, come over here.”

Sarah’s voice was gentle, but he still wanted Brianne to scold her. “He’s not her nephew.”

“Go see your mommy.”

Martin sneered and hopped off the log. He felt stupid for thinking Brianne could ever be nice to him. “She’s not my mommy.” Brianne saw Sarah frowning when Martin walked back up to her. “What?”

Sarah shook her head. “Elliot’s not replacing you, Bubba.”

“What’s’at mean?”

Sarah sighed. “He’s going back to his mommy and daddy when he’s done.”

“Guys, can you take it out of earshot.”

Martin stomped his foot. “Wih having a convisay-sin here.”

Sarah stood up. “Okay, enough, Bubba. Let’s go get you cleaned up.” Martin shook his head and pouted. “Bubba, you’re not in trouble. Let’s go talk. We’ll leave Brianne with the babies. How’s that sound?” Martin glanced at Brianne and nodded at Sarah.

Brianne looked at Elliot while Sarah and Martin left. Elliot was sitting on the ground, covered in tomato sauce, staring at Brianne. “He usually behaves, I promise.”

Brianne’s pager beeped and she pulled it out of her pocket. “Situation persists. Return home. Await inst.”

Brianne sighed and folded her arms. “Damn it, Tea.”

Part 29:

Sarah took Martin to the river to sit down away from the other campers. She suspected everyone else here was in the know, and she suspected someone was listening. Martin sat next to the water, drawing shapes out of ripples with a stick. The task gave Martin something to focus on and calmed him down. “Why are you so cranky, Bubba?”

“I don’t wanda sare you.”

Sarah smirked. “Haven’t we talked about sharing? You’re so good at sharing. You even showed Elliot how to do it.”

“You’re not a crayon.” Martin looked up from the water and shook his head. “I know it’s yo dzob now. I dzust wiss I wasin’ so dzealous.”

Sarah leaned in so her face was next to his. “My job is to take care of you, Bubba.”

Martin smiled but shook his head. “No, it is.”

Sarah sighed. “Maybe we can use a sign.”

“Like Gavin? For what?”

“Sure. How about when I’m busy giving cuddles to charges, you make a sign for when your jealous, and when I’m done with them, I’ll give you all the cuddles I have. I know you’re a very patient boy.” Sarah rolled her eyes. “You’ll have a toy truck to show for it. Will that work for you?”

Martin stared at the water to ponder her proposition. “What’s a sign fo’ dzealous?”

Sarah shrugged. “Don’t know. We can make one up, though.”

Martin winced. “Is that allowed?”

“Of course. Brianne doesn’t know ASL, but she still uses signs with Gavin.” Sarah looked up at the sky for a moment. “We can use the sign for love.” Sarah held her forearms over her chest in an X. “When you do this sign, all you have to do is wait patiently, and we’ll cuddle or whatever once I’m done with the charge, okay?”

Martin smiled and nodded. “I like that.”

“Me too.” Sarah rubbed the back of his head, and he leaned into her side. “Bubba, why did you get mad at Brianne for calling me your mommy?”

Martin rolled his eyes. “Ugh. See always does’at. I twy to tell her no but see never listens me anyways.” Martin slapped the water with the stick and watched the ripples. “See thinks you gotta be my mommy to take care of me. I know you’re like a mommy, but dzust.” Martin shrugged.

“But I’m not your mommy.” Sarah rubbed Martin’s scalp, in a way to keep him facing down while she kept herself from tearing up. Martin kept playing with the water, and just thought she was rubbing his head. “Do you miss your mommy?”

Martin shook his head. “No. I kinda do. But I got you now. I dzast don’t want to forget her, it’s all.”

“You don’t want to see her?”

“No. I said you I don’t want to scare her. See might dzust think we were mean and trying to twick her.”

One other question burned at Sarah, but she decided not to ask it. She had only had Martin for three weeks, but she could already tell things that were obvious to an adult could easily be lost to him. Asking him if he worried his mommy missed him might just upset him. Martin was indeed thoughtful as a child, but there was no way he could think of absolutely everything. “Will you ever like Brianne?”

Martin shook his head. “See’s the meanest person on the planet.”

Sarah chuckled. “Who, Brianne? Why do you say that?”

“See is. See’s mean to Ellie. See got Tiana in twouble. See’s always so bossy me.”

“Martin, she has to be bossy when I’m not around.”

Martin shook his head with a stern look. “No. You’re the boss. Not her.” Sarah chuckled, and Martin pouted. “Don’t laugh.”

“I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing at how silly I’ve been. I know you don’t like her, I’m sorry you have to stay with her while I’m at work. But can you try to be friends with her? I bet you’re really good at making friends. And she does care about you, eh?”

Martin shrugged. “I don’t think so.”

“Guys.” Martin and Sarah looked at Brianne standing behind them. She had Gavin in one hand and held Elliot’s hand by the other. Elliot had a pacifier in his mouth, which meant he had been sucking his thumb. Martin hated Brianne for that. He always sucked his thumb, and Brianne said he needed a pacifier for that. Martin didn’t care how gross Brianne thought his finger was, a pacifier surely tasted grosser.

“I packed up the tents. We have to go home.”

Martin frowned. “Alweady?”

Brianne nodded. “It’s a bit of an emergency.”

Sarah sighed and saw Martin frowning, and she knew he blamed Brianne for the end of their camping trip. “We’ll come back next weekend, when you don’t have your silly cousins to spoil the fun. Okay?”

Martin nodded. “Yeah.”

Part 30:

After he shrank down to age five, Elliot’s mind was taking a long time to return from babyhood. His booster seat was too big to fit in between Gavin and Martin’s carseats, so he had to sit in the middle row of the van. Just as he did when he was a baby, soon after Elliot’s mind had passed his first birthday, he spat his pacifier out, sending it to the floor of the van.

He couldn’t see the TV screen, but he could hear Mickey Mouse and his friends talking to Gavin and Martin. “Kindaw! Kindaggy! Sawgy zah!” Elliot had only seen Mickey Mouse’s Club House as an adult. Even thinking about Mickey in three dimensions gave him the willies. Mickey talking in silly sounding non-sequi… non-sec… Ahem. Non-words made him sound a lot less intimidating. “Babo nubu obuda?” Elliot heard Mickey say.

“Gwivwav wombio, hamboonjy,” replied Minnie Mouse.

Brianne heard Elliot burst into giggles and looked in her rear view mirror. “Ellie? Eevooga yabva leego?”

Elliot laughed at his aunty’s Mickey Mouse impression. In between giggles, Elliot said “Mickey talks so silly.”

Sarah looked at Brianne in confusion. “Lufu wam leevoo?”

Brianne shook her head. “Neeb. Ellie blanda garb.”

The car ride ended at Brianne’s house. Sarah took the babies in and Brianne helped Elliot out of the car. Martin and Gavin had two beds in their nursery. Gavin had another crib and Martin had another bed. Elliot knew the crib was for naughty people that his aunty turned into babies, but she kept the second bed just for him because she loved having him over. She even had a short railing up so he wouldn’t fall out. Aunty Brianne had his old teddy bear. She bought it for him when he was just born, so it was smaller than he remembered it, but it was just as cozy in his arms. “Any thing I can get you, Ellie?”

“How come you don’t talk like Mickey?”

“What?”

Elliot saw the confusion on his aunty’s face, and realized maybe he was just being a baby because of his accidents. He shook his head. “Nothing.”

Brianne nodded. “Okay, Honey.”

“I wanna go home.”

Brianne shook her head while she pulled Elliot’s jean shorts off. “It’s too late for that, Ellie. It’ll be way passed your bedtime before I can get you home.”

“I can sleep in the car.”

Brianne laughed. “I can’t. It would be way past my bedtime too.” Brianne shook her head as she pulled on his shoulder, coaxing him to sit up. “How big is Ellie?” Elliot raised his arms and Brianne pulled his shirt off. “So big!”

“But I want to go home.” Then Brianne put her fingers down his bedtime pants. “What do you do that for?”

“Just making sure you’re dry. You don’t want to wake up with diaper rash, do you?”

Elliot shook his head. “No.” Elliot felt silly and thought it might not be so bad that his aunty treats him like a baby sometimes. He hadn’t warn bedtime pants in so long, he had forgotten he can get rash if he doesn’t change.

Brianne flapped at the pyjama top, and it had his favourite theme: rocket ships! “How big is Ellie?” Elliot through his arms up high, eager to get the pyjamas on him. Brianne pulled the top over, and pulled at the hem until his head popped through. “So big!”

“I want my mommy.”

Brianne nodded. “I know. You’re mommy is so nice. How about I call her, and she can come get you tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow?”

“Yeah. You don’t have to stay all week.”

“Oh.” Elliot wanted so bad for his mommy to tuck him in, he had forgotten about any other night he would go to bed without her. “Okay.” Elliot lied down and Brianne got his pyjama bottoms ready. “No pants.”

“No pants? Since when do you sleep naked?”

“Too warm. I got my bedtime pants.”

Brianne nodded as she pulled the covers over him. “Oh okay, well as long as we don’t have any of the goods out.”

“How come my bedtime’s before Martin and Gavin?”

Brianne smiled. “Ah yes.” She glanced at the door and then whispered to Elliot. “They’re fussy babies, and it takes them a while to fall asleep.”

“Can I stay up?”

Brianne grabbed a bottle and unscrewed the lid. Brianne looked sad, almost disgusted with him. “Really? You don’t want to sleep? I didn’t think you were a fussy baby.”

Elliot shook his head. “I’m not.”

Brianne pulled the lid out, which had a squeezer of medicine. “Really? You’re not a fussy baby?”

“No.” Elliot propped his mouth open.

Brianne squeezed the medicine and patted his chest through the sheet. “That’s good to hear. Would a story help?”

Elliot swished the fruity medicine around in his mouth and shook his head. “No, I got Teddy to snuggle.”

“Okay.” Brianne stood up and kneeled over him. “Good night, Honey Bunny.”

Elliot giggled at the squishy sound of the kiss on his cheek. “Good night, Aunty.”

Once Elliot was tucked in, Brianne went back to the living room to see a disturbing sight. A dragon flying over men in armour, setting the army ablaze. She recognized the face of Jamie Lannister and glared at Sarah. “Are you watching Game of Thrones?”

Sarah held her finger over her mouth. “Shh.” She pointed to a box on the floor. “It’s fine. Look at them.”

Brianne chuckled. Martin and Gavin had fallen asleep sitting against a box. As cute as they looked leaning against each other’s heads, their posture would haunt them when they were older if it continued. Brianne picked Gavin up and propped Martin’s head upright. “Oh, you’ve had a busy day, haven’t you.”

Sarah noticed the glare of a flashlight on the curtain, the fourth time in the last hour. The mounties were out in full force. “Any news on Tiana?”

Brianne shook her head. “No, but I have to admit I’m impressed. Not a lot of people can stay at large for so long.”

“What’s going to happen to her?”

“It’ll be scary at first. But once she’s in custody, she won’t have much to worry about.” Brianne frowned for a short moment and then went to sit beside Sarah. “So, are you and Martin doing okay?”

Sarah nodded and moved. “Yeah, we’re good.”

Brianne sat down and pulled the throw blanket over Gavin’s back. “He seemed pretty clear that you weren’t his mommy.”

“Well, technically I’m not.”

Brianne raised an eyebrow. “Since when?”

Sarah sighed. “Since he was born. He knows I’m like his mommy now, he just doesn’t want to forget his real mommy.”

“Is he homesick?”

Sarah shook his head. “I don’t know. He seems okay though.” Sarah stared at Martin. She had yet to catch him, but she remembered all the times she pretended to be asleep as a child. “I’m going to tuck him in.”

“Oh, can it wait a while? I want to give the kid some time to sleep.”

Sarah sighed. “Sure.” Sarah grabbed the television remote and backed the episode up a few minutes. “I missed this last part.”

Sarah didn’t want to talk in front of Martin, but that was fine with Brianne. But if Martin had a problem with Sarah, Brianne wanted to act proactively.

Part 31:

Elliot woke up just as the sun was rising. Aunty Brianne’s house was silent. In the room adjacent the nursery, his aunt was asleep even though he was ready to start the day. Elliot walked to the edge of the bed and poked at her arm. “Bwee-Bwee.”

Brianne opened her eyes and stretched across the bed. “Morning, Ellie.”

“Up.”

Brianne patted the bedding. “Come on up, then.”

Elliot shook his head. He wanted to start the day, not waste time with snuggles. “Up.”

Brianne sighed. “You need help climbing still?”

Elliot stomped his foot. “Up!”

“Eh!” Elliot took a step back. “Stop being a fuss-bucket and start being patient. We can’t all be full of piss and vinegar.”

Elliot shook his head. “Piss.”

Brianne chuckled. She could have scolded him for saying a curse word, but she knew he was trying to scold her, and hearing kids curse was always funny to her. She still wanted a few more minutes of rest before she began her day, and she could smell that filling him up with milk before tucking him in had paid off. She reached her hand over the edge of the bed, and grabbed the waistband of his bedtime pants. He stepped back, but his pants pulled back on her fingers. “Ellie, why did you pee your pants?”

“Uh oh.”

“Uh oh!? Did you have an uh oh?”

Elliot nodded. “Uh oh.”

“Go to the nursery and wait.”

Elliot ran off and Brianne rolled onto her side. She had a few minutes to have her eyes closed, though Elliot’s patience was far shorter than he was. Yesterday’s dose of Simplicity made any other five-year old boy look like a Buddhist monk next to him.

“Uh oh.”

Brianne sighed and sat up. “Fine. I’m coming.”

Brianne followed him into the hall and Elliot stood in front of the bathroom and waited for her. He pointed through the door. “Baffoom.”

Brianne shook her head. “No, you don’t need a bath.”

Elliot shook his head. Of course he didn’t need a bath. The bath isn’t the only thing in the bathroom. “Baffoom.”

Brianne ignored his demand, and stood in front of the nursery. “Let’s go, Ellie.”

Elliot huffed and followed Brianne into the nursery. She lifted him up and sat him on Gavin’s changing table. “No. No diapuh.”

“Yeah! You don’t need a diaper now that you’re awake. We’re gunna get you some undies.”

Elliot nodded. “Undy.” He was glad his Aunt wasn’t trying to baby him now that it wasn’t bedtime. He wasn’t glad to see what her idea of underwear was. She had been hanging out with Martin and Gavin too long, and she had forgotten everything she knew about big boys. She put a pair of blue training pants on the table. “Who’s on your undies?”

Elliot shook his head. Mickey Mouse may be fun to have on your underwear, but he knew that wasn’t underwear. “No poddy pants.”

“No?” Brianne reached under the table and pulled out another pair of potty pants, but these were much different. They didn’t look soft like the training pants lying next to him. He could hear these pants rustle as she put them down on the table. These pants were all white, except for a strip of pictures. “You don’t want to go potty?”

He didn’t want to wear either of them, but he was glad to have a choice. If he negotiated some more, she might give him real underwear. “Undies.”

“Do you want underpants or diapers today?”

Elliot nodded. “Pants.”

Brianne put the diaper in his lap. “Do you want diapers?” Brianne put the training pants in his lap. “Or pants?” Elliot put his hands on the crinkly diaper. “Which one do big boys wear?” He could see Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and Minnie on the landing strip, but they weren’t themselves. No, they had all been turned into babies in this picture, which could only mean these pants were for babies. But on the soft training pants, Mickey was flying a plane. Only big boys were allowed to be pilots, but it still looked too thick to be big boy pants. Brianne picked the diaper up from her lap and unfolded the flaps from the inside. Those flaps came open so aunties can get the diapers on their Ellies. “Do you want to be a baby today?”

Elliot shook his head and held the training pants up to his aunt. “Pants.”

Brianne tossed the diaper away and clapped. “Yay! You’re so smart!” Elliot blushed. He was so smart that he didn’t know there was even a puzzle to figure out. The choice seemed rather obvious, if only in hindsight “Okay, lie on your back and we’ll get you changed.”

Changed sounded like a bad word. He knew it also applied to underwear, but the idea of lying down to change underwear felt wrong. He stared at his aunt for any hint that she saw anything wrong with changing his underwear on a changing table. He felt a little dribble inside his bedtime pants and clenched up. He pointed at the door. “Potty.”

“That’s right. You go in the potty now.”

Elliot’s aunty was ignoring him. He couldn’t go now if he wasn’t on the potty, and she was wasting precious time pulling his bedtime pants open. If she didn’t get his underwear on him soon, he wouldn’t be going potty at all. Brianne started wiping his front parts and Elliot cringed at the cold tissue. Brianne stood back and pulled his bedtime pants over him. “Uh oh! What was that? Did you forget to go potty?”

Elliot pointed at the door. “Potty!”

“Okay. Hold real still so we can get your potty pants on.”

“Potty.” Brianne was wasting time wiping him off. He could wear his underwear after he went potty. She could wipe him after he went potty. And she could definitely stop rubbing baby powder on his pee-pee now that he was a big boy.

Brianne saw Elliot’s legs trembling as he tried to hold it. The poor boy was starting to whimper as she put his legs through the cuffs of the training pants. “Why are you crying?”

“No uh oh.”

“That’s right. No more uh ohs. Lift your bum.” Elliot arched his back just enough to lift his bottom off of the table while keeping his legs straight.

Brianne pulled his underwear over his pelvis and fixed the waistband. Elliot sat up and leaned on her as he slid his bum over the edge of the table. Brianne stood back as he fell. The squat Elliot landed it was enough to initiate a stream, and Elliot ran for the bathroom. “Don’t toddle!”

The pee felt way more wet in the pants than his bedtime pants. The pee swished and the padding squished between his legs with each step. Finally, he was at the porcelain throne. He fidgeted out of his underwear, dribbling on the outer side of his pants as well as the floor. With the help of the step stool, he sat on the toilet, leaving splatter on the seat. He used his hand to point his pee-pee down. Elliot finally heard the toilet water tinkling with the last few drops left in him, and he sighed in relief.

Clapping interrupted his relief. He looked at his aunty, wondering if her applause at his pitiful toileting was sarcastic. “What a good job!” Brianne was glad to see Elliot smile. While it wasn’t unheard of, making a charge “adoption-ready” was hard to achieve at five years old. Elliot’s late and extended bedwetting made the joy of finally being rid of diapers much more accessible to him, which meant she might be able to convince him that he really was a big boy before the Simplicity wore off.

“I think you’re finally ready for these.” Brianne held up a pair of briefs, printed with Mickey Mouse, his favourite. To her relief, he squealed in such joy that she was certain he didn’t have a shred of doubt about his age. All that was left to do was get him dressed, call his mom, and clean the floors.

Part 32:

Kathy knew Elliot wouldn’t take things so well, so when her sister called her to pick him up, she had been preparing herself for a long talk on the way home. Instead, Brianne had given her a talk. They sat in a small room in the hospital, with only two sofas and a coffee table. Brianne sat on the adjacent sofa and explained what had happened. Brianne explained that Tiana’s regression went without a hitch, and she was in a half-way home until they found a family for her. But she also added that Elliot had his objections, and they ran out of ways to let him accept what she had to do to his cousin. Brianne took her sister to another room, and Kathy dreaded what she was about to see. The room was lit only by the room on the other side of the glass. Kathy looked into the playroom, and scanned the faces of the children until she saw the boy, a spitting image of her son. Kathy put her and over her mouth. “Oh my god, my poor baby.”

Brianne patted her shoulder. “I’m sorry it had to be like this.”

Kathy shook her head. “Is he frightened?”

“No. He’s fine now. He’s actually anxious to start kindergarten.”

Kathy sighed, keeping her hand over her mouth. “What happens now? What do I tell him?”

“You don’t tell him anything. We’ll help you with the transition, and you’ll get to see for yourself how fine he is with being a kid.”

Kathy dropped her hand and shook her head. “I should have never let her bring him. But they were inseparable. Too inseparable.”

Brianne nodded and looked at Elliot. “He blamed himself for what happened. More than you blamed Tiana.” Kathy stopped staring at Elliot to stare at Brianne, who had her eyes fixed on her nephew. “He seemed a bit too accustomed to not having to take responsibility. He actually hungered for it. That sort of desire can make refreshment difficult if you don’t know it’s there. I suppose I should thank you for making it so easy.”

“You wanted this.” Kathy could see a small smirk pass through her sister’s face. “Why?”

Brianne looked way from her nephew and to her sister. “Look on the bright side. He doesn’t have to know what you did to his cousin.”

Parking E Camera 03
Issue: Video feed lost
Remarks: Maintenance dispatched 09:36.

Kathy returned to her car with the envelope containing directions to the hotel her sister had booked for her. She put her purse down on the passenger seat and took a moment to collect herself before starting her car. She screamed when she felt something poking her neck through the headrest. In her rearview mirror, Kathy saw her niece holding a revolver.

“Not what you were expecting?”

“Where did you get that?”

“Not what I was expecting, either. I knew what would happen. I’d never seen it done before.”

Kathy closed her eyes. “So is that it? I get to die knowing my son won’t know his mother?” Kathy chuckled and shook her head. “I should have known my sister would have done this.”

“Brianne doesn’t know I’m here.”

“Yeah right. This whole town is under surveillance. How could you be here without her knowing?”

“I’m good with computers. Now if you’re done asking questions.” Kathy heard a click as Tiana pulled the hammer back. “I just want to know why you hired our aunt to turn Elliot into a baby?”

Kathy laughed. “Oh good God. She played us both. I didn’t think she’d be so enthusiastic about the job, but I was optimistic enough to believe her. I hired her to refresh you, not Elliot.”

“Excuse me? Why?”

“Because I didn’t want my niece to be the mother of my grandchild.” Kathy watched Tiana’s reaction in the mirror. “I’ve raised you ever since your parents fucked off. You think I didn’t know what you two were doing?” Kathy sighed. “Guess there are worse ways to make a baby. You might want to get comfortable back there. It’ll be a few days before I can take Elliot home.”

Tiana pressed the nozzle into her aunt’s neck. “What makes you think you’re taking him anywhere?”

“Because you want to get out of here too. And like you, I got to see for myself what it looks like. Elliot’s going to need both of us. Unless you want to try your luck with this town hearing a gunshot?”

Tiana held the hammer with her thumb and pulled the trigger, and let the hammer gently fall back into place. “Truce?”

Kathy sighed in relief. “Truce. Hold onto that thing. You just might need it.”

[B]Chapter 3: Writings on the wall

Part 33:[/B]

After a fourteen hour shit, she wanted nothing more than a cozy bed, but when Sarah came home, her bed looked anything but cozy, at least to her. The toy dinosaurs and toy cars meant any one of them could be waiting beneath the bed clothes to poke her. The bed was still made, but some how, Martin could find a way to lose a toy in them. Sarah felt sorry for Martin, but not enough to not take a picture of the adorable boy lying on his stomach, with his cheek pressed into the bed.

While he was regressing, Sarah and Brianne had nurtured his attachment to her, and Sarah found it worked a little too well. Martin always had trouble falling asleep if she wasn’t there to tuck him in. Though, tucking him in was neither a guarantee that he would stay in his bed. It was obvious that he crawled onto her bed to play Cars Fleeing Dinosaurs while he was waiting for her to get home.

Sarah cleared the toys off her bed, and placed them on her wardrobe. Summer had been beating down. Even with the constant wind passing through the town, it had been a few nights since even a sheet didn’t make anyone burst into a sweat. Martin was at least smart enough to turn Sarah’s fan on while he played. She wouldn’t have blamed him for taking his training pants off, even if that guaranteed he’d leave an accident on her quilt.

Sarah would have preferred to sleep in just her panties, but since Martin was certain to snuggle, she needed a t-shirt between them. Her and her brother always used shirts a few sizes extra as nightgowns, a habit she carried into adulthood. The thinnest sleeping shirt she had would keep her just cool enough as well as keep Martin’s skin glued to hers with sweat.

Martin moaned as soon her bum hit the bed and lifted his head up with one eye open. “Go back to sleep, Bubba.”

Martin crawled over to her, as she pulled the sheet up. “Where’d my toys go?”

“They’re on the dresser, you can play with them tomorrow.” Sarah held her arm out for Martin to lie down next to her.

Martin plopped down next to her and nestled in. “Do you wook again tomorrow?”

“Yeah, Graveyard shift.”

“When is 'at?”

“Night time. Very late. I’ll be home in the morning.” Sarah turned the lamp down low.

“Do you have to work?”

Sarah chuckled at the silly question. “Yes, Bubba.”

Sarah could feel Martin shaking his head against the side of her breast. “No. Brianne is wits.”

Sarah chuckled again. “Brianne is not rich, Bubba.”

“Yeah. See said dis was one of her houses. You have to be rits to own a house.”

“You have to be rich to buy a house. Owning it, well, most people are poor at that point. And they definitely have to work.”

“Brianne doesn’t.”

“Brianne doesn’t work from home like she used to. Besides, I’m still in debt.”

Martin rolled over and lay his chest on Sarah’s belly to face her. “You don’ have to buy me dat twuck if you have to wook for it.”

Sarah chuckled. “I mean student loans, Bubba.”

“Oh.”

Sarah ran her hand over Martin’s hair. The man had only been a boy for a month, but he had already mastered his pout. “What does Daniel Tiger say when grown-ups leave?”

Martin sang the strategy song he heard from Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood. “Gro-own ups, come back.” Martin sighed. “I sought we’d spend moe time togeder.”

That was a lie. She never said it, but she never not said it either. Sarah loved being mom, but she wanted a career all the same. If Sarah were still married, Harold could have tucked Martin in while she was working nights. Of course, she wouldn’t have been low-priority for the adoption agency, and she would have never met Martin. Sarah was a medical resident, she had a career and a son. But circumventing the adoption system had not stopped her plans from changing, and once again, something had to give.

Sarah’s breakfast consisted of a piece of toast, and the dregs of pasta left over from yet another pot of mac and cheese. “Morning, Sarah. You look like hell. Have some coffee.”

Sarah gave Brianne the stink eye. Sarah was not a morning person, no matter what time of day morning happened to be. Brianne’s chipper attitude was especially off-putting this time of day. The blunt insult was not welcome. At least Brianne had a fresh pot of coffee going. “Morning. How are the boys?”

“Ah, they’re.” Brianne shrugged. “Well, boys. Gavin’s down for a nap, and Martin is outside.”

Sarah looked out the window over the sink. The haze from the forest fires in the southern part of the province was still blanketing the sky. While the wind chill was enough to keep cool, the air quality was still on par with Los Angeles. Sarah turned around and saw Martin through the sliding glass door. Martin was in the backyard, still wearing nothing but a pair of training pants, and kicking a soccer ball at the fence. “It’s not a good day to be playing outside.”

Brianne shook her head. “Nah, it’s great. All this smoke means I don’t have to put sun screen on him every twenty minutes, which is a pain when he won’t dress.”

Sarah stirred her coffee and put the spoon in the sink. “I was thinking more about his lungs than his skin, but while he’s out there, can I ask you something?”

“Yeah, anything.”

“You don’t work a lot of hours, as a nanny, eh?”

“Nope. Just a two or three day shift, here and there.” Brianne turns to Sarah and smirks. “Are you reconsidering my offer?”

“Well, I do owe you a bit for Martin.”

“And I told you I paid for him out of pocket, he’s yours. You don’t owe me anything.”

“Right. But I would make a lot more money for a lot less time, right?”

Brianne stopped smiling and looked Sarah over. “Time. You’re low on time.”

Sarah shrugged. “Well yeah. Two thirds of the day I’m at work, and the other third I’m taking care of the boys, or if I’m lucky, catching up on sleep.”

“But you’ve always wanted to be a doctor.”

“Dreams change.” Sarah watched Martin kicking the soccer ball at the fence. “I mean look at him. He sucks at kicking a ball. I know he’s little and clumsy. I should be out there practicing with him. Teaching him how to play pass. I should have picked a career where I’d have energy left to be a mom.”

“Well, the jobs themselves will be 'round the clock. But it won’t be as demanding as an emergency room.”

“What about the training?”

Brianne shrugged. “Well, you’ve seen me refresh a few kids. We live together. An apprenticeship sounds more practical, eh?”

Part 34:

It seemed a cliche for the man to hunt and the woman to forage. As much as it was one of the oldest facets of the establishment, Dakota was hungry. Even though she liked animals, they all looked the same once they were skinned and roasting over a fire. She didn’t mind watching animals die either, but Dylan was a horrible shot, and his craftsmanship when it came to bows and arrows left much to be desired. When he actually hit something, it usually suffered. On the brightside, the blackberry situation in these woods meant Dakota could take longer before she had enough to feed her and her friends. Her hands were now covered in scratches and pricks from digging through the vines. It took her a pile of shit to realize the bushes had half of their berries left were not from lazy harvesters. With so many bushes around, bears didn’t have to pick a bush clean. At least the scat didn’t look fresh. She wasn’t going to test it’s temperature with her hand, but the lack of steam rising from it meant she could slowly and calmly get the fuck out of dodge.

Dakota followed the hissing of the highway back to camp. Without any cash for a motel, and no friends nearby, the three of them pitched their tents in the woods off of the road, far enough not to be disturbed or catch the attention of anyone stopping to shit in the woods. The road was busy enough to hear from minute to minute. Once the bushes turned to dirt, she only had to follow the smell of the campfire to the patch of moss they had set up camp. When she heard Dylan screaming, she knew she was close.

Though his archery was shit, Dylan knew how to skin a rodent, at least. Rory was sitting on the ground cross-legged, sewing a patch into his jacket when he saw Dakota return. “You okay? You look like you ran here.”

Dakota shook her head. “Nah, it’s just the smoke. Makes hiking feel worse.”

Dylan came out of the trees, zipping the fly on his cargo shorts, and removing the cigarette hanging from his lips with his other hand. “You haven’t been smoking enough. Here.”

Dakota held her hand up. “I’ll smoke one you haven’t got your piss all over.”

Dylan shrugged and buckled his belt. “I was cranking off, but suit yourself.”

Rory rolled his eyes. “Well ain’t that just fucking good to know.”

“The fuck you ain’t the one huffing and puffing every night. At least I make some distance. Do the neighbourly thing.”

Dakota shook her head. “Not enough distance. You know it’s not supposed to hurt when you bust a nut, right?”

Rory and Dylan spoke in unison. “I beg to differ!”

Dakota shuttered and held her hands up in surrender. “Let’s just eat breakfast while I’m still hungry.” Dylan took what was left of the squirrels and gave each of them one on a stick.

Rory nodded at the first bite. “Mmm. What did you put on this?”

“Jerk rub.”

Rory spat out the meat, making Dakota laugh. “As in a spice rub, you dweeb.”

Rory sighed in relief. “Good. I’m starving.”

Dylan pointed his squirrel at Rory with a stern look. “What did you think I meant by jerk rub? What kind of animal do you take me for?”

“Baboon,” answered Rory.

“Macaque,” answered Dakota.

“Basically any animal that blows a load on it’s food before eating it.”

“Man, don’t worry about it. I’m not wasting protein on you ingrates.”

Dakota pointed her thumb over her shoulder. “Did you guys know there’s a town down there? I saw the lights threw the haze last night.”

Rory shook his head. “Stroller country.”

“Huh?”

“It’s a fucking suburb of new parents. They got like one elementary school, one high school, and you walk past like three babies every block. How do the only have one school?”

Dakota shook her head. “You’ve been here before?”

“Passed through last year. Place gives me the creeps.”

Dylan laughed. “You don’t think it’s some cult sacrificing babies or something?”

Rory gulped his food. “I didn’t until now! I thought it was just a high infant mortality or something.”

Dakota threw the dregs of her squirrel into the fire. “At the very least we can make some art.”

Rory shook his head. “Nah. 'Nother thing I noticed is they got cameras. Everywhere.”

Dylan tossed the bones into the fire and patted his thighs. “Cool let’s go walk about.”

Dakota gave Dylan a disbelieving smirk. “Oh come on, you’re not that macabre.”

Rory swallowed his mouthful, still with half the meat left on his squirrel. “Did you not hear me? There’s fuck all there. Let’s just hitch on to the next town.”

“Suburban moms. Energy spent on breeding. How does a housewife in a small boring town keep up with the fast-paced vagina-droppings?”

That got Rory’s attention. “I never thought about it like that.”

Part 35:

Something had changed, but it felt like it was for the better. Up until his camping trip, Elliot hadn’t wet the bed for almost a decade. Mama took his relapse a lot better than his Aunty Brianne did. Mama was very insistent that he wouldn’t wear bedtime pants. Instead they bought some disposable sheets that would soak up accidents. However, his pyjamas were wet every night. While he and his family were staying in town, breakfast was spent in the hotel laundry room. He only had so many rocket-themed pyjamas before he had to wear train themed pyjamas, or worse: boats. The last thing he wanted to think about at bedtime was watercraft.

With air quality so low, Elliot and Daddy were hunkered down in the hotel room all week. The air conditioning made it possible to wear pyjamas, instead of having to go naked, which would likely get him in trouble, but that was all that was good with staying indoors. There was nothing to do here. The playroom on the ground floor looked like it was for babies rather than kids, and it didn’t take Elliot long to get bored of them. To work up an appetite, as well as make the time pass, Elliot resorted to playing five little monkeys.

After reminding Daddy about the lyrics, Elliot would act out each verse. “Five little monkeys, jumping on the bed,” was the most obvious line. Elliot jumped on the bed next to the pile of pillows he built on the floor, which was meant for the next, and probably the most fun line. “One fell off and bumped his head” meant he it was time to jump so high he would hurt himself when he landed on the floor, were it not for the pillows. “When they woke up the doctor said, no more monkeys jumping on the bed,” meant it was time to stop playing dead and climb back onto the bed before the next verse started. Despite all his giggling, Elliot found five rounds of diving and climbing far from satisfactory. Daddy was getting hungry, and despite Elliot’s pleases and even his pretty pleases, Daddy was not up for singing One-Hundred Little Monkeys. He decided he was starting to feel as stir-crazy as his son, and decided to take him out to lunch.

Everywhere smelled like a campfire, which made Elliot want to go camping again. The whole town was covered in a fog that irritated Elliot’s eyes and throat, and it was a lot warmer than the fog he was used to. Daddy said it wasn’t fog, but smoke. Elliot didn’t buy it. Smoke comes out of chimneys and campfires, it doesn’t make fog. Whether or not a forest could burn big enough to fog up a whole town, the jury was out, but the verdict on playing outside was clear: No.

Daddy kept pushing Elliot to pick an outfit, despite him being very clear that it was too hot to wear anything more than underwear outside. “Okay, well I hope you’re little enough, because big boys get in trouble for going naked.”

Elliot wasn’t taking that bait. Daddy was obviously pulling tricks out of Aunty Brianne’s playbook, and he was far too big to be manipulated by the risk of being mistaken for a baby.

While deliberating his order, Daddy interrupted Elliot’s decision. “I thought chili was your favourite?”

Elliot shook his head. It didn’t matter how tasty the stew was, Elliot was not in the mood for onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, beans, and any other vegetables he couldn’t name that might be hiding in there. “Chicken nuggets.”

“They don’t have nuggets here.”

“It’s okay, I can wait until you’re done.”

“Elliot.”

Elliot sighed. You think it would be reasonable to stop on the way back to the hotel to grab take-out, but grown-ups were never reasonable. If they wanted to eat somewhere, they expected you to eat with them. Elliot decided on Alfredo, and while it didn’t come with any fingers, it had green flakes on top. Leaves.

“There’s veggies in this.”

“Those are herbs, Ellie.”

“I don’t like them.”

“They’re in everything. They make everything taste-” Daddy shrugged. “Herby.”

“I don’t like them.”

“Do you like pepper?”

“Yeah.”

“Pepper’s a vegetable.”

“I don’t like pepper.”

“Just eat it, you’ll like it, I promise.”

Elliot took a bite of his pasta, and as Daddy promised, he liked it. It was probably better than the ways Daddy and Mommy made it. It might have been the best pasta he had ever tasted. “It’s okay.”

The worst waitress ever came to their table while they were eating. “Hello, Ellie!”

“Is this your friend?”

Elliot shook his head. “It’s Aunty Brianne’s friend.”

Lauren chuckled. “Where are your clothes?”

“I’m toasty.”

“You’re toasty? You just don’t want to ruin your clothes with another accident.”

“I don’t have accidents.”

Lauren waved her hand. “Oh of course. I must have been thinking of someone else.”

Derek forced a smile. “Sorry. I tried to get him dressed.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m toasty too. I’d go naked if my boss let me.”

“I’m not naked I got underwear. Does your boss let you feed people fingers?”

“Elliot, that’s nasty.”

Elliot shook his head. “It’s true. There was a finger in my chili.”

“Well that explains this.” Daddy stuck his fork in his spaghetti and lifted a finger out of the sauce. He then slurped the spaghetti sauce directly off of the finger. Elliot gasped. “It’s rubber, Ellie.”

Lauren laughed. “Not a lot of people understand that gag.”

Elliot scoffed as he scooched to the end of the booth. “Maybe it’s not funny. I’m going to the bathroom.”

On his way to the bathroom, Elliot saw another booth with three scary looking grown-ups. The patches made their clothes look like collages rather than proper clothing. That may have been the most obvious deviance about them, but they still gave Elliot a bad feeling he couldn’t place. As much as Elliot would usually avoid people that look like Badguys, one of them was checking their cellphone for reception.

“You got games on your phone?”

The woman grimaced at him. “You got clothes in your home?”

“You got nuts in your dome?”

“Oooh.” The three of them cheered.

The man with the topcut held his hand up. “Nice on. Up top.”

Elliot high fived the man and looked back at the woman. “Really, you got games on your phone?”

“Sorry, Hun. No games. Go get dressed.”

Elliot scoffed and walked away, using creaky voice and waving his arms around. “Uuuuh I’m a stupid grown-up and I wear clothes in the dead of summer.” Elliot heard laughter from the table, but he didn’t care what a gaggle of stupid grown-ups thought of him.

On their way out of the restaurant, Lauren was at the bar, staring down. She was clearly texting under the counter, as if anyone wouldn’t know just by looking at her. Then Derek saw a familiar woman walking in, with a little boy on her hip. It took him a second to see it was the young girl who was friends with his sister-in-law when he lived with his wife’s family. “Sarah Renfrew?”

The woman looked him over and dropped her jaw in surprise. “Derek! I heard you were in town. It’s Basset, now actually.”

“Oh right! You’re married now, eh?”

“Sure. Hi, Ellie.”

Elliot nodded. “Mmm.”

“Say hi, Bubba.”

Martin waved Elliot. “Hi, Bubba.”

Derek chuckled. “Well, it’s good to see you again. I feel old seeing you all grown-up.”

Sarah smiled. “I feel old holding a kid, but that’s life. I won’t keep you. Maybe I’ll see you around.”

“Let’s hope so!” Derek took Elliot’s hand. “Come on, Ellie.”

Martin waved. “Bye, Elliot.”

Elliot stared at Martin until the door closed between them. “Did Martin look bigger to you?”

Derek shook his head. “That was the first time I met him.” He didn’t need Elliot asking more about it. It was obvious why Martin looked big to him. Everyone looked big to him. “How about we go to the park?”

“I thought it was smokey?”

“Meh, it’ll keep you from getting sunburn.” Derek didn’t realize how restless his son was getting couped up in a hotel room, but Derek almost felt his ear drum shatter when Elliot cheered “Yaaaay!”

The screaming kids were annoying, but they weren’t deafening from the bench at the edge of the playground. The beautiful sound of the birds singing in the tree behind him drowned out most of the noise. “Daddy, watch me!” Elliot jumped and wrapped his legs on the pole and slide down.

“Good job!”

Elliot rubbed at his inner thighs. “Ow! It burned my legs.”

“That’s why we wear clothes, Ellie.”

“No it isn’t!”

Derek felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. At first, he thought it was the ever-occurring realization that his teenage son was a child again, but once he noticed the birds had stopped singing at once, he knew the precise reason. He could tell by the bright smile forming on his son’s face that Elliot was a lot happier to see one-by-one, the birds dropping dead out of the tree. “Grandma!!!”

Part 37:

Dakota had noticed after a summer of traveling that the busier the road, the longer it took to hitch a ride. As they walked down the hill, even in stints of low-traffic, no one stopped for them. Dylan decided it would be faster to ride his skateboard, but Rory and Dakota refused to carry his stuff until they caught up with him. When they walked past a lonesome house, Dylan had the industrious idea to steal the plastic wagon off of the front lawn. Dakota hadn’t organized her stuff into easily breakable and uneasily breakable, and even though she knew Dylan was bound to hurt himself, both she and Rory threw their bags in the wagon. “See you down there.”

Dylan sat on his skateboard and leaned back, letting the weight of the wagon pull him down the mountain. He would put his shoes down on the concrete to control his speed, and turning the handle gave him some degree of directional control.

Dakota and Rory laughed as they watched him disappear down the road. “He’s going to kill himself.”

“He’s going to destroy our shit.” Dylan had turned out of view, but Dakota was bound to be right.

Lauren had just been getting out of her car after spending her lunch break eating at not-her-work. She could hear the tracks of a skateboard approaching and after stepping out past the garbage bin she saw what looked to be a severed head riding on top of a child’s wagon. She saw the feet poke out from behind it and slam on the ground. The noise of the padding screeching on the ground almost rivaled a car slamming on the breaks. Lauren stepped back between the bin and her car, and watched a young man lying on a skateboard ride past. Unable to slow down, the wagon turned and flipped over. The young man stood up, needing to run forward before bringing himself to a stop, and smacked his head against the masonry that made up the walls of Lauren’s place of employment.

Lauren mumbled “jackass” to herself. At least he missed the damned windows. Lauren noticed the man’s personal affects strewn(tip?) over the parking lot, and figured this kid was a vagrant. Lauren held her pager up to her mouth and mumbled. “Get me clearance on this guy.” Lauren sighed and collected herself, and then approached the man as he brought himself to his feet.

Lauren laughed and clapped her hands. “Nice save. Sorta.” Lauren pointed at the spot of blood on her walls. “Does that counts as vandalism?”

Dylan stood up and wiped his hand on his forehead, leaving his fingers covered in blood and dust. “Thanks.”

“Ouch. Why don’t you come in and I’ll patch you up.”

“Thanks, ma’am. But I have a first-aid kit.”

“So where on the parking lot is it?” Dylan scanned the concrete, and Lauren patted him on the shoulder. “You look hungry and your breath smells like squirrel. Come inside, I’ll patch you up and treat you to a sandwich.” Lauren noticed Dylan following her. “After you clean up my parking lot, that is.”

Dylan nodded. “Ah of course.” After she went inside, Dylan nodded to himself. “Score.”

The restaurant was nearly empty, save for a man accompanied by a boy that looked like Brianne’s nephew. Lauren pulled out her pager, with no new notifications on it. She looked to the security camera hanging from the ceiling. “You’re taking your sweet time.”

Her pager vibrated. “Searching for associates.”

“Fine. Just get the house ready. We’ll be having a guest tonight. You don’t mind sleeping at the observatory, do you?”

“Sleep-over unfavourable.”

“Sorry, bud. Mama has needs.” Lauren went through the kitchen and into the office, and sifted through the envelopes on her desk until she found the one addressed to her. She then spent the next fifteen minutes stitching up Dylan’s forehead in a booth. “Got anything for the pain?”

“Oh come on, big tough guy like you?”

“You’re sticking a needle in and out of me.”

Lauren nodded. “Not exactly.”

“And inexactly?”

Lauren shrugged. “How do you feel about cheese?”

“Cheese?”

Lauren sighed. “What are the kids calling cocaine these days?”

Dylan raised his eyebrow in annoyance. “Cocaine? All for it.”

“Cool.” Lauren pulled out a small glass vile and sprinkled some onto her finger, and then rubbed it into Dylan’s gash. Afterwards, Dylan grabbed her hand and held Lauren’s bloodied finger up to his nostril and snorted what he could. Lauren yanked her hand away. “Easy, that cheese is medical grade.”

“You’re old fashioned huh?”

“Easy there. I’m not much older than you. Hold still.”

“Where’d you learn to do this?”

“The kitchen. Cooks drink a lot, and when they drink, they cut themselves. And when they cut themselves a lot, I calling 9-1-1 is a waste of time.”

After Lauren stitched Dylan’s forehead closed, she asked him what he wanted to eat, and he saw Rory and Dakota walking past the restaurant. “Excuse me for a second.”

Lauren’s pager vibrated. “6 o’clock, 3 or 0.” Lauren stood up and looked behind her, Dylan was about to walk outside, after the two kids walking past the diner. “Oh balls.” Lauren picked up the bottle of cocaine and checked the bottom, finding a sticker that read “mundane.” Lauren sighed in relief and gathered her first aid tools. “That was a freeby.”

Elliot was somehow still five years old, and Brianne wasn’t the type of Nanny to put someone through a slow-burn, especially her own flesh and blood. After a quick chat and teasing him about being naked, Lauren found Elliot peculiar, but if anyone, Brianne’s nephew would be the most likely to get special treatment. After Elliot and his dad left, Brianne’s friend Sarah came in, with the son she adopted through the program.

Lauren leaned onto the counter and smiled. “There’s a handsome guy!”

“I campy hansome.”

Sarah bounced Martin in her arm. “Sure you can.”

Martin shook his head. “I got no face-ul hair.”

Lauren shrugged. “He’s got a point. Table? Booth?”

“I’m actually here to see you.”

“Ruh-roh. Am I in trouble?”

Sarah found Lauren’s question odd, but dismissed her playfulness. “Well, I’m new in town. Figure I’d make some friends.”

“And you thought I’d be a good friend?” Lauren saw Sarah become tense. “I’m kidding. I’d love to hang out. What are you up to today?”

“I was just taking Martin shopping. Get some books and maybe furniture.”

“And toys.” Martin interrupted.

“And a toy.”

“Sure, I’ll come with.” Lauren’s pager vibrated on the counter, and she glanced down.

“Table 5.”

Lauren paused with her mouth open. “I’ll meet you in an hour?”

Sarah nodded. “Sounds good.”

As Sarah left, Lauren could hear Martin say he was hungry, but Sarah reminded him they packed snacks. Lauren picked her pager up. “We talked about interrupting people.”

“Business before pleasure.”

Lauren rolled her eyes. “Alright, alright. What’s the angle?”

Her pager remained silent for a moment. “North east right sleeve.” And another buzz. “Patch just your type.”

“My type?” Lauren looked over at the young man sitting on the north east corner of the booth. “Not exactly a panty dropper.”

Her pager vibrated. “Continue contact!”

“Eesh. No need to be sour, little flower.” Lauren grabbed a glass-tray and walked over to table five. On the north east corner of the booth, sat a young man with his blond curls tied back in a man-bun. “Would any of you like a refill?” All of them accepted the offer. While she collected their glasses on the tray, Lauren scanned the patches on the boy’s denim jacket. The one patch she actually recognized was a circle with one half pink and one half blue, behind a red heart with a horizontal white stripe through it. “Remind me, what are your drinks?”

On her way back to the fountain she smirked and mumbled. “What makes you think he’s my type?” Her pager buzzed, and when she got to the fountain, she filled the glasses with one hand, and checked her pager with the other.

Her pager vibrated. “Husband on break.” And then again. “Please stop sexting us.”

Lauren looked up at the surveillance camera hanging from the ceiling and forced an awkward frown. “Sorry, Jason.”

Lauren returned to table five, with a cream soda, root beer, and a cola for Patchy. “That’s a cute patch. What’s that supposed to be?”

Patchy, as Lauren called him in her head, looked down at his sleeve. “This one?” Lauren noticed a brief glimpse of fear in his eyes. She just smiled and nodded, as she placed his friends’ drinks down. “Heart and Stroke, I think.”

“Ah, of course. I remember their logo being different.”

Patchy nodded. “It’s a new one.”

Lauren put his glass down. “And a cola for you. We do have vanilla cola, if you’d like to try it. Not to presume you’re vanilla. Just thought I’d let you know.”

After Lauren left, Rory lifted his glass and pulled a business card off of the bottom. “She gave you her number?”

“Nope.” Rory turned it over to show Dylan and Dakota, so they could see that it said “Bookstore Cafe, 7pm.”

Dylan nodded. “Which bookstore?”

Dakota rolled her eyes. “How many bookstores do you think are in this town?”

“At no point have you had reception here, and only one kid has asked you if you have games on your phone. Twenty. At fucking-least.”

Rory nodded. “At fucking-least.”

Elliot walked past on his way back from the bathroom and declared “that’s a bad word” without breaking stride.

Dakota leaned forward. “I wonder if we’d keep the cursing to a minimum while we’re in stroller country.”

Dylan nodded at Dakota, and looked to Rory. “Are you going to go?”

Rory shrugged. “What could go wrong?”

Dakota shook her head. “Famous last words.”

Part 38:

Mom could always mean anything by “her office.” Usually it meant get alone, and find somewhere secluded. Brianne chose the park, on a small bench by the river. As she waited, Gavin was inconsolable. He had just eaten, so he wasn’t hungry. His diaper was clean, and he wasn’t clawing at his shorts. The only obvious reason for Gavin’s fuss was the air quality, until a dead crow hit the ground a few feet away from her. “That ain’t smoke.”

“There’s my kids.”

Brianne jumped, making Gavin angry at her knee digging into his bottom. He stopped fussing when he saw his mother, and held his arms up. “Hello, Mom.” Brianne handed Gavin to her.

Their mom showered Gavin in kisses. “Awe, hello Honey Bunny. Calvin looks even smaller now.”

“Well, he makes up for it with a big personality.”

Delores scoffed. “Yeah that must be it. How are the niblings?”

Brianne cringed. “Excuse me?”

“Your niece and nephew?”

“Ah.” Brianne nodded. “Kathy’s harbouring Tiana in the back of her car. I’m worried though. This heat is bad enough out in the open without a bun in the oven.”

“And her disposition?”

Brianne scanned the woods around them. “Unknown. Not in our favour. She wasn’t too happy to see Elliot simple.”

“Probably for the best. She hasn’t had access to cigarettes, has she?”

“Not that I’ve seen. I told the boys in the observatory to let me know if Kathy or Derek buy any tobacco. She’s either scared, or decided she wants to keep the baby.”

“Leave her to ween then. She’ll come out when she’s ready. And Elliot?” A thud from behind interrupted their conversation. Delores turned around to see a dead crow on the ground. “Uncanny.”

“Elliot didn’t take. He’s not lucid yet. I give him two days.”

“That’s a shame. I was just on my way to see him.”

“May I at least ask why I had to refresh him?”

“And what of Martin Basset?”

Brianne nodded. Why she was expecting a direct answer was beyond her. “Okay then. Attached to Sarah, but scared of her. Happy with being three. He-”

“Is he adoption-ready?”

“No. Maybe in a year. We caught him in a growth spurt. Maybe if Sarah notices how big he’s getting, she might be convinced to give him a small dose to extend the honeymoon.”

“And Sarah likes him now?” Brianne nodded. “Don’t let him leave town then.”

“That was easy.”

Delores shrugged. “Meh. Sarah’s a good girl.”

“I still don’t understand the reasoning behind Elliot.”

Delores sighed. “Your sister has refused my offers of some cosmetic Space-Saver. There’s quite an age-gap between you and her, you know.”

Brianne rolled her eyes. “I’ve noticed.”

“I don’t want to bury my children.”

“So you wanted me to refresh Elliot to pass on that same fear?”

Delores shrugged. “I wouldn’t say that.”

“And others?”

Delores handed Gavin back to Brianne. “Either way, put him out of his misery. I have a plane to catch. Let me know when Tiana’s without child.”

Gavin’s vocab had been reduced to a few dozen hand-signs, which left him little food for critical thought, but toddlerhood had not dampened his judge of character. As if on cue, Gavin started to fuss when their mother finished speaking. Brianne bounced her knee under him while their mother walked away. “My sentiments exactly.”

Part 39:

Despite needing a break, Martin wasn’t going to let Sarah out of his sight for anything short of work. Which meant he was coming shopping. Brianne pointed out that since Martin hated her, he would be growing a sense of loneliness when Sarah left him with her. It wasn’t too much of a reach. When she left for work in the daylight, she had to add ten extra minutes of convincing Martin to stop hugging her leg to her commute. It was as annoying as it was adorable.

Shopping wasn’t a very satisfying activity for him either. Sarah let him sit in the baby-seat in the shopping cart, despite Martin fast approaching a size too big to do so. While sitting in the shopping cart usually thrilled him, Martin rested his elbow on the handlebar, pouting with his chin in his hand. “You look bored, Bubba.”

“I’m boed.”

“Why?”

“I don’ like sopping.”

Sarah scoffed. “You love shopping.”

Martin shook his head. “Nuh-uh.”

“You like it when we’re at the toy store.”

Martin sneered. “Not sopping fo funitsuh.”

“It’s furniture for you, Bubba.”

“I have a bed, a potty, and a boosta seat so I can sit at the big table, what odther funitsuh do I need?”

Sarah sighed. “Oh, Honey, you are such a boy. I was thinking things more along the lines of creature comforts.”

“I’m not a cweatsuh.”

“No, I know. It’s a phrase.”

“What’s it mean?”

“Stuff you like. Makes you feel good to have, or look at. The shopping cart for example. You couldn’t sit in the shopping cart since you started school, eh?” Martin cleared his throat and gestured his elbow to the woman passing them. The back of the shopping cart was fitted with a plastic extension that a school-aged child could, and did sit in. Sarah shrugged. “Well you couldn’t sit in the shopping cart when you were a big kid, right?” Martin peaked around Sarah and gestured his jaw to the man behind her, pushing a girl of ten or eleven at the back of his shopping cart. Sarah looked back to Martin and shook her head. “Well, you couldn’t sit in the shopping cart when you were a grown-up.” Without looking, Martin pointed over his shoulder. Then, a man walked past the aisle, pushing another man sitting in the basket of a shopping cart. Sarah sighed. “Fuck it.”

“Dat’s a bad wood. But I t-think I know what you mean. Stuff I couldn’t have as a gwon-up. Like toys.”

Sarah glared at Martin. “Like furniture.”

“Like a flow-mat?”

“You had mats in your apartment.”

“Fo feet. Not anything I could nap on.”

“Oh! I get it. Yes, that’s exactly the kind of thing I mean.”

“A pillow tseh. I used to have one with Winnie the Pooh. And I had one with Blue too.”

“Blue the colour or blue the dog?”

“The dog. Always the dog. What about-” Martin scanned the store. “A cradle.”

“You’re a bit too big for a cradle.”

Martin shook his head. “Not in dthis town.”

“Actually, that gives me an idea. What about a hammock for the yard?”

“What about inside days?”

Sarah looked up at the ceiling with a brilliant smile. After a few seconds, she nodded to herself. “I could probably sell Brianne on setting it up in the living room.”

Martin’s eyes widened when the most obvious answer came to mind. “Blanket forts!”

Sarah nodded. “I haven’t made a blanket fort in years.”

Martin smiled and clasped his hands together, as if he were praying. “You wanna?”

After buying a hammock, a floor mat, a pillow-chair, and more blankets and sheets than the rest of her life combined, Sarah took Martin to the book store. Since some of his literacy had remained intact, Sarah decided she would buy Martin some books, to give him a head start. Lauren joined them soon after they arrived. Martin saw the trainset in the middle of the children’s section. Sarah was going to make him follow her around the store until Lauren insisted he would be safe without supervision. Sarah never had a break from Martin or work at the same time, and she was more than willing to believe Lauren against her better judgment.

Lauren and Sarah wandered the bookstore for books to fill Martin’s nursery with. Lauren pulled a book off of the baby shelf. “How about this one?”

The cover had a pale purple cover with a boy and a girl, each with half of them drawn as a skeleton. Sarah read the title outloud. “Everybody Dies. Getting A Head Start on Coping With The Futility Of Existence.” Sarah winced and shook her head. “Nah, I like his newfound positivity. It’s a bit early to be introducing him to nihilism.”

Lauren pulled a similar book off the shelf. “How about absurdism?”

Sarah read the title aloud. “Everybody Dies. Why Waste Time Potty Training? Closer, but I have a feeling he’s already read it.” Lauren continued thumbing through the spines. “How about we move away from M and M.”

“M and M?”

A medical short-hand, for a conference to decide whether a doctor killed their patient. “Morbidity and Mortality.” Sarah pointed to the tag on the shelf, marking the sub-section on Morbidity and Mortality. “How about something more sunshine and rainbows.”

“How about Beatrix Potter?”

“That’s-” Sarah paused. “That’s actually a good pick.”

“You sound surprised.”

“Well, I was starting to think you wanted to torture my son. I was half expecting you to suggest Everybody Dies But You.”

“Oh no. I wouldn’t presume for you to lie to your kid.”

A little girl who had been walking past them stopped and stared at Lauren, and then screamed. A woman who may have been her mom or her Nanny came to the rescue. “Tawa! I don’ wanna die!”

“It’s okay, Pumpkin! You aren’t going to die. Let’s go get you some medicine, that always makes you feel better!”

The girl took her Nanny’s hand. “Pwomise me! Pwomise me I won’t die!”

Lauren looked at Sarah and gave an awkward frown. “Sunshine and Rainbows it is.”

Sarah nodded. “Yeah! I thought so.”

Sarah followed Lauren through the aisles. “You surprised me a bit with your invite.”

“What’s so surprising about someone new in town making friends?”

“Brianne tells me you’re friends. Did she not warn you about me?”

“What’s there to warn about?”

Lauren stopped walking to stare at Sarah with a grin. “Oh come on.”

Sarah shrugged. “She said you’re a sadist with your charges.”

“And yet you want to hang out with me.”

“I figured you could help me understand my son’s plights.”

“Plights?” Lauren pursed her lips and nodded. “Hmph. I suppose I could use my powers for good. Though the baby comes out the same, no matter the nanny.”

“Brianne also said if there were an exception, you would be it.”

Lauren chuckled. “Ah, she really knows how to make a girl feel special. But what I meant was I can’t really help you after the fact.”

“Martin wasn’t completely. Refreshed, as you say?”

“You left him remaining at three? That’s cold.”

Sarah shrugged. “What? What I do wrong?”

Lauren scratched at her forehead, taking a moment to scan her surroundings. “How do I put it? So at three, you start branching out from your parents. Building your idea of the world and where you fit in it. You follow?”

“Okay?”

“So you got a three old’s drive for independence, and an adult’s idea of what independence is. Add the two together.”

Sarah scratched at the back of her head and sighed. “And you get a perfect storm.”

Lauren nodded, and Sarah notice a slight jolt in Lauren’s hip before she composed herself. “I’ve let kids linger at three.” Lauren fought back a chuckle, but not her wry smile. “It’s hysterical.” She noticed Sarah’s cold look and cleared her throat. “But kids can be resilient. Make him help with chores.”

“Since when do kids like chores?”

“Kids like feeling useful. And learning. Have him help with cooking. Or sweeping. Tell them the vacuum is a toy.” Lauren noticed Rory on the other end of the store, walking towards the cafe. She looked at her watch. “Damn it. I don’t mean to be rude, but I have another engagement. Mind if we continue this conversation later?”

Sarah held up her hand. “Say no more. You’ve given me ideas for starters.”

Part 40:

The brick building had been boarded up, but most of the boards had already been broken down. Dylan found this a welcoming sign. Rather than hiking back up the mountainside, an abandoned building would provide even better shelter for half the effort. The beams of sunlight pouring through the shattered windows were highlighted by the haze. Dakota was used to the smoke in the air by now, but she was not prepared for the stink of the building. “God it smells like death in here.”

Dylan nodded. “Good. Means no one living will barge in. Wanna paint?”

Dakota pulled her flashlight from the wagon. “You don’t think this building is robust enough?”

“Meh. We only got one can anyways. A simple A is enough.”

Dakota scanned the room with her flashlight. “Seems wasteful, since someone’s already painted here.”

Dylan followed Dakota’s point at the wall, at the brown writing. “The cake is medicine. Not exactly scathing satire.”

“Satire? It looks more like a warning.”

“It’s a fucking lie, Dakota. Let’s find somewhere to camp.” Dylan gestured at the room hanging from the ceiling. “Up there.”

As Dylan walked up the stairs, one of the rusted steps snapped and fell beneath him. Dylan grabbed the railing and put his foot on the next step. “Watch your step, there.”

Dakota nodded, as if she needed to be told on the hazards of an abandoned building. “Mhmm.”

In the room overlooking the atrium, was a few dozen cribs, all in the same barebones design of rusted iron bars and metal sheets, some still with decaying mattresses inside. Dylan looked around. “Cool. Wonder what happened here.”

“This place doesn’t creep you out?”

“Nah. It’s like a Romanian orphanage in here.”

Dakota sighed. “You know we’re not in Romania, right?”

“That’s what makes it so cool.” Dylan reached into one crib and pulled out a skull that fit in his palm. “Wonder what kinda ghosts are here.”

Dakota screamed. “Fuck. This! Dude. I’m not staying here.”

“Relax, will check that office there. Maybe there ain’t no skulls there.”

Dakota shook her head. “If it’s even an office.” Dakota jumped when she heard children laughing. “Okay, you wanna tell me there isn’t any ghosts?”
“Having flashbacks to your Wiccan phase or something?” Dylan walked over to the window, looking out onto the field. “Look, it’s just some fucking fieldtrip.” Dakota came to the window and saw the children walking two-by-two through the field. “Those ain’t ghosts.”

“Keep your voice down. There’s an echo in here.”

“You’re scared of some kids?”

“I’m scared of the adults reporting us here. Where’s the wagon?”

Dylan glanced at the door and shook his head. “It’s on the other side of the building.”

“Go get it, before a kid wanders off and finds it.”

“Yes ma’am.” Dylan went downstairs and Dakota opened a door, into an office. The room only had a desk against the wall, along with twigs and dust. Dakota opened the drawers, and only the top center drawer had anything in it. Some blank papers along with a large hard-cover book.

The cover was an illustration of the night sky. An anthropomorphic bunny in a diaper slept in the crescent of the moon. A white rectangle had an inscription that read “Elliot McNamara March 11th, 1998.” Inside were details on when and where the baby was born, first roll-over, first time sitting up, first crawling, first steps, first words, first curse word, first exorcism, first tooth. Dylan walked in while Dakota flipped through the pages. “What you find?”

“Just some kid’s baby book.” Dakota closed the book and tossed it back on the desk. “You don’t really want to stay here, do you?”

“I ain’t afraid of no ghosts. Better that than the people out there see us trespassing. Figure we wait until they leave at least.”

“What about Rory?”

“What about Rory? He’s out getting his cherry popped. If he’s smart, he’ll have a warm bed for the night.”

Dakota shrugged. “Meh, if not, he won’t get far. I guess we can find him tomorrow. I’m gunna go get our bags.”

“Try to keep quiet eh?” Before Dakota responded, the floorboards beneath her gave way, and she fell through.

Elliot’s mommy was old, and so was Elliot. She couldn’t lift him up for very long like she used to. Grandma didn’t seem to have that problem. She held him at her hip with almost no effort. “There’s my big boy! How big is Ellie?”

Elliot laughed. “I’m too big for that game, Grama.”

Grandma nodded. “Oh are you? Let me see how big you are then? Make a muscle.” Elliot flexed his arm, and Grandma squeezed his arm with her fingers. “So big!”

“Grama!” Elliot laughed. “I wasn’t playing that game!”

Grandma didn’t stay long, since Elliot and Daddy were already leaving the park and going back to the hotel. Elliot was sad but she promised he would see her soon. Just as well, it was getting late, even though the sun was still out. After his bath, Elliot was brushing his teeth while Mommy and Daddy were watching the news. He was taking the time to admire himself in the mirror, and how spiffy his rocket-ship pyjamas looked on him. He then noticed Daddy’s razor sitting next to the sink. Elliot remembered it had been weeks since he had shaven, and his beard would be out of control in no time. However, when he looked back at his reflection, there wasn’t a single hair on his chinny chin chin. He dropped his toothbrush in the sink and stared at himself. His jaw dropped and toothpaste ran down his shirt and onto the floor as he cried out in terror.

Part 41:

Sarah knew Martin would wake up and climb into her bed. Since she was about to work through the night, she figured she’d save him the time for sleep and tuck him into her bed. “Can I have a story?”

Sarah rubbed her hand over his chest through the sheet. “Actually, I want to ask you something first.”

“Okay.”

“I won’t get mad if you say yes, I just want you to answer honestly, okay?” Martin nodded. “Are you scared of me?”

Martin scoffed. “No. You’re dthe least scary puhson I’ve ever met.”

“Are you sure?” Martin nodded. “You seemed pretty scared of the potty in Brianne’s trunk the other day.”

Martin nodded. “Well yeah. Dthat was a potty I used when I got little.”

Sarah nodded. “I remember. You begged me not to make you use it, and not turn you into a baby. You looked pretty scared, Bubba.”

Martin twiddled his fingers. “I am a little.”

Sarah shook her head. “I’m not going to turn you into a baby.”

“It’s not being a baby that scares me.” Martin shrugged. “It was but not anymore. I think I could cwack it.”

“Then what?”

“When I found’at nu’sery in your old house, I was sca’ed you didn’t love me. That you dzust wanted me as a baby.” Martin stopped twiddling his fingers and looked up at Sarah. “That scare didn’t go away, dat I mean nothing to you.”

Sarah ran her hand across her mouth, and then she leaned over Martin and put her nose against his. “You mean everything to me, Martin.”

“Pwomise?”

Sarah laughed. She sat up and ran her hand through Martin’s hair. “Of course. I just wanted to be a mom.” Sarah shrugged. “Or something like it. I don’t need you any littler for that. Do I?”

Martin nodded. “I’m not sca’ed of you.”

Sarah smiled and patted Martin’s chest. “Glad to hear it. If that changes, don’t be scared to tell me.” Sarah rolled her eyes. “As silly as that sounds. So, storytime.” Sarah grabbed the book off of her bedside table. “Did you ever read the Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies?”

Martin shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Well, I will right now.”

Brianne knocked on the side of the doorway. “Sarah.” Sarah turned around. “There’s an emergency.”

Sarah sighed. “Typical. Have you got a babysitter or something?”

Brianne shook her head. “No, no. It’s a medical emergency.”

Martin sat up. “Wait, ont there otha doctas deh?”

Brianne shook her head. “It’s a bit of a family emergency. I can read you your story, Martin.”

Martin huffed and threw his back into the pillow. “Gweat! Now I’ll nevuh sleep!”

Sarah sighed and patted Martin’s chest. “Bubba, it’s my last night as a doctor. If I go early, I’ll be back early. That sound fair?”

Martin nodded. “Forever?”

Sarah chuckled. “Just about, yeah.”

Martin nodded. “Okay.”

Sarah followed Brianne into the hallway. “What’s the emergency?”

“Ellie’s lucid.”

“I thought he was adoption-ready.”

“He was.”

“So what happens now?”

“I’m working on it. For now, I just need you to go to the ER and calm him down.”

Sarah went to the hospital, where her pager buzzed just as she exited her car. The display read “Bay 2.”

Sarah shrugged. “Why am I surprised by hand-holding?”

After passing through the first sliding door, her pager buzzed again. “Three metres in, face door.”

Doctor Johanson walked up to Sarah. “Last night here, eh?”

“Word travels fast. Did you get paged too?”

“Yup. You’re running point on this.”

Sarah turned to him. “Aren’t you the attending?”

“For medical patients, yes.”

“Mind telling me what we’re waiting for?”

Doctor Johanson sighed. “We’re waiting for the ambulance to stop, and then the observatory will give them the all clear. Then we take the patient to neo-paediatrics.”

“Neo-paediatrics?”

Doctor Johanson glared at Sarah before looking back at the door. They waited in silence until the door opened, however it wasn’t EMTs that walked in. Tiana walked in, wearing the same outfit she was wearing the last time Sarah saw her, with the addition of pants wet with blood. “Tiana, where the hell have you been?”

Tiana was shaking, and she grabbed Sarah’s arm. “I think I need help.”

Sarah looked over to the admission’s desk. “I need a gernie, an OR, and some O-neg. Get an ECG for her and her baby.” Sarah lifted Tiana up by her elbows. “Tiana, look at me.” Tiana’s eyes stayed open without effort, and her pupils contracted in unison. “We’re going to get you help.”

Sarah heard the ambulance bay doors open again, followed by a boy screaming. Nurses came with an empty gernie and she let go of Tiana’s arms. “Lie down there, they’ll take care of you.”

Tiana recognized Elliot on the bed the EMTs were brining him in. “Keep him safe. Sarah, look at me.” Sarah didn’t. She just grabbed the front of Elliot’s gernie and lead the EMTs to the elevator.

Elliot heard Tiana’s voice calling out to him from down one of the halls. The neckbrace, and the straps over him prevented him from looking to her, but they didn’t stop him from trying to thrash around. “Tea! I’m here! I want to go home!”

Once the elevator doors closed, Elliot heard Sarah speak to the EMTs. “What happened to his neck?”

The EMTs glanced at each other. Doctor Johanson spoke. “First time.” He looked to her and nodded. “They tend to thrash about.”

Sarah nodded. “Got ya.”

“I can answer your questions, but I was told to follow your orders without feeding you any advice. So what do we do?”

Sarah looked up at the lights for a moment. “I was just told to calm him down.”

“So?”

“Lorazepam. Half a mill.”

“Just half?”

“He’s five.”

Doctor Johanson shrugged. “If you say so.”

Like the other floors, the nurses station was in front of the elevator and stairwell. The nurse there called out “Seven Oh Five” when they exited the elevator, and Sarah took Elliot to room 705. Doctor Johanson handed her a syringe, declaring it to be Lorazepam. Normally, Sarah would scold an EMT for not already having an IV in the patient, but this wasn’t the medicine she went to school for. “Elliot, are you going to calm down for me?” Elliot did not take a break from his struggling, and instead told Sarah to burn in hell. “Get him on his side.”

The EMTs and Doctor Johanson held Elliot on his side, with his knees bent to his stomach. “Get off a me you scum bags!” Sarah put her hands under the waistbands of his pyjama bottoms and underwear, and pulled them back to reveal his cheeks. “Get away from my ass! Help! Perverts! Rape!”

Sarah shoved the needle and injected the solution, removed the needle and pressed cotton swab against the injection site. Elliot started weeping. “Not again! Not like this!”

Sarah put her first two fingers on Elliot’s wrist, and used her free hand to stroke Elliot’s hair. As his screams turned to whines, and his whines into weeping, his heart rate fell to normal. Sarah nodded at the others and they released their hold on him. “Get out.”

Doctor Johanson shook his head. “Doctor Basset, there’s still-”

“You said I’m running point for him, right?”

Doctor Johanson cleared his throat. “Yes.”

“Get me a sit-rep on his cousin. She’s my patient too. Now all of you, get the fuck. Away. From my patient.”

Part 42:

Martin was leaning his cheek on the wall when Sarah closed the door. Brianne put her hand on his head. “This is her last shift, don’t be sad.”

Martin sighed and followed Brianne down the hall. “I thought see wanned to be a doctah.”

“She doesn’t really have the time for it lately.”

“Can’t you watts me?”

Brianne stopped walking and double-took at Martin. “What the hell just happened?”

“Huh?”

“Why would you want that? You hate me.”

“I don’t hate you. I dzust tsink you d-the meanest pe’son that ever existed.”

Brianne rolled her eyes, and continued walking down the hall. “Some days, I think that too. You don’t want her to quit work?”

“No. Huh dweam was to be a doctah.”

“I think her dream was to have you.”

Martin hopped at the edge of the bed, throwing his arms over, only to slide off. After another attempt, Brianne put her hands under his armpits and lifted him onto the bed. “I can do it!” Brianne let go and he sat down. “Am I getting smaller?”

“I hope not. Sarah isn’t allowed to give you anymore medicine.”

“Oh. It’s ha’d to climb up today.”

Brianne lifted the covers back. “Maybe you’re still getting used to your body. Want a story?”

Before Brianne put the sheet over him, Martin sprung to his feet and jumped onto the floor. “I’ll get it.”

“Get what?” Brianne heard a car stop in front of the house, through the window screen, and stood up to see her sister’s car. “That was weird.”

Brianne went to the living room, finding Martin placing his foot stool next to the door. “Martin, what did I tell you about answering the door.”

Martin looked at Brianne and swelled his chest in pride. “When theh’s a knock on the dough, you have a visitah.” Martin squinted and looked up at the ceiling. “Oh maybe dat was Elmo.”

“Grown-ups are the ones who answer the door.”

Martin shook his head. “Nah, d-that sounds mo’e like big bud.”

The door knocked and Brianne pulled it open, dragging Martin’s foot stool along the floor. “Go to bed, I’ll be there in a moment.” Kathy was visibly upset. “Kathy, come in.”

Kathy shook her head. “Brie, I need your help.”

“Elliot will be fine. You kno-”

“It’s not about Ellie.”

Brianne paused for a moment. “What then?”

“Have you heard anything about Tiana?”

“What? No.”

Kathy ran her hands through her hair. “Oh God, I don’t know where she is. I need your help.”

“Slow down, she’s not in your car?”

Kathy looked up. “You knew?”

Brianne didn’t bother putting her shoes on before walking outside. Kathy followed her sister to her car. “Brie, I can explain.”

Brianne pulled open her sister’s car door. The car’s inside lights turned on and Brianne saw the blanket, her brother’s old revolver, and a bloodstain on the upholstery. “Where the hell is she?”

“I was hoping you’d know!?”

Brianne grabbed the gun and opened the tumbler, which had no empty chambers. “She didn’t shoot herself, at least. Where the hell would she go!?”

Kathy held her hands up. “Brie! Can I explain myself!?”

“Explain what!?” Brianne grabbed her sister’s sleeve. “You were supposed to keep her safe!”

Kathy struck Briannes hand off her. “I was keeping her safe from you!”

“That’s the point!” Brianne felt her pager vibrate and pulled it out of her pocket. “Oh, thank God.”

“What?”

“She’s been spotted in the hospital parking lot. Is she headed for the ambulance bay?”

Kathy shrugged. “How should I know?”

“I wasn’t talking to you.” Brianne’s pager buzzed. “Okay, have the bus with my nephew wait for her to be admitted. Let Doctor Basset handle my niece. Redirect her if you have to.”

“Okay, can we talk about this?”

Brianne shook her head. “Later. Help me wrangle the boys.”

Part 43:

Dakota was waiting in the hospital room for the doctor to give her the all-clear to leave. The television only had three channels, airing Paw Patrol, The Backyardigans, and the News. Dakota didn’t feel like watching authoritarian propaganda, nor capitalist propaganda, so she was watching Backyardigans when Dylan and Rory came in. Dakota grabbed the remote and flicked the television off. “Thank God.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah I’m fine. How’d Dylan find you?”

“Lauren’s aunt works here. She heard about a girl with a torn up plaid jacket, a bad dye-job, and a potty-mouth who broke her leg. I said that must be Dakota.” Rory noticed Dakota clenching her jaw. “Her words, not mine.”

Dakota nodded. “Uh-huh!”

Lauren walked in carrying a cardboard drink tray. “I brought smoothies.” Dakota forced a smile. “No hard feelings about what my aunt said-” Lauren glared at Rory. “That Rory didn’t keep to himself.”

“Cool cast.” Rory reached into his satchel and revealed a can of spray-paint. “Can I sign it?”

Lauren grabbed his arm. “Not in a hospital, dumb-ass.” Lauren handed Rory the drink tray. “Dish-up, I’ll go get some markers from pediatrics.”

Doctor Johanson was waiting in the elevator. “Going down?”

Lauren smiled. “Absolutely.” She entered and leaned on the back wall, and waited for the doors to close. “So, the little painter has an owie. How goes the reformation?”

“Has she complained about any pain?”

Lauren shook her head. “She looks fine. Though the morphine might eclipse it.” Lauren noticed Doctor Johanson glaring at her. “Yes, I know it’s not morphine. Or at least I hope it isn’t. I just gave them all a heaping does of Simp.” Lauren giggled to herself. “Can you imagine?” Lauren crossed eyes and slurred her speech. “Is dis weal life?” Lauren cringed at Doctor Johanson’s inamusement. “Ever hear the one about loving your work?”

“She’s due for another x-ray. After that, some orderlies can help you leave.”

The elevator door opened, and Lauren smiled as Doctor Johanson stepped off. “Always fun bantering with you.”

Soon after Lauren was gone, and a few sips into their smoothies, Rory and Dylan decided it was a good time to sign Dakota’s cast. Dakota knew they’d get in trouble spray-painting in the hospital, but pulling it off would be a lot more fun with the risk of being caught. They each put on safety goggles and dustmasks. Rory’s attempt failed, leaving a black mark on one side of the cast, as well as casting a shadow on the bedding. Dylan grabbed the can from him, and held the can up close. “See, this is how you do it.”

The two then signed their names, along with obscenities like “I like big cocks,” “this machine kills fascists,” “<-- crab dip,” “i eat fart nuggets,” and “poopoo a-choo!” Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t have devolved into toilet humour mixed with phonetic play, but as you might have guessed, their smoothies were rather… sugary. So sugary that they were so giggly that the boys couldn’t focus on painting, and Dakota couldn’t keep her leg still.

“I gotta go to the bathroom.”

Dylan and Rory nodded and backed away from the bed. Dakota shook her head. “I can’t walk on this.”

Rory and Dylan stared at each other and back at Dakota. “Go get a crutch or wheel chair or something.”

Dylan put his finger on his nose. Rory huffed. “Fine I’ll go get it.”

Dylan picked up the spraypaint. “Okay, what now?”

While Dakota pondered something for him to write, the television turned on, playing the Backyardigans. “Ah darn. Where’s the remote?”

Dylan looked around. “I can’t see it anywhere. It’s fine though. These guys sing nothing but bangers.”

Dakota laughed. “I wiss I could sing like them.” She cleared her throat. Wiss."

Rory walked in, carrying a crutch, and gasped at the television. “Awe! I loved the Backyardigans when I was little.”

“Same.” Dylan agreed.

“Same.” Dakota agreed.

The three of them shared a laugh at Tyrone calling himself a Scaredy-Moose, because they all knew he meant Scaredy-Cat, except he’s a moose. By the end of Tyrone’s solo, Lauren returned with a handful of felt-tip markers to find the three young adults staring at the television. Lauren coughed and waved her hand over her face. “Oh boy. Now I get the dustmasks. I see you guys decided to sign the whole bed while I was gone.”

Rory pointed at the television. “Look, the Backyardigans are on the TV.”

“That’s fantastic, Rory. And I can see there’s paint on everything else.” Lauren walked up to Dylan and poked at his jeans. “Why are your pants wet?”

Dylan giggled. “I dropped the smoothy while I was painting.”

“And Dakota? Your sheets are ruined, and not just with paint!”

“I forgot to go to the bathroom.”

Lauren shook her head. “And Rory, what about you?” Lauren pulled at the front of his shorts. “Is your diaper wet?”

Rory smacked her hand away. “Hey! Not in front of my friends!”

Dakota cringed. “Ew, why are you wearing a diaper?”

Dylan giggled. “Rory’s wearing a diaper.”

Dakota shuttered. “Gross.”

Lauren put her hands on her hips. “Leave him alone. It looks like y’all need one yourselves.”

Dakota shook her head. “Uh-uh. I’m a big girl.”

Lauren nodded and patted the sheets where Dakota had peed. “So this is what big girls do. Tsh. Kids these days, I swear. You just need new underwear then?”

Dakota nodded. “Yeah.”

“And you all need new clothes then? You’re covered in paint, smoothy, and pee. You kids sure know how to make a mess of yourselves.” The giggles had died down, as they realized Lauren was scolding them, and not joining in their joking around. “Well, Dakota’s leg is fine. You three can come crash at my place tonight, before you decide to start any more art projects. Maybe I can talk my Uncle out of giving you a detention for ruining this room.”

Rory shook his head. “I thought it was your Aunt that worked here.”

For a moment, Lauren didn’t look angry. “Well, I still see her as my uncle sometimes.”

Rory nodded. “Oh, he’s a tranny?”

Dylan smacked Rory’s shoulder. “She! She’s a tranny.”

Lauren shook her head. “Yeah. Real progressive, Dylan.”

Dylan swelled with pride. “Thank you.”

Lauren smacked the two boys upside their heads. “It’s transgender, you doofuses. Either say the whole word or say nothing.”

Dylan and Rory rubbed their heads. Rory pouted. “I didn’t remember the word.”

“Yeah, you kids don’t remember a lot of words tonight. I just offered my home to you guys so you wouldn’t have to sleep in whatever nest you built, and y’all seemed to have forgotten what to say to that. Dakota. Do you know the very important words you forgot?”

Dakota scratched her head. “Uh, thank you?”

“Very good.” Rory and Dylan repeated Dakota. “That’s what I like to hear. Boys, come help me get a wheel chair so we can take Dakota home.”

Lauren could have pushed Dakota herself, but Dylan and Rory had lost wandering privileges. The boys stood on either side of Lauren, and if either of them took their hands off of hers while they walked through the hospital, they were given a smack on the bum. They didn’t have to be told twice, which told Lauren that applying the doses of Simplicity directly in the straws still wasn’t fast enough.

Part 44:

Elliot made her promise. He hoped she’d never have to keep it, but now he knew why he hadn’t seen Brianne since Mommy and Daddy came to town. Ugh. Elliot couldn’t remember just how long ago it was, but he was likely older than he was now. Brianne explained to him and Tiana how their family made their living, and all the dangers it presented. They weren’t worried about the dangers, because Brianne assured them that Grandma and Grandpa had protections in place, and Brianne would do her part to keep them safe. They were young enough to believe it. What worried them most was that Elliot’s parents could turn them into babies at will. There was no insult that could ostracize you into the pariah of the playground moreso than being called a baby. If they became actual babies, none of their friends would even look at them anymore. They might even have been expelled from school.

Elliot looked up to Brianne. Not being much older than either he or his cousin, his aunt was more like a sister to him. “You wouldn’t do that to me, would you?”

Brianne had laughed. “What? You don’t wanna be a baby again?”

“Of course I don’t!”

“That’s good to hear. I’d miss talking to you so much. It wouldn’t be the same.”

“Good, don’t ever do that.”

“I won’t.”

“If you ever do, don’t play with me.”

Brianne found this funny, but Ellie was serious. “What?”

“I don’t want an aunt who would do that to me. Don’t make me grow up with that kind of aunt. Promise me!”

“I won’t, I promise.”

Looking back now, Elliot found it to be more like one of those hollow promises you make to a child when the child is worried about something silly that wouldn’t happen. His parents broke promises like all the time, but those were the easiest to keep. It hurt when he was little, but he understood the broken promises as he grew up. But Brianne wasn’t like that. Elliot was scanning his whole life, looking for a time Brianne ever broke a promise to him.

“Promise me!”

“I promise, you only have to try one bite.” Elliot remembered when he found out he liked shrimp. He wanted more, but Brianne denied sharing any more of her appetizer with him. “Uh-uh, I promised I’d only make you eat one. Get your own.”

“Promise me!”

“I won’t drop you! Just don’t look down.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m eating your candy.”

“What!!!” Elliot looked down, and then clung his body against the climbing wall.

“Because of the heights, silly! You don’t have any candy!”

“Don’t eat my candy! Promise me!”

“I promise! Now take a breath and keep going!”

“Don’t drop me!”

“I won’t!”

“Promise me!”

“I promise!”

Elliot didn’t fall, and Brianne kept a grip on the line, and on his first time rock-climbing, he made it to the top. The pride made the fear of heights worthwhile.

Then Brianne moved away. She finished high school and started working as a Nanny. “Promise me!”

“I’ll be there to watch your play, I promise!”

Elliot couldn’t remember which play it was, but it was one he did after Brianne moved, and one he had a solo in. He didn’t worry about his parents showing up, because that was their job. He didn’t see Brianne in the crowd, but he was actively avoiding all the people watching him, and focusing on his singing. After the play, he found out she wasn’t in the crowd.

He was angry the whole ride home, even when he found Brianne waiting in his front yard. “You promised!”

“I did!”

“You weren’t there!”

“I know I know, but Mommy taped the whole play!”

“So what?”

“So, we can watch the whole thing together. I told you I’d be here to watch your play. I’m sorry I was late, but I can still do that. Will you let me keep my promise?” That was the closest she ever came to breaking a promise to him.

“I don’t want an aunt who would do that to me. Don’t make me grow up with that kind of aunt. Promise me!”

“I won’t, I promise.”

And then he forgot about it. And then he was little. And then he was alone in a hospital room, with his aunt’s housemate sitting at his bedside, but not his aunt. “Is Brianne coming?”

Sarah nodded. “So I’d imagine.”

“Will I be a baby before she gets here?”

Sarah shook her head. “I’m not going to refresh you, Ellie.”

“I don’t believe you.”

Sarah nodded. “I wouldn’t either. But I won’t. Do you want me to call her?”

Elliot shook her head. “Can you call her from this room?”

“The phone’s at the nurses station.”

“Don’t leave me alone.”

Sarah nodded. “Okay, I won’t.”

“Promise me.”

“I promise.”

Elliot rolled his eyes at himself. “I’m sorry. You barely know me.”

Sarah shook her head. “That’s not entirely true.”

“What, did you read my file or something?”

Sarah chuckled. “When I was in grade eight, I had just met Brianne. Me and Karen, I think it was, came over. You were only four at the time, but you wouldn’t leave us alone. Brianne was trying to act cool and detached from the little brat in front of us, but she cared more about telling you off nicely. You wanted her to show us your guys’s dance to us. Back when you were too little to feel embarrassed about dancing to a girl-band. She didn’t want to, so I told you I would. So you taught me the routine, and we danced for Brianne and Karen, and your parents too.” Sarah laughed. “I dunno. I always find it cute looking back on it.”

“That was you?”

Sarah nodded. “I probably would have adopted a daughter if we didn’t do that. It’s fun seeing Martin learn about the world, even stuff he already knows.”

“Already knows? Martin’s like me?”

Sarah nodded and then shrugged. “He used to be a grown-up. Then-” Sarah shrugged. “I let him be little and took him in.”

Elliot scoffed. “You let him?”

Sarah shrugged. “It’s complicated. I don’t want to bore you.”

“I’m not all that busy here.”

“Ellie, I don’t know the protocol here. I’m not a full-fledged Nanny, and I have a feeling those straps are there for my safety as much as yours. If I let you go, will you promise not to do anything stupid? And we can play cards or something?”

“Can I just sleep instead?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Don’t leave me though.”

“I won’t.”

After removing the neckbrace and the restraints, Sarah pulled the blanket over Elliot and let him get comfortable enough to sleep. Even if he had his adult mind back, his body was way beyond its bedtime. When Doctor Johanson came back, he noticed Elliot lying freely. “Whoa. You shouldn’t release him just because he fell asleep.”

“He only fell asleep because I released him.”

“He didn’t attack you? How’d you manage that?”

Sarah didn’t manage anything. All she did was address his concerns, told him a story and tucked him in. She didn’t know how Doctor Johanson worked as a Nanny, but Sarah wasn’t going to treat Elliot like cattle just because her attending was used to it. “I treated him like a person.”

“Right then. Tiana, your other patient. She lost the baby. They’re removing it now.”

Sarah sighed. “Can they bring her up here after they close?”

“Brianne is in the waiting room down the hall. She’d like to see you.”

“Send her in.”

“She told me to bring you to her.”

Sarah looked to Elliot. “If you’re awake and want me to stay, just say it. If not I’ll be right back.” Elliot didn’t respond. Sarah stood up and walked to the door.

Doctor Johanson pointed at Elliot. “You shou-”

“No I shouldn’t. Get out.” Sarah closed the door behind them, and she stopped a nurse walking past. “Nurse. You know I’m running point on this kid, right?”

“Yes, Doctor.”

“Good. If he comes out, tell him I’ll be right there. Do not bind him, is that clear?”

“Yes, Doctor.”

Sarah went to the small waiting room, where Kathy and Brianne sat on the couch. “Sarah, what’s the news?”

“How much do you know?”

“I was told to ask you.”

Sarah nodded. “Okay. I thought you outranked me?”

“Apprenticeship later.”

“Well, Tiana lost the baby.”

Kathy and Brianne clenched up. Kathy sighed in relief. “Well, that’s good to hear.”

“Kat!”

Kathy scowled at her sister. “She didn’t want it! Would you?”

Brianne shrugged. “That explains the smoking.” Brianne saw Sarah was disgusted with both of them. “Continue.”

“Right. Elliot is asleep. I didn’t apply any refreshment, just a light anxiolytic”

“In English please.”

Brianne spoke. “Oh come on, Kat. Something to calm him down.”

“Was that so hard?”

Sarah sighed. “Okay, I’m out of my element here. I can break the news, but as far as my job performance goes, I don’t know what I should and shouldn’t be doing.”

Brianne shook her head. “You’ve gone above and beyond tonight. I didn’t hear about Tiana until she was in the parking lot.”

“That’s a relief. Elliot wanted to see you.”

Brianne shook her head. “No he didn’t.”

“He wanted me to call you.”

Brianne shook her head. “Okay, but he doesn’t want to see me.”

Kathy scowled at her sister. “Really? You can’t imagine Ellie might feel better if you talked to him?”

“Shut up, the both of you. He doesn’t want to see me.”

Kathy saluted forward, without looking to her sister. “Yes, Ma’am.”

Sarah continued. “Tiana’s in surgery, and she’ll be up here for post-op. Can I let your sister see Elliot?”

Brianne nodded. “Go on.”

Kathy stood up and left without a word. Sarah sat on the chair facing perpendicular to the sofa. “Where are the boys?”

“Oh, I got them a room at the end of the hall. They’re sleeping, or at least they’ll have me believe. I have a feeling Martin doesn’t find Barney to be soporific.”

“Sopo-what?”

“Sleep-inducing. Martin didn’t want me to read Flopsy Bunnies to him, so I read it to myself.”

“Ah okay. Is it normal for kids in Elliot’s situation to be restrained the whole time?”

Brianne looked shocked, and nodded. “Yeah? I had one kid break his own neck in a fit? It’s not the easiest transition to go from ready to lucid.”

“He died?”

Brianne cringed. “No! We put him on by-pass and pumped him full of Space-Saver. Then once he stopped rejuvenating, we restarted his heart. He was lucky he didn’t sever any major blood vessels.”

“I don’t quite understand.”

“Without bloodflow, Space-Saver does jack shit. And even when it does, bone doesn’t rejuvenate perfectly if it hasn’t yet remodeled. Took a few refreshments and surgeries to fully erase the break.”

“That’s horrifying.”

“I’ll say. I had to foster the poor bastard.”

“Okay, I’ll get the neckbrace back on Elliot.”

“Hold up. He didn’t attack you?”

“No, he just wanted me to be tucked in.” Brianne froze and stared at Sarah for a moment. Sarah shrugged. “Why is everyone so baffled by that?”

Brianne leaned back and patted her knee. “You know, I don’t think you’ll be a good Nanny. I think you’ll do better at something else. I don’t know what yet.”

“Should I tell them I’ll finish my residency?”

Brianne shook her head. “No. You still need to train. I just have to think about it.” Brianne stood up. “In the meantime, I have to see a colleague before sunrise. You mind if I leave the boys here?”

Sarah shook her head. “Nah, they’ll be fine eh?”

“Yeah, I’ll be back for them before you clock out.”

Re: Stinky Street

Part 43

Dakota woke up in the pkjurple sleeping bag on the living room floor. The two sleeping bags next to her were empty. She felt the plaster holding her leg straight as she sat herself up. As if on cue, Lauren entered the room and asked about Dakota’s leg. It didn’t hurt, and Lauren said she’d take her to the doctor to have it re-examined, “but first, we need some breakfast in your tummy.”

Dakota grimaced. “Ew. Rory might be into that, but please spare me the baby-talk.”

“Sorry, dear. I didn’t realize Rory was out.”

Dakota shook her head. “Neither does he. Found out what that patch meant a while ago. Where are they?”

“They went out. Said they’d be at the lake.”

“Alright. Can you help me up?”

Lauren helped Dakota stand, and it didn’t hurt to put any weight on her leg. Her cast may as well have been a boot. Lauren helped Dakota into the wheelchair, and wheeled her to the breakfast table. Lauren’s dining table was too low for the armrests on the wheelchair. “I got just the thing.” Lauren left for a moment, and came back with a large piece of plastic. “Living with a nurse has it’s perks.”

Lauren lay the tray in front of Dakota and snapped it to the armrest. The loud snap was followed by a quiet click, as was the second. “I can switch to a regular chair.”

“Don’t be silly. Your leg is broken. I wasn’t comfortable leaving you on the floor, but the morphine had you a bit of a mess.” Lauren stood straight and retrieved a mug from the cupboard. “How do you take your coffee?”

“Just cream. You don’t have to dote on me.”

Lauren started fixing her coffee. “Oh it’s my pleasure.”

Dakota patted her hands on the tray, finding it rigid on her wheelchair- a perfect fit. “Not too much pleasure, I hope.”

Lauren turned around to give Dakota a sour grin. “Not in that way. Think of it as altruism.”

“I’m not a charity case.” Lauren put the mug down on the tray. “Thanks.”

“A simple good deed, then?”

“Sure.” Dakota took a sip, and found it wasn’t piping hot. “How long was I out?”

Lauren put the plate of pancakes in the microwave. “Long enough. You guys didn’t strike me as people who wake up early, but Rory and Dylan were ready to go before I got up.”

Dakota took another sip. “Yeah, we’ve been camping a lot this week.”

“Well, you’re welcome to stay a few days.” The microwave beeped, and Lauren pulled the plate and brought it to Dakota. “I actually woke up to them making breakfast, so that was nice. You guys are the best couch surfers I’ve had in a while.” Lauren brought a fork to Dakota, along with the butter and a bottle of syrup.

While she ate, Dakota had a small case of dizziness coming on, as well as a rumbling in her tummy. She put her hand over the side of the tray, feeling for a latch to remove it. Lauren saw this and smiled. “Your breakfast isn’t done, are you gonna catapult it?”

“I gotta go to the bathroom.”

Lauren chuckled. “For a bit of syrup on your shirt? That thing doesn’t look like it’s been washed in months, it can wait.”

“Huh? No, I-” Lauren was right. Her shirt’s clammy adherence to her chest wasn’t from sweat, but from sticky sugary syrup seeping into the fabric. “No, I gotta go to the bathroom. Like, go.”

Lauren shook her head. “Oh of course.” She stood up, and removed the butter. “Sometimes I forget coffee tends to loosen up your dinner.” Lauren chuckled, and then suppressed her smile when she saw Dakota glaring at her. “Right then.” She removed the syrup. Dakota thought a waitress of all people wouldn’t have to remove one item at a time. It took her a moment to realize that a small pressure wasn’t something to fuss over. Maybe when she was a little girl, but it was hardly an emergency now. Lauren even waited to move her plate onto the table before taking the fork off of the tray. Lauren unlatched one side and pivoted the tray sideways. “Better hurry.”

“Can you help me?”

Lauren smirked and shook her head. “Oh no, you made it clear you don’t need babying. Go on.”

Dakota scoffed as she stood up. “Sure, now you don’t want to dote on me.” She hobbled on her cast to the bathroom, lifted her shirt and pulled her panties down to her cast, though the leg-cuff couldn’t fit around the cast, and she knew she couldn’t spend a week in the same underwear, at least while she was someone’s guest. She didn’t spend long on the throne, thanks to the coffee, and she lifted her panties back up and draped her shirt back down over her underwear.

Lauren smiled at Dakota hobbling back into the kitchen. “That didn’t take long.”

Dakota giggled. “It went out really fast.”

“Did it? Are you clean then?”

“Yeah.” Dakota sat back down in the wheelchair, and felt the squishiness between her cheeks. She realized it wasn’t her pooping that was quick, it was her short time in the bathroom that made Lauren suspicious. “Oopsie.”

“What’s oopsie?”

Dakota gulped at Lauren’s stern tone. This was no place to be caught acting like a disgusting brat. Maybe with Rory and Dylan, and maybe if she were high she’d have an excuse, but not here in a stranger’s home. Dakota shook her head. “Nothing.”

“Good, you ready to finish your breakfast?”

Dakota nodded, and Lauren put the tray back onto the wheelchair. Lauren put the plate back on the tray. She had been busy while Dakota was in the bathroom. Dakota was delighted to see the rest of her pancake had been cut into small pieces. It left the fork needless; each piece could fit in her hand. It was a good thing too, since Lauren hadn’t bothered giving her the fork back. Lauren just smiled at the young woman eating syrupy pancake crumbs out of her palms. “Ah if you could see yourself right now.”

Part 44:

Elliot woke up in the same hospital room, but in different clothing. These pyjamas were short. A soft T-shirt and a soft pair of shorts. A few days ago, he wouldn’t recognize the sigils splattered on the fabric, but now he was embarrassed that he could identify the Paw Patrol just by looking at each shield. Elliot shuttered at the delight he remembered from watching the show. The star, the wrench, the flame, the recycling arrows, the anchor, and the propeller were all familiar to him now. If you pointed at one, he could tell you the pup it belonged to. The idea brought to mind the image of the game his aunt played to distract his cousin during a change. “Who’s on your diaper?”

Elliot gasped, and pulled the waistband of his shorts out. Elliot sighed in relief when he saw underwear. Not just any kind of underwear: plain underwear. A solid deep blue, thin, cotton brief: a stay of infanci… infantil… baby-izing. He was still a big boy for now.

The night-light wasn’t enough to immediately notice the second bed that was in his room. After Elliot’s underwear check, he saw the bed across from his, and his cousin Tiana was sleeping in it.

Elliot climbed out of his bed, and ran to Tiana’s bedside, and shook her. “Tea. Tea, wake up.”

Tiana moaned and turned onto her side. “Go away, Martin.”

“Martin!? Do I really sound like that crayon snob to you?”

“Crayon snob?” Tiana turned over. “What are you-” Tiana sat up and stared at Elliot. “Ellie?” Elliot nodded. “Holy shit, she actually did it.” Tiana put her hand on Elliot’s cheek and leaned in. “Ellie, it’s me, Tiana. Do you remember me?”

Elliot rolled his eyes and shrank away from her hand. “Of course I do, idiot. Don’t be silly.”

“Sorry, I haven’t seen you since-” Tiana held her hand above her head, horizontally. “A few feet ago.”

“Where’s mom?”

“I don’t know. Last I saw her was at the-” Tiana cleared her throat and scanned the room. “Our house.”

Elliot glanced around the room, but didn’t see anything. “They don’t speak our tongue.”

Tiana shook her head. “Brianne does.” Tiana looked to the door at the end of the room. “I don’t suppose that door’s unlocked.”

Elliot shook his head. “Just Sarah and Mom can open it. I promised I wouldn’t try to escape.”

“Wow, on your best behaviour, are you? Probably a waste of effort, anyways.”

“Can I get that in English?”

Tiana stared at her cousin for half a second before seeing the five year old watching her. “You would tire yourself out escaping just to end up back here.”

Elliot threw his hands up and walked back to his bed. “Was that already too many silly-bulls?” Elliot grabbed the remote off of the chair and climbed up onto the railing hanging below the side of his bed, and rolled onto the mattress. Elliot stared at the television with the remote in his lap, and surfed through the three channels. Bananas in Pyjamas, Big Comfy Couch, and Barney and Friends. All shows Elliot watched as a boy, all shows that reminded him he was cradle-bound. Elliot turned the television off and threw the remote back onto the chair. “I’m bored.”

“I’m Tiana.”

Elliot burst into laughter. “Stop it!” Elliot leaned forward to laugh into the bedding, and then sat up and stared at Tiana. “Why are you in here?”

The two looked at the door when they heard the hum of the hospital leaking in through the door. Sarah entered, and gave a faint smile at the two. “Morning, guys.”

“I’m bored.”

Tiana nodded. “Doctor Basset.”

Sarah dragged the rolling chair to Tiana’s bedside and sat down. “Elliot, I can’t let you guys out to give Tiana privacy. Can you watch television for a minute?”

Elliot folded his arms. “There’s nothing good on. Anything you can say to her you can say to me.”

Tiana shook her head. “Hey Elliot, do you know what a bun in the oven is?”

Elliot chuckled. “Does that mean you gotta poop?”

Tiana nodded. Elliot burst into laughter. Tiana rolled her eyes and turned to Sarah. “He thinks that’s funny. So do I have one?” Sarah shook her head. “Great. Can you get one of my aunts in here?”

Sarah glanced at Elliot, who was still recovering from his giggles. “I know it can be hard. If you need someone to talk to-”

Tiana shook her head. “It’s fine. I wanted it gone. Otherwise I wouldn’t have smoked.”

Sarah cleared her throat and looked to Elliot. “I’ll go find your aunts.”

Sarah walked past the bad-news room and saw Kathy still sleeping on the couch. Sarah didn’t want to wake her, and Brianne hadn’t returned since she left a few hours before. She went down to end of the hall. Martin and Gavin were lying on a gurney, fitted with bars to fashion it into a large mobile crib. Martin opened his eyes and smiled at Sarah. “Are you off work?”

Sarah checked her watch. “As it happens, yes. I’m just waiting for Brianne to get back.”

“Can we hang out?”

Sarah closed the door behind her. “Sure. Have you been locked in the crib all night?”

“No, it’s dzust so Gavin didn’t climb out. But I held it all night and stayed dwy.”

Martin pulled down the front of his training pants, and Sarah grabbed his arm and pulled it back up before he flashed her. “That’s great, Bubba.”

“I gotta go potty.” Martin pointed at the potty chair in the corner of the room. “Is that potty safe?”

“Yes of course it.” Sarah paused for a moment. “Let’s just take you to a real bathroom, shall we?”

Martin nodded and held up his arms. Sarah lifted him out of the crib. “Wait!” Martin pointed at the crib. “I don’t wanna leave my Nana-blankey heeya.”

“Of course.” Sarah walked back to the crib and threw Martin’s quilt over her shoulder. She took him to the bathroom, and helped him onto the toilet once he had his training pants at his ankles. Sarah pulled at the front of the waistband to check the padding. “You’ve been dry all week, Bubba. Do you want to go get some underwear today?”

Martin shook his head. “No, I don’t think I’m ready.”

“Okay, but a little accident now and then is okay.”

Martin nodded. “Okay.” Martin looked down, passed his penis and into the toilet bowl, and then back to Sarah. “I don’d 'ave to go.”

“Haven’t you been holding it all night? Or did you use the strange potty in the room?”

Martin shrugged. “I keep twying.” Sarah watched Martin, and noticed him fiddling his fingers, propping resting his chin on his hand for a moment, and at one point, bobbing his head back and forth, humming the tune of Mister Golden Sun. Martin was acting like when he sat in his carseat, contemplating if it had been long enough since he last asked “are we there yet?” Martin’s lower abdomen didn’t contract a single time. He wasn’t pushing, he was bored.

It felt like a sick joke. She didn’t want a baby until she helped deliver one, then her marriage fell apart because she couldn’t have one. With her long work hours, she couldn’t adopt without her husband. With the help of Brianne, she adopted a man who wanted to be a baby. And the punchline was that the reason that brought Martin to Brianne’s attention grossed Sarah out. Sarah hadn’t seen Martin play with himself since he was a teenager, and she had no reason to suspect he still had a diaper fetish until now. It may not have been sexual for him, but it certainly regressed with him. Sarah had to decide what was best for Martin, and it definitely wasn’t another diaper fetish, but if it was unavoidable, trying to discourage it would do even more damage.

“Well, you don’t have to wear underwear. It’s a bit constricting isn’t it?” Martin nodded in agreement. “What’s that mean?”

“You can always go commando.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Not wearing underpants under your pants.”

Martin giggled at the repeating words, as well as the insight into how underpants got their name. He stopped smiling and shook his head. “Nah, I don’t wanna do d-that.”

“Why don’t we try it until we get home and see how you like it?” Sarah already had Martin’s training pants off his feet and in the trash bin. Martin hung his head in a slump, and Sarah saw the worry in his eyes. “Don’t worry, Bubba. It’s just for a little bit to try it out.” Sarah patted his head and stroked his hair. “I bet you’ll feel really proud when you see your pyjama pants dry. Just make sure to get it all out while you’re still on the potty.”

Sarah saw Martin hang his jaw open for a moment, and then sigh when he found himself out of protests. Martin’s disappointment had Sarah questioning her strategy. The trickling of the toilet water sounded like a small victory she would just have to be grateful for.

Martin climbed off the toilet and Sarah stood up straight. “Let’s wash your hands now.”

“I don’d 'ave any clothes now.”

“That’s okay. I’m sure Brianne left you some Pyjamas. If not we can always get you a hospital gown.”

Martin nodded and followed Sarah to the sink. While he washed his hands, Sarah saw Martin doing a little dance with his legs crossed. “You okay, Bubba?”

Martin looked up to Sarah, nodded, and looked back to the sink. “You still gotta go?”

Martin shook his head. “No, all done.”

Sarah sighed, and rolled her eyes. Letting Martin go commando was a non-starter, and she decided to get a pair of Martin’s training pants on him once they got back to the room.

On the way back from the bathroom, Martin was holding Sarah’s hand as they walked past the supply closet. He could see and smell the wall-to-wall shelves of diapers. Martin was hoping to get training pants on before emptying the rest of his bladder, but he knew he wasn’t going to make it back to the room. He saw a nurse walking their direction, and decided it was time to let go of Sarah’s hand. He stopped and spread his feet apart and peed onto the floor.

Sarah turned around to take Martin’s hand when she saw him initiate a stream. “Oh Martin.”

Martin looked at Sarah with a pout. “Uh-oh.”

As he had seen everyone else in this town react to even the smallest of leaks, and indeed as he had hoped for, the nurse frowned at him. “Awe, did someone ditch the diapers too early?”

Martin gave Sarah his pouty-puppy face. “Sorry, Sarah.”

Sarah nodded and frowned at him. “It’s okay, Bubba. We’ll try some other time.”

Sarah could see summer was getting really bad, because Brianne hadn’t packed a pair of pyjamas for Martin. Sarah looked at the bundle of training pants, along with Gavin’s diapers and shook her head. “I’ll be back in one second, wait right here.” She pulled out the packet of baby wipes and handed it to Martin. “Clean your legs up.”

Martin took the packet and stared at her. “Come back soon. I’m still naked.”

Every other hospital that Sarah had worked at, and even every other floor of this hospital, had two brands of diapers, one for babies, and one for adults. This supply closet had at least a dozen brands, for children of all ages, and all abilities. She saw a package with Martin’s size printed on it, but what caught her eye was a plain white diaper with a purple band over the front. On it was Blue, Martin’s favourite animated dog.

Sarah came back to the room, and Martin saw the bundle of diapers in Sarah’s hands. Martin shook his head and backed away. “Sarah, no, please.”

“Martin, relax.” Sarah sat down on the floor and crossed her legs. “Come here.” Martin stepped backwards to the diaperbag, grabbed a pair of training pants and put them on. “Bubba, you don’t have to be scared.” After he had the training pants up, Martin walked over to Sarah, and climbed into her lap. He took the bundle of diapers. Sarah let go to let Martin look them over, and instead he threw them at the wall. He rested his cheek on her breast and stared at her.

Sarah bit her lip and shook her head. She stroked Martin’s hair. “Please don’t be scared of me.”

Martin pinched his eyebrows together. “I’m not.”

“You are. I’m not supposed to scare you. It’s the exact opposite of what I’m supposed to do.”

Martin put his hand on Sarah’s holding it against his head. “Don’t cry.”

Sarah rolled her eyes. Telling Martin not to be scared was as pointless as him telling her not to cry. “I won’t hurt you. I won’t turn you into a baby. I know I already did, and I know I’ll always be the woman who did that.”

“I’m not mad about that.”

“I know. But it does scare you. It must have been a shock. Wasn’t it?” Martin nodded and Sarah nodded with him. “It scares me too. I don’t know, I saw Blue’s Clues on them on thought you’d like them. Thought if they’d comfort you, it might make it easier. Being three again. I wasn’t threatening you. I wasn’t mad about you peeing on the floor.” Sarah chuckled. “It’s a hospital, for God’s sake. The floors see worse all the time.”

“I don’t wanna weaw them. I don’t want underwear either.”

Sarah nodded. “Sure. That works. Just, please don’t be scared of me. I’ll never hurt you, okay?”

Martin rubbed his thumb on the back of Sarah’s hand. “You’re the least scary person I’ve ever met.”

Part 45:

Lauren ran Dakota a bath and helped her out of her shirt, leaving her in her panties and bra. Lauren pulled at the panties, but they wouldn’t fit around her cast. Lauren grabbed the scissors from the drawer and cut the sides. “Hey! No! I need those!”

Lauren held up the panties for Dakota to see the brown stain. “Really? You still want to wear these after you did this?”

Dakota shook her head. Something weird was going on. She shouldn’t have been feeling so desperate to to deny it. She was an adept wiper and this was her business and hers alone. “I was wondering why you were so quick in here. Did you even wipe?”

That was the last straw. “Yes, I did and-”

“Well you suck at it. Look at this!” It’s hard to stand your ground when you don’t have a leg to stand on. Dakota was feeling like a kid this morning, and not in a good way. “That explains all the pancake you got on yourself. You’re a freaking mess, kid. Turn around.”

Dakota growled. “Uh-uh.”

Lauren’s eyes widened in shock. “Oh! I didn’t realize I had to ask you! Is bossy-pants going to go in the bath with a poopy butt? I didn’t realize I was supposed to run you a mud bath.”

Dakota didn’t care why she felt like she owed Lauren an explanation, but she did, and she yelled it. “Shut up!” She wasn’t feeling like an eloquent child.

“Turn around now! If you think I’m letting you ruin any more of your underwear you can forget it! I have underwear that’s meant to be ruined if you keep it up!”

Dakota tensed up and pivoted on her cast until she faced the other way. Lauren balled up Dakota’s underwear and dragged it between her crack. “Unbelievable. Look at this.”

Dakota turned around and frowned. “Stop it.”

Lauren held up the underwear. “Look at that! Are you going to keep up this tough girl act, or are you going to finally admit that maybe you need Lauren’s help?”

Dakota shook her head so hard, it could have flown off her shoulders. “No, this isn’t the way.”

“Excuse me!?”

Dakota froze and nodded. “I need help.”

“Better. So is there something you want to ask me?”

“Can you help me?”

“Help you with what?”

Dakota looked around the bathroom. “Bathing.”

“Can you still talk in complete sentences?” Dakota nodded. “Let’s hear it.”

“Can you help me bathe?”

“Is there something you want to ask me nicely?”

“Please?”

“Is there something you want to ask nicely with a complete sentence?”

“Can you please help me bathe?”

“Why?”

Dakota whimpered. “Come on!”

“Pardon me!?”

“Because I need help?”

“Why? Did you poop your underwear?”

“No!”

“So what was on them?”

Dakota whined. “I didn’t poop in them!”

“Not in them, but you sure did poop them. Have you made a mess of your underwear?” Dakota nodded. “Have you made a mess of yourself?” Dakota nodded. “Have you made a mess of your life?”

“Huh? No?”

“Are you homeless?” Dakota nodded. “Do you take drugs?” Dakota nodded. “Do your parents like you?” Dakota cried. “Well?”

Dakota shook her head. “They love me!”

“But do they like you?” Dakota paused. She had told her parents off before traveling. Lauren smiled at Dakota’s ponderous face. “Is your life a mess?” Dakota sighed and nodded. “Did you make a mess of your life?”

Dakota nodded. “I wanna stop playing.”

“Oh if you think this is a game, give it a few minutes. What would I help you as?”

“Huh!?”

Lauren could see Dakota’s legs trembling. Her lack of co-ordination and her shame was starting to weigh on her feet. “Do you need help bathing like a baby?” Dakota shook her head. “Do big girls need help bathing?” Dakota squinted and shook her head. “Do you need help bathing like a baby?” Dakota pulled at her hair and nodded. “Like a stupid baby?” Dakota nodded. “Like a stupid, STUPid baby?” Dakota nodded. “Like a poopy baby?”

Dakota nodded. “Please stop.”

“Okay we can stop, just one more time from the top.”

Dakota pulled at her hair some more and then dropped her hands to her sides. “Can you please help me bathe because I’ve made a mess of my underwear and a mess of myself and a mess of my life so can you please please please-” Dakota took a deep breath. “-please help me bathe like a stupid STUPid poopy baby?” Dakota fell to the floor in a slump ands screamed into the floor tiles.

Lauren chuckled. “All you had to do was ask, Pumpkin.” Lauren sighed. “Things would go much easier if you just admit you’re nothing without an adult. If only there were a magic potion to have kids come to that conclusion by themselves.” Lauren grabbed a syringe and a pacifier from her purse. With one hand, she rubbed Dakota’s head, keeping it down and facing the floor, and with the other, she latched the syringe into a small hole in the knob of the pacifier. Then she lifted Dakota up by her hair, and stuck the pacifier in her mouth. “There’s your bathing dummy. I have a feeling you’ll want to chew on stuff. You don’t need to be sucking on any bath-water, do you?”

Dakota shook her head, and finally, Lauren helped her into the bathwater, which was already getting cold. Lauren held Dakota’s cast on the edge of the tub, and leaned on it to keep it in place while Dakota lied down with her ears in the water, and Lauren cleaned her off. She couldn’t hear Lauren through the water, but she understood the smack on the hand. She wasn’t capable of bathing herself today. It was Lauren’s job.

Dakota felt her cast expanding, as her foot started to thrash inside. She sat up and waited for the water in her ears to pop. “Vuh kuff uv vuf.”

Somehow Lauren could understand her through the pacifier. “It’s okay, it just means it’s ready to come off. Give it a few minutes.”

Dakota lied back down, and after a bit more cleaning, her foot started falling out of the cast. She bent her leg to get it out, and she could hear the clunk of it hitting the floor.

Lauren helped Dakota out of the bath, and once both feet were on the floor, she sat down onto the towel without being asked. Her foots quick recover amazed her. She didn’t feel any pain anymore. Lauren looked big, and she looked even bigger once she sat down. It seemed weird, but Lauren didn’t seem worried. Then again, if she had shrunk, would she even care? It was clear how Lauren saw her, so she might actually think it an improvement if she shrank.

Lauren saw Dakota examining her breast, and interrupted by helping her wrap herself in the Big-Baby towel. “Stay all snuggly until you’re all dry. Now let’s see.” Lauren scooted over to the sink and opened the cupboard. “Who’s your favourite princess?”

That was an odd question. Dakota didn’t have a favourite princess. She didn’t even watch Game of Thrones like literally everyone else, so why would she bother with any fantasy or even a medieval show? Then Dakota saw Lauren put the little pillowy items on the floor: Diapers.

“uh vo nguh vuhfuhv.”

“Oh, aren’t you a chatterbox. I’m not putting you in a diaper if that’s what you’re thinking. But which princess do you like?”

That was a relief to here. It made more sense that she had these diapers now. It was for her gross games that she probably played with Rory, but not her. She was just making conversation, and yet there were so many choices that the chat was dying down to an awkward silence. Dakota looked back and forth at the pictures. How many different diapers did one woman need? There was one with Arial, Cinderella, Belle, Snow White, Jasmine, a new princess she didn’t recognize, but no Mulan. “vuv.”

Lauren held her hand on Dakota’s chin. “Bite down.” Dakota bit down, and Lauren pulled the pacifier through her teeth. A little bit of bathwater squeezed out of the nipple. It tasted far more sweet than it did soapy.

“What were you saying?”

“Wheh. Wheh.” Why couldn’t she say where? “You have Mulan?”

“No, Mulan’s a big girl, very tough. Who’s your favourite?”

“Mulan.”

Lauren laughed. “Oh honey, you really think your favourite can be a big girl? Who’s your real favourite?”

Dakota waved her arms under her towel. “Mulan!” Dakota whined.

“Oh okay, who’s your second favourite?”

Dakota’s fit stopped. She was starting to figure out how the dynamic worked. Lauren’s rules weren’t arbitrary or mean, there was structure to them. The ice princess was the obvious answer. Dakota didn’t know her name, but she was the most powerful princess. She could cast freezing spells with her hands. Dakota pointed at the purple diaper. “You like Elsa?”

Dakota nodded. “Ewsa.”

“Okay, you can wear Elsa.”

“No diabuh!”

“No diaper.” Lauren picked the diaper off of the floor and opened it up, and then she showed Dakota the side-band. They were already closed. They almost looked like underwear, but they were still puffy and crinkly. Dakota shook her head. “No diabuh.”

Lauren dropped the diaper to clap her hands. “Oh goody. I was hoping you’d want to play this game again.”

Part 46:

Brianne got off the elevator and saw Sarah leaning on the nurses station. She was now in her street clothes which meant her last shift was over. Martin was sitting on the counter while a few nurses talked to him.

“Well, I think you’re very handsome.”

“Nuh-uh. I godda be big and stwong fo dat!”

“Aren’t you strong? Can you make a muscle?”

Martin flexed his arm and the nurse grabbed at his bicep. “Ooh, such a strong boy!”

Brianne walked up behind Sarah. “Doctor Basset.”

Sarah looked at Brianne and picked Martin up. “Okay, Bubba. Let’s go.”

The nurses all feigned disappointment. “Awe, please come back soon.”

Martin waved at all the nurses as Sarah mouthed “thank you” to them.

Brianne followed Sarah down the hall. “Martin, have you been making friends?”

Martin giggled. “Yeah.”

“Are you wearing a diaper now?”

Martin hung his head and leaned against Sarah. Sarah bounced him in her arms. “Yeah, doesn’t he look handsome?”

“I campy handsome.”

Brianne shook her head. “Sure, that’s a handsome diaper.”

Martin turned his head over Sarah’s shoulder and whispered in her ear. Sarah bounced him again. “Don’t be silly. She means it. Brianne, are you trying to trick Martin?”

Martin took his head off Sarah’s shoulder to look at Brianne. “Of course not. I think Blue’s Clue’s suits you.”

“Can you tink it to yourself?”

“Of course.” Brianne smiled at Sarah. “Going for a confidence boost?”

Sarah nodded. “Indubitably.”

“So what’s with the aquatically retentive pelvic wear?”

Martin perked his head up. Brianne and Sarah were speaking gibberish again. “What’s going on? Can I still talk!? Can you undestand me!?”

“Martin, relax. We’re just speaking French.”

“Yo’ bi-lingial?”

Sarah nodded. “Yeah, tri-lingual if you count Dothraki.”

Brianne patted Sarah on the shoulder. “We don’t count Dothraki, dear. It is known.”

Martin nodded in agreement. “Me nem nesa.”

“So, how’s Elliot?”

“He wants to see you.”

Brianne stopped walking. “So when I said to have him refreshed you thought that meant leave him alone until I got back?”

“You said he didn’t want to see you. I thought you’d want to know he changed his mind.”

Brianne turned around just as they got to Martin and Gavin’s room. “Oh for fuck sakes.”

Brianne scanned her pager on the medication cart and retrieved a vial of Space-Saver and one of Simplicity. Tiana and Elliot were on the bed with playing cards. “Do you have any fives?”

“Go fish.” Elliot saw Brianne at the door and threw his cards aside, and dived into Tiana’s lap.

“Whoa! Ellie!”

“Stay between us!”

Brianne held her hands up. “I’m not going to hurt you guys!”

Elliot stood up on the bed. “Liar!” Elliot jumped onto the floor and marched up to Brianne. Brianne leaned against the door as he banged his fists against her abdomen. “Liar liar liar liar!” Turning people into babies as a profession made it easy to forget how strong kids could be, but Brianne just waited for him to tire himself out. “I hate you I hate you I hate you!” Elliot backed away and glared at his aunt. “Do you know what it’s like!? Have you ever asked one of your kids!?” Brianne shook her head. “I never really cared.”

Elliot shook his head, but he didn’t have anything else to say. “My family is monsters.” Elliot sighed. “Give me the medicine.”

Brianne shook her head. “You don’t have to-”

“Just make it over.”

Brianne knelt down. “Ellie, do you know what you’re asking me?”

Elliot crunched his face up and screamed. “I want it over! You brought it in here! Gimme!”

Tiana wasn’t protesting Elliot’s refreshment anymore. Brianne looked to her niece, who was just staring at her cousin. “Have you even asked what Tiana thinks?”

Elliot rolled his eyes and looked at his cousin. “I don’t care, Tea. I don’t want to be a kid again, I just want to forget.” Elliot turned back to Brianne. “Promise me you’ll come back.”

“What?”

“Be my aunt again. My real aunt. Not this evil witch you are.”

Brianne shook her head. “Ellie, you don’t-”

“Promise me!”

“I did!” Elliot stepped back. “This is my job now. I know our family sucks. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have ever done this, but I’m not that girl anymore. I’m not a girl anymore.”

“Maybe you should be.”

Brianne nodded her head. “Maybe one day. I promised you I wouldn’t be in your life if I ever did this to you. And.” Brianne scoffed and shook her head. “And I did. And I ruined your life.”

“I’m not a baby yet.”

“I know.”

“I release you of your promise.”

“You can’t just make me break a promise.”

“Yes I can. Now give me the medicine and take care of me until I can see my mom. And when she’s busy. And when you’re just around. Promise me.” Brianne shook her head. “Promise me!” Brianne didn’t respond. Elliot marched up and pushed her. “Promise me!”

“And then what!? And then I feed you? Bath you? Clothe you? Look into your eyes when you’re not behind them? Knowing you don’t remember anything about our childhood? Watch some kid learn to talk with your voice?”

Elliot bit his lip and charged at Brianne. Brianne turned her head and didn’t raise her arm when Elliot raised his. He smacked her over the head. “Yes! I don’t care how much you miss me! My life is over and it’s your fault! So do for the new Elliot what you didn’t for me and be a good aunt! Promise me!”

Brianne covered her mouth and turned her head from Elliot. Brianne sat down on the floor and cried.

“Promise me!”

Brianne opened her eyes and looked to Tiana. “Say something.”

Tiana shook her head. “No. You ruined his life. Least you can do is give him a new one.”

Elliot smacked Brianne over the head again. “You heard her! Promise me!”

The two kids she cared about more than anyone were both looking at her with nothing but hatred. She couldn’t disagree with Elliot anymore, because she wanted it to be over too. “I promise.”

Elliot nodded and relaxed. “Thank you.”

Brianne collected herself and Elliot sat down while she prepared an eyedropper. “Will it hurt?”

“No. This is just Simplicity. It’ll make you forgetful, and it will stop the Space-Saver from hurting you.”

“I’m scared.”

Brianne nodded. “Me too, Ellie.” She held up the eye dropper up to his mouth. “The hard part’s over, okay? Do you believe me?”

“Don’t cry.”

“Open your mouth.”

Tiana balled up the sheet in her hand when she saw the dropper empty into her cousin’s mouth. “Ellie.”

Brianne lifted Elliot into her arms and stood up. She put Elliot on his bed, and he sat up. “Can you take my dzammies off? I’m toasty.”

Brianne nodded. “How big is Ellie?” Elliot smiled and raised his arms high. Brianne pulled his pyjama top off of him. “So big!” Brianne pushed on Elliot’s chest and he lay down. “Time for bed, Honey Bunny. I’ll send your mom in, okay?” Elliot nodded while Brianne pulled the sheet over his chest. “Tea, let’s give him some privacy.”

Brianne stood up and looked her nephew over. Ellie had a dopey smiley, but she could see him frowning under it along with fear in his eyes. “How about we see how he likes it first?”

Tiana nodded. “Please.”

“Let’s go get something to eat then.” Brianne patted Elliot on the chest. “Sit tight, Ellie.”

Sarah had been awake too long, and she could feel her cynicism coming on. She didn’t have any ill will towards Elliot, but she just wanted this matter resolved so she could go home. Martin and Gavin were getting restless, and even more out of control. Elliot was due to be checked out by now, and Kathy wanted to be with him when it happened. Sarah lead Elliot’s mom into the room, where they found Elliot banging his hands on the television while the Lion Guard played. Elliot smiled at them and pointed at the Lion cub on the screen. “Puppy.”

Kathy noticed the glint of the screen on the solid band of tears running down her son’s face. Kathy grabbed Sarah by her t-shirt. “Step back, Sarah!”

“Whoa! Ease up!”

“Don’t touch anything. Don’t let him touch you. Just get out of the room now.”

Kathy rushed out of the room, and Sarah wasn’t far behind her. “Mind telling me what’s going on?”

“Close the door.” Sarah did, and Kathy started pacing the hall and running her hand through her hair.

“What happened?”

Kathy shook her head. “Quarantine that room. Nobody but Brianne or my mom goes in there. If anyone asks, tell them it’s above their paygrade because I said so.” Sarah nodded. Kathy went to the nurses station. “Phone.” The nurse put the phone on the counter, and Kathy dialed 4-1-1.

The automated voice service began. “If you would like to-”

“My sister.”

“I’m sorry. I did not understand that.”

Kathy glared at the surveillance camera overlooking the counter. “Don’t test my patience.”

The pre-recorded voice stopped and after a minute of ringing tones, Kathy’s sister answered. “Kathy? What’s going on?”

“Where are you?”

“I’m on the second floor. They stopped the elevator to give me your call. What’s going on?”

Kathy didn’t know how to put it in any way that she would be comfortable while there were people in earshot, or even on the phones. “Elliot maoghojat.”

Kathy could hear her sister chuckle. “You brushed up on the family language to tell me my nephew’s crying? That could’ve waited forty seconds.”

Kathy rolled her eyes. “Maoghoje maoghojaat.” He’s crying a spring. Kathy waited for a response, but didn’t get any. “Brie?”

Brianne shook her head as she scanned the hallway. “Give me a minute to think.”

part 47:

The mall was nice and air conditioned, and the people were very friendly. A bit too friendly, even. If Lauren wasn’t so nasty, Dakota might have grabbed her arm and stayed as close to her as possible. Dakota couldn’t say anything with her dummy in her mouth, but she wasn’t going to be spitting it out just to answer some dull baby-questions. “How old are you?” “What’s your favourite colour?” “How high can you count?”

Lauren did the talking, but she wasn’t good at it. “Dakota wears pull-ups now” was starting to sound like a greeting. She had given up on flinching away when people lifted her skirt to check the front of her Elsa pants. “Oh good, you still got your snowflakes.” Whatever that meant.

They didn’t do any shopping. Lauren only took Dakota to a hairdresser. After a much needed shampoo, Lauren was ready to take Dakota to meet Dylan and Rory. It was at Lauren’s friend’s house that Dakota started to think something was wrong. It took her long enough. She had been sitting with her friends for an hour before she started to notice the weirdness. Dylan’s mohawk had been shaved down to a thin strip of hair. Rory was wearing a pastel blue shirt with a bear’s head printed on the front. Dylan’s clothing was even worse. The rustling had become part of the ambient noise of the room, but now Dakota noticed where it was coming from. Every movement Dylan made gave off the crinkling of his large diaper. This wasn’t just any adult diaper. The tapes were fastened to a landing strip printed with deep orange teddy bears. Dakota couldn’t understand how he couldn’t notice it. There was something else nagging at her. A stinging buzz coming from somewhere. It was getting worse. It moved from her fingers down her arm, into her chest, it teleported to her nose for a second, and it moved down her spine and into her butt, and then it moved to her abdomen. She had to use the bathroom! She had to use the bathroom for quite some time now, and yet it hadn’t crossed her mind until just before it got bored of waiting, and decided to empty into her pants. Dakota uncrossed her legs and looked down at her underwear. The snowflakes disappeared into the yellowing background, and she finally figured out why people kept checking for them. Then came the big chill. Her vagina had been flash-frozen by a cold sensation running over her genitals and down her crotch. “My pants are wet!”

Dakota heard an uproar of laughter and turned her head to see Lauren and Tamara sitting on the couch across the room. Dakota took a minute to ponder why anyone would have a wooden fence in their living room.

“One more to go.” Lauren stood up and walked up to the fence and leaned over Dakota. “Did you melt your snowflakes?”

Dakota shook her head. “This isn’t right.”

“Oh? Are you ready to be a big girl?”

Dakota shook her head. “No. I’m not a baby. I can’t be.”

“That’s what I told you. But you guys were so eager to try a research chemical.”

“Huh?” Dakota scratched her head. “You didn’t give us any research chemicals.”

“I told you it would make you feel like a kid, and you guys naturally went overboard. Just look at your tripmates.”

Dakota did and Lauren was right. They went overboard on an untested drug. Rory didn’t care that the Backyardigans were printed all over his tighty whities, or that he didn’t have pants over them. He held eye contact with Dakota while he picked his nose, and of all things, he smiled. Dylan, her friend who had been stripped down to a diaper, was trying to play with himself through the thick synthetic clothing.

Lauren put her hands on her hips. “You guys sure made a mess of yourselves. Did you even notice the playpen you’re in?”

Dakota could feel her heart sink, pulling a strip of her esophagus out on it’s way to her stomach. The fence finally made sense, once she noticed all the baby toys that her friends were playing with, and even she had been playing with. She smacked her hands onto her head and pushed. “Oh God, no!”

It was starting to come back to her. Sitting on the plastic potty in the middle of the living room, singing along to the potty song that Tamara and Lauren sang for her. She remembered the pride from Lauren and Tamara’s cheers. She remembered helping them change Dylan’s poopy diaper, or rather playing the spectator. All she did was listen to Lauren explain each step of the change. She remembered chewing on the soft velvety book, while Lauren kept trying to tell her to read it. And then the puppet show. Not even a puppet show. Lauren and Tamara only had to wave a few stuffed animals in her face to fill her with joy that made her burst into an unending fit of laughter. Worst of all, she remembered what she was thinking. It felt so alien to her. That wasn’t her brain she was stuck in. That was something else. It was something far too ancient for her to remember so vividly at this age. And it didn’t happen years and years ago. It all happened today.

Dakota shook her head with her palms pressed into her temples. “Oh gosh what did I take?”

“Remember your diaper dance?”

Dakota looked up at Lauren, dropping her hands. “What the heck was my diaper dance?”

Lauren burst into laughter. “Oh goodness, I’ll show you when you sober up. It’s hysterical. Three hundred likes already!”

“Likes!?”

Tamara shook her head. “I think that’s old enough.”

Lauren nodded. “Don’t worry, Dakota. We’ll talk about it after lunch. Let’s get you into a new pull-up.”

Dakota shook her head and tucked her hands under her ankles. “No, no more pull-ups.”

Tamara scoffed at this. “Really, you’d rather poop all over my floors?”

Lauren shook her head. “Tamara! It’ll be fine. Any old pair of panties will hold poop, if it’s small enough.” Lauren smiled down at Dakota. “Tell Tamara about what happened to your last pair.” Dakota shook her head.

Tamara nodded. “Oh, she wants a diaper.”

Dakota shook her head. “No, pull-ups are fine.”

“Good.” Tamara stood up and left the living room, only to come back with three bottles, along with a handful of adult diapers.

Lauren smiled. “Good girl. Come on, stand up. Let’s go get you a new pull-up. One that still has snowflakes on it.”

Dakota stood up and stepped out of the playpen. Lauren went to pull Dakota’s pull-up down before she stepped back and glanced at her friends. “Oh, relax. They don’t even know they’re own names right now. As if they even see you.”

Lauren grabbed the front of Dakota’s pull-up, and yanked it off, causing the side tapes to give away, leaving her wet bum exposed. Lauren opened a package of baby wipes. “Are those rea-”

Tamara shoved a pacifier in Dakota’s mouth before she could finish. “Much better.”

Lauren chuckled as she ran a baby wipe over Dakota’s vagina. “Just shut up and let me finish.”

Dakota stepped into the new training pants and caught her reflection in the mirror over the drink cabinet. Her hair was her natural colour. “What happened to my hair?”

Lauren smirked as she straightened out the waistband of her training pants. “Can’t understand you, pumpkin.” Lauren patted the front of Dakota’s training pants. “All better. Let’s get you guys some lunch.”

Tamara stood behind Dakota and removed Dakota’s pacifier and replaced it with a bottle. Dakota suckled on it, and saw herself in the mirror again. She realized she had gotten younger, just like Rory and Dylan had. As Tamara helped her down onto her hum, it all added up. The playpen, diapers, and being fed from a bottle all meant Tamara and Lauren wanted only one thing from them: babies.

Part 48:

It had been all night and almost all morning. Martin had two choices: be patient like a good boy, or throw a tantrum. Martin stood up and grabbed the raining of the crib, then arched his back and yelled at the sky. “Sawwaaaaaaaah!”

“What!?”

Martin looked down to see Sarah walking in. “Dat was quick. I’m bowed.”

“Hi, bored, I’m Sarah.” Martin giggled and stomped his foot on the bed. “Sto-ho-hop that!”

“You ready to go home, Bubba?”

“Can we go to the park?”

Sarah yawned. “I don’t know. I thought we could snuggle down for a nap.”

“I’ve been napping all day!”

Sarah sighed. “Fine, what’s another two hours?” She took Martin out of the crib, threw his Nana-blankey over her shoulder, and then put Gavin on the floor. “Martin, you going to hold Gavin’s hand for me?”

“Come on Gavin, hold hand.” Gavin held his hand up and Martin smiled at him. “Good boy!” Gavin smiled at Martin and then at Sarah.

“Good job, guys.” Sarah held her hand out and Martin took hers, and she lead them out of the hospital. She poked her head into the bad-news-room. “You guys need anything before we go?”

Kathy, Tiana, and Brianne all yelled in unison. “Go away!”

Sarah smiled. “See ya later!”

Brianne pushed the door shut without leaving the chair.

Kathy sighed. “I asked what should we do?”

Brianne folded her arms and stood up. “Everyone up.” Brianne opened the door and stopped a nurse walking by. “You, employee. Get all this furniture out of here. Paintings and all. Find some help if you need.”

“Yes Ma’am.”

Tiana smiled at her aunt as she entered the hall. “I am loving this. Employee, get me a beer while you’re at it.”

“Do not get her a beer!”

After the room was empty, Brianne looked over the walls, and the the door. “Nurse, If I hear anyone standing too close to this door for the next ten minutes I will shoot them without asking questions.” Brianne pulled her brother’s revolver from her purse. “I will also fire this gun at random times when the urge strikes me, through that door, just in case. Keep everyone out of this end of the floor, understood?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

Tiana leaned against the wall while her aunt closed the door. “Is it really this bad? Should we wait until we leave?”

Kathy shook her head. “Your grandma ordered Brianne to refresh Elliot, and now we know why.”

“We think,” Brianne corrected. “We think we know why.”

“And why is that?”

“Cover your ears.” Brianne pointed the revolver at the door. Tiana and Kathy covered their ears and Brianne shot the door. “We think Elliot’s the next Spring.”

“Does that mean you’re not going to turn him into a baby?” Tiana saw her aunts exchange a look. “Come on, you saw him right? You can’t just leave him like that.”

Kathy shook her head at her niece. “It means we couldn’t even if we wanted to.”

Brianne nodded. “Elliot can’t age. Forth or back.”

“For how long?”

Brianne pointed the gun at the door, and Tiana and Kathy covered there ears. Brianne shot the door once again. “A few years, maybe.”

Kathy folded her arms. “Maybe even sixty.”

“Sixty!?”

Kathy shook her head. “That was the longest arc I’ve ever heard of.”

Tiana folded her arms. “So Elliot might have to be a five-year-old for sixty years? Fuck, this should have happened sooner.”

Tiana’s words shook Kathy to the core. She glared at her sister for a moment. “What happened to surpassing youth?”

“He was nineteen when he got here.”

Kathy stared at Brianne. “If mom would do this just to extend her arc, what else would she do?”

Brianne nodded. “Wait right here.” Brianne went to the nurses station and glared at all the hospital staff staring at her. “Get back to work!” The staff glued their eyes to the floor and resumed their jobs. Brianne picked the phone off the receiver. Jason’s voice answered. “I’m running out of excuses for gunshots in a hospital.”

“You’re a creative boy, I’m sure you’ll think of something. How much longer?”

“On your ready.”

“Ready.” Brianne hung up, and went back to the bad news room. “Okay guys, let’s go.” Tiana, Kathy, and Brianne went back to Elliot’s room to find two EMTs pushing a bed with a transparent plastic tent over it, with Elliot inside. “What’s going on?”

One of the EMTs held his hands up. “Ma’am, back away.”

“I’m Brianne MacNamara. What is this?”

“Orders from up high to move this kid. I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”

Kathy charged forward. “Ellie!” Brianne held her arm up to hold her sister back. “Ellie, it’s okay baby. I’ll be right behind you.” Elliot didn’t care. He looked more fascinated by going for a ride than what his mother was saying. Kathy watched the elevator door open, and looked at her sister in desperation. “Stop them, I beg you.”

“I’ll fix this.” Kathy watched the elevator door close, and dreaded the thought that she might have seen her son for the last time. Brianne nodded. “We’ll take the stairs.”

At the bottom of the stairwell, Brianne scanned her pager on the fire exit, and the three women were in the parking lot behind an ambulance. “Get in.”

Brianne climbed into the driver’s seat, and put the baseball cap on. Kathy and Tiana climbed into the back, to find Elliot under the same plastic tent he was pulled away in. “You knew this was happening!?”

“Just shut up and close the door.”

Kathy fastened her seatbelt and peered into the plastic tarp. Elliot giggled at the sight. Kathy sighed in relief and sat back. “You couldn’t have told me?”

“I needed an honest reaction from you to sell it.” Brianne started driving.

Tiana shook her head. “I’m in a family of psychopaths.”

Kathy nodded. “You get used to it.”

Brianne drove to the edge of town, to a small gas station. After Tiana and Kathy got out of the ambulance, she lifted Elliot out of the bed. Kathy held her arms out. “Come here, baby.” Elliot smiled and toddled towards her, and then she lifted him out of the ambulance. Brianne jumped out behind him, and then lead her family into the men’s bathroom. “Lock the door behind us.”

Tiana shook her head. “I know Ellie’s with us, but I think that rule only works the other way around.” Brianne only rolled her eyes. Tiana looked around at the scum on the wall-tiles.

After checking the stalls, Brianne walked to the vending machine at the end of the room. She put a two-dollar coin in and pressed E-2718 and then backed away. The shelving of chips and chocolate bars opened up against the wall, and the black panel behind it opened into a dark stairwell. Tiana nodded. “Alright, this is getting cool.”

They followed Brianne behind the vending machine. Brianne turned a the flashlight on and pointed it at the ceiling. “I only got this one, so the ambient light will have to be enough for you guys. We got a long way down.” The vending machine closed behind them, and Kathy, Tiana, and Elliot followed Brianne down the concrete stairwell. “Whispers only in here. This place has an echo.”

Tiana, at the far back, whispered. “And what is this place?”

“In the early days of the space-race, your great-grandfather foresaw the possibility that every inch of the planet would be monitored. Back then, he would have been called a lunatic, but he was in charge, and as you guys may know, he was right. We’re getting closer and closer to a day like that. So he had a network of tunnels built. Very hush-hush. We already owned the town, so it was easy to keep under wraps. If ever the great siege came, we could mobilize undetected.”

“Guess he didn’t think to put lights in here.”

"He did, but the bulbs are old, and the hydro company will see the jump in wattage right away. If I’m honest, that vending machine has given me a bad feeling. "

“Go nyny.”

Kathy patted Elliot’s head. “In a little while. How much farther?”

“A long, long way.”

After twenty minutes, they reached the bottom of the stairwell, into a wide tunnel, wide enough for three cars to drive, farther than Brianne’s flashlight could illuminate. Brianne sang “one fell off and bumped his head.”

“Over here!” Brianne pointed the flashlight to Derek’s voice. Kathy’s husband stood up by the bags leaning against the wall.

“Derek!” Kathy run to her husband and hugged him.

“Kat. You guys okay? Anyone hurt? Tea?”

“I’m fine. Though I don’t know if walking so much is good after a miscarriage.”

“Oh, dear. I’m so sorry.”

Tiana rolled her eyes and looked to Brianne. “What now?”

Brianne pointed the flashlight down the tunnel. “Go that way, until you reach the stairwell at the end. I had Derek pack snacks if and sleeping bags if you need a rest.”

Derek leaned down to hug his son. Kathy patted his shoulder. “Don’t let his tears get in any orifices. One boy’s enough.”

“What?”

“I’ll explain later.”

Brianne continued. “Up the stairs, there’s a camper waiting for you on the surface. Derek has the envelopes with your new identities inside. Destroy everything else. The Wilkins no longer exist.”

Kathy shook her head. “Then what?”

Brianne shrugged. “There’s some backstories, you can think of something from there. My suggestion: go north, as far north as you can, Alaska notwithstanding. Don’t cross any borders if you can. Go see the Aurora Borealis. Get some winter clothes before summer ends too.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll see what mom’s plans are, and go from there.”

“What if they find us?”

“When, you mean. Hopefully, the matter will be resolved by then.”

“And if it isn’t?”

“Kat, I will see you soon either way.”

Kathy hugged her sister. “Good bye, then.”

“Alright, alright.” Brianne backed away.

“Say good bye, Ellie.”

Elliot waved at Brianne. “G’bye Ellie.”

Brianne shook her head. “Get going guys. You got a long walk to go.”

Part 49:

Afternoon naps weren’t unheard of for Dakota. It was one way to fast-forward through a hangover, which usually interrupted sleep anyways. It was unusual to wake up in a child’s bedroom though. And while headaches usually spawned from alcohol, or some other chemical, this one was brought on by the sound of a baby crying. Across the room from the single bed she lay on, a toddler held onto the railings, stomping and crying. “Alright alright!” Dakota sat up and put her hands down on the bed to stabilize herself while the room wobbled. She knew this particular blend of dizzy and delirious. Barbiturates. “Must have been a good night.” Dakota couldn’t hear herself mutter over the toddler’s screams. She stood up and walked over to the crib. “What’s a matter you?”

The toddler looked around two, but when she picked him out of the crib, he felt about as heavy as four. “Ooph. You’re a chunky one.” She held him on her hip, and the boy punched his fists on her chest. “Hey! No banging!” She grabbed his wrists in one hand and bounced him on the other. “Come on. You’re fine. You’re okay. Not to worry. Dakota’s got you.” The boy seemed to believe her, and his screams became whines. Dakota smiled. “You look like Dylan. Only you’re a lot cuter.” Dakota ran her hair through the buzzed down mohawk the boy had. “Nice mohawk. You should see Dylan’s. Probably as tall as you.” Then she noticed the mirror on the wall next to the changing table. She let go of the toddler’s arms and felt her hair, and the reflection imitated her. Her hair was back to it’s natural colour. “Okay, so I died my hair last night. That much is certain.” There was still something awkward about her appearance.

“Awe, are you admiring yourself?”

Dakota looked away from her reflection to Lauren standing in the doorway. “Sure. What happened last night?”

Lauren walked up and took the baby from her. “There there, Deedee. Well, you guys took a bit too much this morning.” Lauren put her nose to the Deedee’s. “You guys got all goofy.”

“What did we take?”

“A few doses of Simplicity. Which reminds me, you didn’t wet the bed did you?”

Dakota shook her head, and glanced at the bed. “No, it’s dry. Why?”

“Oh good. What about your pull-up?”

“Huh?” Lauren rolled her eyes and stuck her fingers down Dakota’s pants. “Hey! What-” Then Dakota caught the stench of urine. Lauren grimaced and wiped her hand on the toddler’s pyjamas. “Definitely a bedwetter.”

Dakota pulled at the waist of her pyjama pants and saw a picture of Frozen on a thick pair of underwear. “What the hell did I take?”

“Simplicity.”

“And what is that?”

“A research chemical. I warned you guys it was untested, but no. When I said it makes you feel like a kid, y’all decided that meant I didn’t know anything about being high. Rory didn’t need much, mind you. But you did go a bit overboard.” Lauren bounced the baby in her arms and laughed at him. “I think lil Dilly got the worst of it, don’t you?”

Dakota stared at the toddler and shook her head. “That’s. That’s not funny.”

Lauren stared at Dakota. “You don’t think?” Lauren looked the toddler over. “I thought they looked close enough that the joke works.” Lauren stared at Dakota again and smirked. “Oh, I see the problem. He looks too much like Dilly. You’re scared I wasn’t joking.”

Lauren burst into laughter. Dakota smiled and nodded. “Yeah. You kinda got me there.”

“Oh silly me.” Lauren returned her attention to the toddler. “Lauren’s being silly!” The toddler didn’t giggle at her squeaky nasal voice. He was starting to cry again. “Awe, I think I know the problem. You’re not used to peeing your pants. It’s okay, your pampers’ll hold it. I hope. Koda, you remember how to change a baby?”

“I’ve never done it.”

“Oh it’s quite easy, he’s not that stinky.”

Dakota scratched her head. “I should probably find Rory and Dylan. Are they here?”

“Hmm. Rory went on a burger run, and Dylan is…” Lauren looked around the nursery, then scanned the toddler’s face. “He’s around here somewhere.”

“Actually, I think I’ll go shower.”

Lauren nodded. “Glad you agree. I left your clothes on the toilet.”

Lauren called out from the nursery as Dakota entered the bathroom. “Hope the bra fits.”

It didn’t, or at least it shouldn’t have. As if the very bright and deep pink outfit sitting on the toilet lid wasn’t bad enough, the bra sitting on top of it was hardly a bra. It was shaped like one with an undeniable two-dimensionality about it. Dakota looked down at herself to compare, and then she saw all the way down to her feet- ALL of her feet. Dakota smacked her hands onto her flat chest, and grabbed at her skin. “What the hell happened to me!?”

Lauren must have been waiting for Dakota to see herself, because she was at the door again. “I was wondering when you’d snap out of it. I tried to hint at it gently, but you didn’t bite.”

“What the hell did you do to me!? I’m-” Dakota caught her reflection again, and finally figured out why she looked so weird. “You turned me into a child!”

“Don’t look at me! I told you not to over do it. You guys didn’t even listen!”

“What the hell am I supposed to do!?”

“I’d start with a bath, soggy pants. Your parents can figure out the rest when they get here.”

“My parents?”

“Oh yeah, they were pissed, but not surprised. They just seemed glad to know you were alive.” Lauren bounced the baby in her arms. “Not sure how I’ll explain what happened to Dylan’s parents, though.”

Dakota stared at the boy again, and if it was possible for her to turn into a child, it could just as easily be possible for Dylan to turn into a baby. “Dylan?” The boy was calm now, and was spending too much attention on chewing his stuffed dog to notice Dakota.

Lauren chuckled and shrugged. “He’s not all that talkative anymore.”

“You talked to my parents!?”

“Mhmm. They said they were on their way. Apparently Simplicity overdoses are quite an epidemic in the city. Or haven’t you heard?”

Dakota shook her head. “I don’t believe you.”

Lauren pulled out her phone. “Talk to them yourself.” Lauren dialed the number and handed her phone to Dakota.

Dakota canceled the call, and dialed again. “Miz Anton?”

“Mom!?”

“Koda! Baby! Are you okay?”

Dakota started to cry. “No, I’m a child. I’m not okay, I’m scared.”

“Don’t worry. We’ve already talked to our doctors. They’ll do their best to fix this, and we’ll sue that negligent cunt for every cent she’s worth.”

Dakota shook her head. “I don’t care about that, I just want to be an adult.”

“We’ll be there in a few hours. Just sit tight. I have to go now.”

“No, Mommy, don’t hang up yet.”

“Love you, baby.”

“Mom? Mom!?” Dakota looked at the phone, and saw the call had ended. Dakota sat down on the bathroom floor in a slump.

Lauren sighed. “Awe. Don’t be sad. They’ll be here soon.”

Dakota could tell by Lauren’s smile. “You did this on purpose.”

Lauren chuckled as she knelt down and took her phone back. “Prove it.” Lauren stood up and went to the door. “Now have a fucking bath, soggy pants.”

Part 50:

Brianne came home and found Sarah on the couch, sleeping on her side. Martin was in front of her and under her arm, and Gavin was lying down between her back and the couch. Gavin sat up. “Bibi!”

Brianne chuckled and forced a smile. “Hi, Gaga.” She picked him up and took him to her room, and realized it was a mistake to let him sleep while she had to stay awake. With Sarah TKO, Gavin would only have Martin to keep him out of trouble once Brianne fell asleep. Brianne lay on her bed with Gavin beside her.

Martin opened his eyes, pushed Sarah’s arm off him and sat up. He pushed at Sarah’s belly. “Sewa. Sewa. Sewa, it’s lunts time.”

“It’s nothing, go back to sleep.”

“Lunts isn’t nothing. I’m hungwy.”

Sarah sighed. “Just put the earmuffs on the cookies.” Martin shook his head, and gave her abdomen a big poke. “Ow! Martin!”

“I’m hungwy.”

Sarah scooched back and lay on her back. “Well there’s no food there.”

“Dthere’s food in the kitsen.”

Sarah sighed and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. “Fine. Let’s get you some food.” Martin hopped off the couch and Sarah followed him to the kitchen. Martin stood by the fridge and watched her. Sarah opened the fridge and shook her head. “I am way too tired to cook.” Sarah looked down at Martin. “Do you like pizza?” Martin nodded, with his tongue hanging out of his mouth. “Of course you do.”

“So iss okay if I odud a pizza?”

Sarah nodded. “Wait. What do you mean ordered?”

“I’ll get it!” Martin went back into the living room.

“Get what?”

Martin put his stool down and stepped on. The door knocked and Martin unlocked the deadbolt. He stepped off the stool and pulled the door open.

Sarah cursed through her teeth when she saw the pizza boy. “Martin!” Sarah walked to the door. “Hi, there’s been a mistake.”

Martin scowled. “No there hasn’t. We need lunts.”

Sarah stared at Martin, and then to the pizza boy. “How much.”

“Seventeen twenty-nine.”

Sarah grabbed her wallet off the table and counted out exact change. “And if you want your tip, ask the operator who decided a to fulfill a three-year-old’s order.”

Martin smirked at Sarah. While he couldn’t quite reach the low notes that his adult voice could just by speaking in creaky voice, somehow, he was able to speak with perfect articulation, which almost made him sound like a teenager. “Can I get two large ham and pineapples, extra stuffed crust, extra stuff, extra ham, extra pineapple, extra cheese, extra peanuts.”

Sarah glared at Martin, and then grabbed a ten dollar bill from her wallet. “Here’s your tip.” Sarah took the pizzas. “Go away.” Sarah slammed the door and glared at Martin as she went to the kitchen. She stopped mid-step and faced Martin. “Peanuts!? Are you freaking kidding me!?”

“Deh good!”

“On pizza?”

“Yeah. You can’ 'ave pizza witout it.”

Sarah continued to the kitchen and put the pizza on the counter. “You want some hazelnut spread for that too?”

Martin climbed onto his booster seat and smiled. “Yeah, if you don’ mind.” Martin noticed Sarah leaning on the counter with her head hanging. “Am I in twouble?” Sarah burst into laughter. Martin giggled. “What?”

“Oh God, I’m too tired for this. Your ordering. It’s hilarious.” Sarah turned around and pointed at Martin. “Don’t ever do that again!” And then continued laughing as she set two plates for them. “I’ll be damned, they do put peanuts on pizza.”

“Dat’s why I called them.”

Sarah put the plates on the table. “Thanks for lunch, I guess.” Sarah sat down and picked the peanuts off of her pizza.

“You don’t like peanuts?”

“Not on pizza.”

Brianne walk in. “Oh fuck me, that smells good. You guys are loud, by the way.”

Martin shook his head. “Try it, you’ll like it.”

Sarah sighed and took a bite. “Mmm.”

Martin laughed at Sarah’s attempt to look pleased, and pushed his plate to Sarah. “I’ll take 'em.”

Sarah spat the bite back onto her plate and started flicking peanuts onto Martin’s. Sarah chuckled. “You are such a nerd.”

Brianne opened the box, and nodded. “I don’t know what I was expecting.” She took the lower box and opened it up, to see the same kind of pizza. “I see Martin’s been practicing his adult impression.”

Sarah glared at Brianne. “You knew about this!?”

“Oh yeah. Want to know how he likes his chao mein?”

Sarah grunted. “I’m eating.”

Brianne sat down, pulled Martin’s plate close to her, and started picking peanuts off of her pizza. “It wasn’t all that bad, actually. Never thought to mix guacamole and cheese spread in that sort of way. It paired really well with a glass of pickle juice.” Sarah spat a mouthful across the table and coughed. Brianne grimaced. “I’m eating.”

Sarah glared at Brianne as she cleared her throat. “So was I.”

Brianne shrugged. “If you say so. You have quite the connoisseur on your hands.”

Martin stood up on his booster seat and pulled his plate back. “I’m suwounded by plebs.”

Sarah clenched her jaw for a moment. “So, I was thinking about getting rid of the landline.”

Brianne nodded her eyebrows. “Ah, you and me both.”

“What if deh’s an emadzency.”

Brianne scoffed. “Like if we’re too tired to cook for you?”

Martin nodded. “Ideally, yeah.”

“I’m too tired to think of an appropriate discipline for this. Brie?”

“Only let him eat broccoli for a week.”

Martin looked at Sarah in desperation. “Don’t listen to her!”

“Nah, he’d refuse to eat. He’d get so skinny the wind would blow him away.”

Martin banged his hand on the table several times. “That can’t happen and you know it!”

Brianne shrugged. “He’s right, Sarah. But he might get so hungry he actually likes broccoli.”

“I wooden have to oduh pizza if I could still cook!”

Sarah nodded. “Actually, that’s a good idea. How would you like to learn to cook again?”

“I still know how. I’m dzuss liddle.”

“What sort of recipes do you know?”

Martin shook his head. “Uh-uh. Family secwet. Oh wait.” Martin looked back and forth to Sarah and Brianne a few times, and then started to giggle. “Oh right.”

“What’s so funny, Bubba?”

Martin grabbed the edge of the table with both hands, as if he were worried about his giggles knocking him off of his chair. “I almoss fo’got.”

“Forgot what?” Sarah almost cracked a joke about how if you make a face for too long, it gets stuck, but Martin’s face actually looked stuck. Sarah glanced at Brianne to gauge if this was normal, but Brianne didn’t return eye contact. She looked as confused as Sarah, and her gaze was fixed on Martin. “What’s so funny, Bubba?”

Martin leaned forward until his chin was just above his pizza, and looked at Sarah with his smile wide open. “Wih a family now.” Martin’s giggles interrupted him again. “I’m a kid again.”

Sarah smiled at him and ran her hand over his head. “We sure are, Bubba.”

“Love you, Sewa.”

“Love you too. You gonna calm down now?”

“Love you, Bwianne.”

Sarah and Brianne stood up, pushing their chairs back in the process, and they backed away from the table. Sarah pointed at Martin. “What the hell was that?”

“You tell me, he’s your kid.”

Martin, still smiling. “What’s wong?”

“You hate Brianne! Is this normal? Like, some kind of.” Sarah waved her hands around, trying to illustrate the idea.

“I don’t. See’s dzust mean!”

“Some sort of brain-mind clash thing?”

“Huh? What’s classing?”

Sarah pointed at Martin. “You know, he did this weird thing with the pizza boy. He said he’d get it, and then-”

Brianne and Sarah spoke in unison. “He answered the door right when they knocked!”

Brianne nodded. “He timed it perfectly.”

“Iss not hod.”

“He did that around you?”

“Yeah, we were in your room, getting him tucked in and he did it before my sister pulled up in front of the house.”

“Does Simplicity do that to kids?”

Brianne shook her head. “Never.” They stared at each other, wondering if Martin’s laughter was just as unsettling to each other. Martin stopped laughing and smiling altogether. “I don’t feel so good.”

Sarah stepped close to the table. “You okay, Bubba?”

Martin looked up at Sarah, with sorrow in his eyes. “Dzoy has left the house.”

Brianne nodded. “Mom’s back in town.”

Part 51

Tiana didn’t trust the camper that Brianne had arranged for them to leave Outreach in. Flee, rather. Derek found them a patch of woods off a side road to stay the night, and the lack of traffic meant she could check for radio signals without any people to obscure the metre with their devices. The lack of any radio signals outside of the AM and FM bands made her even more suspicious. She had been very vocal about stopping. In her mind, the arctic coast would not be far enough from Outreach. Derek and Kathy were tired, and they didn’t want Tiana driving after she just had a spontaneous abortion.

What upset her more was Elliot’s bed, and Elliot himself. Derek and Kathy took the bedroom at the back of the counter, and Tiana and Elliot had the sofas between the bedroom and the kitchen. Elliot’s sofa had a railing on the side. Whether it was because she expected Elliot to be a baby, or just in case was anyone’s guess at this point. For all intents and purposes, Elliot was a baby at the moment. Maybe in his head, he was a lot younger than five. It didn’t look like sitting up even occurred to him. He stayed on his back while he watched Tiana, chewing on the end of his blanket.

Tiana wanted to scream at him to snap out of it, but she knew it would accomplish nothing. She rubbed his chest, and smiled at him, just to let him know she was there.

Kathy climbed back into the camper. “Feel like steak?”

“I feel like puking, really.”

“What? Is he dirty?”

“He smells like pee, but that’s not what I meant.”

Kathy walked over to the makeshift crib and pulled a bedtime pant out of the package of Goodnites sitting on the kitchen counter above Elliot’s bed. “Ellie, did you uh oh?”

Elliot just stared at his mother. Tiana rolled her eyes. “Do you have to talk to him like that?”

Kathy pulled Elliot’s pyjama bottoms off. “He doesn’t know any better. I have to let him know I’m talking to him somehow.” Kathy smiled at Elliot who kept his eyes fixed on hers. “Morning, bud. Are you a handsome boy? Are you a handsome boy?” Elliot smiled and waved his arms, banging his hands against the mattress. Kathy smiled. “Yeah!?”

Tiana sighed. “It almost looks like you like seeing him like this.”

Kathy glanced at her niece and then put the new bedtime pant on her son’s ankles. “Of course I do.”

Tiana sat down on her sofa across from Elliot’s. “Then why did we even leave?”

Kathy pulled open the sides of Elliot’s wet bedtime pant. “I knew what Brianne was going to do. I agreed to it.”

“Why does that not surprise me. So why did you tell me you asked her to refresh me?” Tiana shrugged. “While I had a fucking gun to your head at that.”

Kathy cleaned Elliot’s penis with a baby wipe. “She told me to. Lift your bum.” Elliot ignored her, so Kathy had to lift Elliot’s bottom with one hand as she pulled the bedtime pant over him with the other. “Your grandma wanted Elliot refreshed. Brianne convinced her to let her try getting him ready at age five. We were suspicious why she would agree, but we think we know why.”

“So he wouldn’t come of age?” Kathy nodded. “So why say you wanted me refreshed? Especially when I had a gun to your head?”

Kathy chuckled as she put Elliot’s feet back into his pyjamas. “Because I didn’t care if I died. All that mattered was that my mom think you two came to Outreach because I wanted you refreshed.”

Tiana folded her arms and leaned back. “You wanted to die?”

Kathy chuckled and rubbed Elliot’s chest. “Look at him. This is the first time you’ve seen him at this age, isn’t it?” Tiana nodded. “I remember when I first saw him. I knew what to expect but damn, did it hit me like a ton of bricks. Fourteen years between nineteen and five. Talking to him was even worse. He knew he was nineteen. He remembered everything. But all the memories, they just.” Kathy shook her head. “There was just no context to them. His memories were just stories. Fourteen years between nineteen and five, and fourteen years that had amounted to nothing.” Kathy chuckled, and Tiana could hear her choking up on her words. “What more could there be to do if so many years could mean nothing with a few drops of medicine?” Kathy looked back at Elliot and smiled at him. “So yes, Tea. I like seeing him this way. He reminds me of when I first had him. When he was full of potential and I was full of hope. He reminds me of all I have left to do- why I’m not done living yet- why I keep going. Him. And you.” Kathy turned to Tiana. “You know what a Spring is right?”

Tiana nodded. “The fountain of youth?”

Kathy chuckled. “Yeah. Calvin and I used to joke that because we called it a Spring, Ponce de Leon thought it was a body of water. Of course we had no way of knowing.”

Elliot seemed to be irritated that his feet kept falling down. He must have been at the age where having his knees bent over his torso was a resting position. Tiana pointed at Elliot. “So is that why he’s all baby brained?”

“I hope so. On the bright side, it’ll wear off soon. He’ll be back in a day or so.” Kathy turned around and leaned against the railing. “Look. I haven’t been a good parent for you. I haven’t even been a good aunt. Honestly, I moved away hoping to get away from my family, but then Calvin disappeared. Brianne didn’t have time to take you in, so it was up to me and Derek. It felt like I couldn’t get away, and that was true. I know it. But you reminded me of that, and you needed someone who wouldn’t blame you for their parents misdeeds.”

Tiana shook her head. “Kathy, it’s fine.”

“It isn’t. I’m not saying it’s an excuse, just the reason. Unless you want to be nine again, I’ll have to find some way to make up all the lost time.”

Tiana shook her head. “I’m good.”

“Good. Because Elliot’s five now. He’s going to be five for a long time. He won’t be able to protect himself, so it’s up to us. You understand that?” Tiana nodded. Kathy turned around and put her hand on Elliot’s cheek. She smiled when he put his hands on hers. “He needs us now, more than ever.”

Part 52:

Rory was back at an awkward age for this party. Outside, there were a dozen kids running around and screaming. They were too big for Rory to keep up with on his tiny legs, and he was the smallest kid there who wasn’t in diapers. Rory walked over the deck through the adults drinking beer and snuck back inside. He didn’t fit in here either. The inside was worse. Women the size of houses were chatting in the kitchen, cooeing at the sight of Rory. “Hi, Ro-Ro!” He wasn’t having any of it. The living room had other parents in it, with other babies, tinier than the babies outside. Rory felt a bonk on the back of his head, and he stepped out of the way of a man holding a big girl up by her armpits. The girl was giggling, and her soaked jogging pants fell to the floor in front of Rory. “'Scuse me coming through.”

“Oh no!” One women gasped. “What happened Lily?”

The man answered for her as he lied her down on the carpet. “Some kids just can’t hold their lemonade.”

The man getting a diaper ready made sense. If a kid can’t hold it, they need diapers. What didn’t make sense to Rory was the girl shrinking. She was looking closer and closer to Rory’s age. Rory looked to the woman leaning on the counter and tugged at her shorts. “What’s wrong, Ro-Ro.”

Rory pointed to the living room. “They’re making that girl shink.”

“Oh, Lily just had an accident. It means she’s not ready to be a big girl.”

“Oh.” Rory looked back to the girl. She was small enough for the diaper, and the man that brought her in was wrapping her up. “But she can’t be a baby again.”

“Awe. Are you worried about an accident? Don’t worry. You can’t be a baby again.” The woman patted Rory’s head and returned to her conversation.

Rory walked through the living room, noticing one of the tiny baby on Tamara’s knee was Dylan, who was far too big to be in here. He was big enough to play outside with the big kids, and the walking babies, but the parents here were fawning over him just like all the others being passed from knee to knee. Rory went up the stares, looking for somewhere quiet.

Donovan watched Rory go up the stares, and then looked to Lauren. “Sure it’s a good idea letting them wander while they’re so woke?”

Lauren waved her hand in dismissal. “Nah. It’s funny when they figure it out. Watch.” Lauren leaned over to Tamara’s lap and spoke into Dylan’s ear. “Dilly Willy!” Dylan’s face went from curious to stunned and her started to fuss. Lauren held her hands out and Tamara handed him to her. Lauren bounced Dylan on her knee as he started to scream and wave his fists around. Lauren grabbed his wrists and shook his arms around for him. “Wah wah wah! I’m a big boy!” This earned laughter from the parents, making Dylan angrier. Lauren shook his arms. “Who you gonna hit with these? A beetle? Nah, you couldn’t harm a fly like this.”

Donovan smirked. “How come he’s so little?”

“That’s our job, eh?”

Donovan nodded. “I meant why didn’t you go slow with him.”

“Ah, well the other two are quite a handful, and he thought hitting people was a good way to be big again.” Lauren put her mouth to Dylan’s ears. “But big boys use their words. Hitting is for babies who can’t hurt anyone.” Lauren let go of Dylan’s wrists and put her hands on his side to keep him on her knee. “See?” Dylan kept punching Lauren’s arms, and became even more frustrated when it didn’t accomplish anything. “No, you won’t be using your words for a while, I think.”

Rory found a nursery, which, although there were plenty of baby toys, there was at least a plastic bin on a shelf with train tracks inside, a toy even he could play with. The tracks came with four engines, and a plastic station where the levers could dock. Turning the fire engine red lever made the fire engine red engine whir into life, and so on. Before Rory could set up the track, he heard a whimpering coming from behind the door. He stood on his tippy toes to turn the door knob, and pulled the door open with both hands. Inside, the walls and floors were covered in paint. Rory could see a potty, a training potty, and a large stainless steal sink across from the changing table. Almost blending in to the paint on the floor, Dakota sat on the floor, weeping into her hands. She was huge just like the other kids, but she wasn’t as big as the adults. “Koda?”

“What do you want?”

“What’s wrong?”

“They did it again!”

“Did what?”

Dakota put her hands down, revealing skewed handprints on her face. “They made me think I’m a baby again.”

Rory took a step back as her words sunk in. He looked back at the bin he pulled out, and remembered he was far too old to seek comfort in it. “Oh no.”

Dakota looked up at the paint on the wall. “Now I’m going to get in trouble for the mess and get even more baby medicine. Even though Lauren helped me mix the paint.”

Rory looked at his hands to examine his stubby fingers. “Oh God. I’m tiny.”

“See? She’s a witch. And now she’s gonna yell at me.”

Rory shook his head. “Wait right here. I’m going to find you new clothes. Get cleaned up.”

Rory ran downstairs, and as he walked through the living room, Lauren called him. “Rory, wait. Can you show us?”

Rory stopped, hoping not to seem like a busy-body. “Show what?”

“Your undies.”

Rory squeamed at the thought, but knew he had to act like he was still little in his head. He lifted his pants down, and the parents all gasped in amazement. “How’d you get him to do that?”

Lauren chuckled. “Oh easy. Not letting him wear diapers makes him want to be a baby even more.” Rory shuttered, making one man laugh at him. Lauren had used his fetish against him, hoping to convince him to accept what she was doing. Lauren laughed. “Did I tell you the story his mom told the scout?” Parents shook their head. “Oh, if only she knew, it explained so much, wait let me show you.” Lauren turned to Rory and smiled. “Are you pooping?”

Rory grimaced. “What are you talking about?”

“Why are you pooping in your undies?”

Rory stomped his foot. “I’m not!”

“Are you trying to make mommy give you your diapers back?”

Rory whined and squatted down, hugging his knees to comfort himself. “No!”

“You can’t be a baby anymore, Ro-Ro.”

Rory scrunched up his face as he started to poop. One mom laughed. “Ew, he’s trying to poop. Give him a diaper already.”

Lauren smacked the woman on the shoulder. “Shush, you’ll ruin it.” Lauren turned back to Rory. “You gotta go potty now, Ro-Ro. Don’t be jealous of Dylan. You’ll never wear diapers again.”

Rory remembered that story well. He never remembered doing it. He only remembered his mom’s retelling. She would find him hiding in the closet, or under the table, squatting down making a poo-poo face. For a moment, he could see his mom on the back of his eyelids, staring down and scolding him. Rory let out a loud, soggy fart, making the whole room burst into an uproarious laughter. “Rory!? Did you poop!?”

Rory couldn’t tell. He stood up and patted his backside, terrified that he was too little to tell if his pants were soiled. Rory sighed in relief when he felt no mess mushing around. “No, I’m clean.”

Lauren chuckled. “But you tried to, didn’t you?”

She was right. She stuck her hand in his mind and pulled out an early memory of wanting to go back to diapers, and she brought it forward to the present, trying to make him soil his underwear. If he had poop in his bottom, she would have succeeded. If she could make him soil himself with a few words, what chance did any of them have against her. “Okay, I’ll make you a deal. You can have a change.”

Lauren stood up and lifted Rory up by his armpits, and lay him on the floor. “What? No! I don’t want a change!”

Lauren had his shorts off, and Donovan let Lily crawl away to help keep him on his back. “Oh, Ro-Ro! You ruined your undies. It’s all skidded!”

“Stop it!”

Lauren lifted his ankles high and cleaned his bum off with a cold wet baby wipe. “Here, I’ll even give you some powder, like a baby!” Lauren poured some powder in her hand and gave his privates and inner thighs a rub-down. Lauren slid a new pair of underwear up his legs. Donovan stood him up and Lauren pulled the underwear into position, letting go of the waistband. Rory rubbed at the sting on his hip. “There. That’s as close to a diaper change as you’re ever going to get.” Lauren smacked Rory’s bottom, knocking him onto his hands. “Now go outside and play with the big kids. That’s enough pretending to be a baby.”

Rory stood up, and left the living room, with a hand rubbing the sting on his butt-cheek. On his way to the sliding glass door, Rory grabbed onto the leg of the stool between the counter and the dining table, and fell onto his shins, weeping. The women chatting behind the counter grew silent for a minute. “Oh, it’s just the diaper boy.”

Rory heard the other woman reply. “Some kids just can’t handle growing up.”

This earned a laugh. “I know? It’s so hard when people expect you not to sit in your own filth.”

“Yeah, the world is so mean to little boys.”

Rory hung his head when the women burst into laughter, and leaned his cheek on the leg of the stool. “No,” he thought to himself. “I’m not falling for this trick anymore. I’m already in preschool, I’m not letting them sell me on the idea of babyhood.”

Rory stood up. He caught his chest swelling with his new resolved, and then slouched in hopes of hiding it. He walked around the counter, past the kitchen, and saw the laundry room. “Where you goin’, big boy?”

The other mom spoke for him. “He probably just needs to go have a cry. Leave him be.”

Rory went to the laundry room, and dug around for clothes that Dakota could wear. It was hard to gauge what her size was, but he found a pair of green bicycle shorts, and a T-Shirt with Optimus Prime. It looked big enough for Dakota, so he folded them up, and held them close to his chest.

Rory heard Donovan called out. “Another big baby, incoming.” Rory peaked around the door and saw Donovan carrying a boy, giggling like a toddler. Rory went the other way, into another dining room, this one dimmed by the curtains over the windows. He saw the door that he knew went into the garage, and he walked trough the lounge next to this dining room, and to the stairs next to the living room. The adults were busy teasing the big boy as they got him ready for what probably wasn’t the first diaper he would be wearing today, and Rory took the opportunity to scamper up the stairs.

Dakota was naked save for her underwear in the nursery bathroom, and had used all the towels and baby wipes she could to clean the paint off her. Rory handed her the outfit he took. “Looks good enough.”

“These are way too big, and these are for boys.”

Rory rolled his eyes. “You’re a practically a tomboy anyways. It’ll look like you like baggy clothes.”

Dakota stepped into the shorts. “Guess it’ll help convince people I’ve shrunk. But that still leaves the grown-ups. We can’t just walk out of here.”

“Yes we can. I saw a way out, but you have to follow my orders.”

Dakota let the shirt fall down her arms, and over her head. “Ugh, it’s backwards.”

Rory shook his head. “It’s fine. It makes you look stupid.”

“Thanks!”

“That’s a good thing! Okay, take my hand and suck your thumb.”

“I can’t do bo-”

Rory interrupted her. They didn’t have the time to wait for her to regain her senses, which means he would have to hold her hand, both literally and metaphorically. “One hand for each.”

“Oh yeah.”

Rory took her hand and Dakota popped her free thumb into her mouth. “Okay, follow me, and don’t say anything.”

Rory guided Dakota down the stairs, and they walked through the living room. As expected, Lauren took notice of Dakota’s new outfit. “Koda! What happened to your clothes?”

Rory stopped walking and frowned. “She got all messy so I helped her clean up.”

“Messy? What happened? Did you make a mess with the paint?”

Dakota kept her eyes on her knuckles as she sucked on her thumb. Rory nodded. “Yeah. I tried to tell her she did bad, but she’s too silly to listen right now. I’m gonna take her to play with the big kids so she stops acting like a baby.”

Tamara scoffed. “What else would you expect from a vandal?”

Lauren stared at Dakota, hoping for any sign of anger or embarrassment at Tamara’s remark. Dakota kept her focus on the thumb in her mouth, despite how bad she wanted to tell Tamara to burn in hell. Lauren nodded. “Okay, go play. But Dakota’s going to need a bath soon.”

Rory nodded. “Okay.”

Lauren smiled. “You’re going to be such a good big brother for her, I can tell.”

Rory wanted to scream for his mommy, but he forced a gushy smile and pulled Dakota along. Lauren watched them turn behind the wall and leaned back against the couch. She sneered at Tamara. “So much for that scolding.”

Tamara shrugged. “They can’t all be winners.”

Through the kitchen, past the laundry room, and through the dim dining room, Rory opened the door to the garage, and closed it behind Dakota. Dakota spat her thumb out and gagged. “So where’s the way out?”

Rory scanned the garage for another door, but the carport door was all there was. Dakota scanned the garage, though not for a door. She was in awe at all the baby furniture, in wildy various sizes. “Jesus. You were right on the money when you called this town stroller country.” Dakota pushed on the stroller that was big enough for her.

Rory wasn’t going to admit he knew the names to most of this furniture, so he kept the creepiness of the giant baby bouncers, toddler rockers, and so on to himself. “There. The window.” Dakota went to the counter. “Don’t knock anything over.”

“Wait.” Rory tugged on her shirt. “I have a feeling the whole town is in on this lunacy. We need to look like we belong.”

“How?”

Rory nodded at the shelf. “You need a diaper bag. Look like my babysitter.”

Dakota grabbed a diaper bag off the shelf and put it on the counter. “Help me up.”

Dakota lifted Rory onto the table, and he stepped closer to the wall until she climbed up. “Drop the bag so I can land on it.”

Dakota followed his orders and dropped the bag out the window. She helped him onto the window sill and he tumbled out of it, landing on the diaper bag. “Okay, move.”

Rory stepped out of the way, and Dakota climbed out, hanging off of the window sill before landing on the ground. “Okay. Now what?”

“Now you pick up the diaper bag, and take me on a leisurely stroll down the street.”

Dakota took Rory’s hand, and they walked along the fence until they were on the sidewalk, and turned away from the house.

Part 53

Elliot woke up and new it was over. Not over in the sense that he was five, and life as he knew it was over. But over in the sense that he was far too small to remember anything about life as he knew it for much longer than a few minutes. What he didn’t know was where he was. A thin bed with railings between him and the bed across the room from him. At the head of the bed, behind a few pillows was a countertop, with a package of bedtime pants on the edge. Elliot sat up, and found that he could indeed sit up. He looked his clothes over, and saw he was in one of his many space-themed pyjamas. Underneath the pants was not a baby diaper with an absurd design. Instead it was the bedtime pants he had grown used to, with an Spiderman theme to it. Absurd for underwear, but a lot better than he had been expecting.

Elliot propped himself on his knees, and found her could indeed prop himself on his knees. He used the high vantage point to examine the long narrow room. His crib was located next to a kitchen counter. Across the aisle was a booth-table and a door. Past that was two chairs facing a long window. In the other direction was a bathroom, followed by a bedroom, or at least a room with a bed in it. He was in a camper. An old one. Ten years old, maybe older.

Elliot stood on his feet, and found that he could indeed stand on his own two feet. The railing at the side of his bed seemed far less enclosing from this height. Not exactly an effective crib. Since his bedtime pants were still dry, Elliot was going to take the chance to keep them dry while he still had it. Elliot jumped over the railing and landed on the floor. Tiana stepped out of the bathroom and looked at him. Above her waist, she only wore a bra, and gauze hanging off of a wound over her abdomen. “What are you doing?”

“Having one of those moments. You okay now?”

“What kind of moment?”

“One of those moments where I hate my body.”

Elliot nodded. “I get that a lot.” Elliot held his arm out and straightened his fingers. “Can never decide if my body’s too small or my head is too big.”

“Never really noticed it.”

“I don’t look any different to you?”

Tiana shrugged. “You just look smaller to me.”

Elliot looked down at himself. “Well, I didn’t shrink evenly.”

“Harsh.”

“Uh.” Elliot looked up. “Where are we?”

“Some piece of shit camper Brianne hooked us up with.”

“Why?”

“Well we couldn’t take your parents’ car.”

“Why?”

Tiana glared at Elliot. “Are you doing that thing kids do always asking why?”

Elliot rolled his eyes and then shrugged. “Maybe. I’ll finish the thought. Why are we in a camper, and not my parents car, and more to my point, why am I still five?”

Tiana re-taped her bandage over her abdomen and folder her arms. “Something’s happened.”

“What?”

“You should probably talk to your mom.”

Elliot glared at Tiana as he turned around. He stepped down the steep stairs opened the door, and the smell of steak greeted him. He jumped onto mat below the camper. His parents sat on the lawnchairs under the yawning. “Why am I still five? What happened.”

Kathy and Derek stood up. Their height startled Elliot for a moment. “Ellie, you’re back.”

“Unfortunately.” Elliot held his hands up when his parents stepped to him. “Hold off on the hugs! What’s going on, where are we, and why am I five?” Kathy and Derek stared at each other. “Why didn’t Brianne give me Space-Saver?”

Kathy kicked at the dirt. “She did.”

Elliot shook his head. “Bullshit, the only way it wouldn’t make me younger is-” Elliot saw his parents tense up. “Oh God. I’m the new Spring.”

Kathy jumped, and scanned the forest around them, then glared at Elliot. “Doith
English-at yaaneghei vaikhoes!” Don’t say that in English!

Elliot shrugged. “Ngünt vees?” So I am? Kathy nodded. Elliot’s eyes drooped and his head bobbed. “I’m gonna be sick. This is a joke, right?”

Kathy shook her head. “We think that’s why grandma had us refresh you.”

Elliot’s eyes widened and he glared up at his mom in horror. “Us?” Kathy straightened her back, and before she figured out what to say, Elliot already figured it out. “You knew?” Kathy hung her her head. “Dad?”

Derek shook his head. “Not until after you left.”

Elliot looked inside the camper, where Tiana was standing at the door. “Tea?”

Tiana nodded. “I didn’t think I had a choice.”

Elliot started to feel queasy again. “My family is monsters.” Elliot turned away and walked towards the trees.

Kathy followed him. “Ellie. Where are you going?”

“Away from you!”

“You can’t go by yourself!”

Elliot stopped and stomped over to Derek, grabbed his hand, and pulled him to the woods. “Fine, I’ll take dad. He’s the closest thing to not you that I have!”

Tiana glared at Kathy. “Well that went well.”

Elliot walked into the woods, dragging his father by the hand. When there was enough trees between him and the camper to not see it, he sat down against a tree. “Why didn’t you come get me?”

“I wanted to. But you know what the business is like.”

Elliot hugged his knees and shook his head. “I don’t want to be five.”

“I don’t want you to be five either.” Derek sat down next to Elliot. “Y’know, you’re aunt tried her best, to keep you.” Derek shrug. “Old enough to be you.”

Elliot shook his head. “No. She tried to make me who I used to be. Wish she did.”

“Well, she got us out of there when she knew she didn’t.”

“Doesn’t matter. They’ll find us. They’ve filled the pockets of all the right people.”

“Look, Brianne is back there, running interference for us. There’s a small chance we will get away. I know how much she means to you, I just. I don’t want you to be mad at her. Because we probably won’t see her ever again.”

Elliot shook his head. “She means nothing to me. No, she means this to me. Do you know what it means? I can’t get older. As long as my arc lasts. She means nothing but this whole mess to me. So does mom. So does Tiana.”

“Ellie, they were just trying to protect you.”

“Well they didn’t. Not from themselves.”

Part 54

Lauren was parked on a lawn chair on a patch of grass on the corner, across from a small patch of woods. Brianne pointed at the empty chair beside her. “This seat taken?”

“Have at her.” Lauren pulled out a beer can, and handed Brianne one. “So, what’s new? How are the kids?”

“Oh, they’re kids. Gavin has decided that my pads make great wall decals.”

Lauren chuckled. “You’re kidding.”

Brianne shook her head. “Nope, so now those go under the sink as well. With all the manpower we put in research, it’s ridiculous we haven’t come up with a latch that can keep toddlers out but not adults. Somehow it’s always the other way around with him.”

“Stop letting him play with Lego.”

Brianne nodded. “Yeah, it’s a shame Martin knows not to eat the bricks. Otherwise I could have them play with Duplo instead. So what’s new on your end? How are your kids?”

“Oh not much is new. My Hubby mentioned the board is having a meeting tomorrow.” Lauren paused to stare at Brianne, to make sure she heard her, then looked back to the woods across the street. “So that should be interesting. Hopefully we don’t get any drastic policy changes. The Hubby said I ought to invite you over for a playdate this week. With all the nannying, we barely get to have any real kids over anymore.”

Brianne knew Lauren wasn’t talking about Martin and Gavin. When eyes and ears could be anywhere, they had to speak in subtext. “Well, there may be a policy change coming. I’ve had that feeling for a while. As for a playdate, that sounds lovely. And it will give you two a chance to schmooze your new boss, provided my mother ever decides I’m ready to take over the company. That is your plan, right?”

Lauren smirked and took a sip of her beer. “Well, I didn’t want to be so blunt about it, but perhaps.”

“Well, I was thinking of sending Sarah on a camping trip, maybe have her take Gavin. I could say it’s for all the babysitting I’ve done for her, but honestly, I’m just sick of children. Need some adult time. But enough about them. How are your kids?”

“As it happens, they snuck off and decided to have a camping trip of their own. Jason’s got a drone hovering over, in case they decide to move. Not sure if I should wait for them to sleep or drag them home. It’s sad. I was told to get them ready, and to expect a new assignment tomorrow. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that?”

Brianne shook her head. “They just keep coming. That’s all I can say.”

“Well, I’m sure Hubby could handle a case on his own, since I’m a bit tired from this one. But I think it could end in a promotion. What do you think?”

Brianne nodded. “Well, you’re over due for one. We’ll see how your case goes, and I’ll put in a good word.” Brianne sat for the next few minutes and finished her beer. “I should head back before Gavin drives Sarah mad. Thanks for the beer.”

Lauren nodded. “Be seeing you.”

Brianne got in as Sarah was drying dishes off and putting them back in the cupboards. “What are you doing up?”

Sarah glared for a moment. “What are you? That nap was enough for me. I’m riding a second- or third wind now.”

Brianne nodded. “Ah, your body’s still on hospital time, then?”

Sarah nodded. “Ah. But it’ll be nice to hunker down until the smoke clears. Apparently the winds have shifted, so it will end in a day or two. Until then, I can relax and actually spend a day with my son, lounging, maybe do some crafts.”

Brianne nodded. “Ah that sounds nice.” Brianne glanced around the kitchen and then looked at Sarah. “How about you take the boys on a camping trip.”

Sarah looked at Brianne, then continued putting a mug back in the cupboard. “That wasn’t on the top end of my low-air-quality activity list. Some reason you want us out of the house?”

Brianne shrugged. “I just feel bad about last week. Martin seemed pretty excited about it, and he was quite upset when that whole fiasco with Ellie and Tea ruined his trip. I think Ellie’s behaviour might have upset others, at the camp site, or even here in town. I thought you could take the chance to make up for it.”

Sarah nodded. “Is it safe in here?”

Brianne nodded. “Do you have your pager on you?”

Sarah patted her back-pocket. “Whenever you’re out.”

Brianne stared at Sarah until she resumed eye contact, and shook her head. “Yes, it’s safe.”

Sarah nodded and continued drying off the last plate. “Then I guess I’ll start packing. Mind if I take your car?”

Brianne nodded. “By all means. I’ll meet you at the campground in a day or two. Judging by how upset the kids got, I think my mom’s back in town. She might want to talk to me.”

Sarah nodded. “You mind dealing with the cutlery while I go pack?”

“Oh, no rush, but sure I can do that.” Brianne gestured her head at the hallway, and Sarah nodded and left as fast as she could without running.

Martin woke up in his carseat. Next to him, Gavin snoozed with his arm and head hanging over the side of his car seat, with a strand of drool hanging between his lip and the upholstery of the van’s seating.

He heard clunking and shuffling behind him and screamed. “Sewah! Someone’s in the caw!”

“It’s me, Bubba!”

“Oh. Where are we?”

“The campground. Thought we could spend my first days retired making up for that fiasco last week. Sit tight for a second.”

Martin wasn’t sure whether to be grateful or miffed. As much as he was looking forward to a make-up camping trip, he only liked waking up where he didn’t fall asleep when it was Sarah’s bed that he had been moved to, not out of. Martin understood that Sarah was new to being a parent, but he was going to have to give her a stern talking to about how tucking in works.

Sarah opened Martin’s door and stuck her head in the car. “Thanks for waiting, Bubba. You want out?”

Martin nodded, and Sarah unbuckled him and stood back as he climbed out of the car. Martin scanned the darkened campsite. “Whewe’s Bwianne?”

“She had work to do, so she stayed home.”

Martin almost jumped for joy, if he didn’t remember that Sarah actually liked Brianne. He was about to have a camping trip all to himself, except for Gavin that is. But if Gavin thought he was going to be getting any more from Sarah than changes and tuck-ins, he was in for disappointment. Then again, Gavin couldn’t really think anyways.

Gavin thought grown-ups were weird. As the years went on it became harder and harder to remember being a an adult, and grown-ups became more and more perplexing. The worst type of grown-ups were the miniature ones. The grown-ups who were too small to do anything that made grown-ups useful. In fact, Martin was so invalid that sometimes Gavin had to bathe with him, as if that’s not something grown-ups are supposed to do on their own time. Though Martin did have his uses. Somehow, Martin tricked Gavin’s sister and her housemate into thinking he could control Gavin. Martin’s hand-holding was not as strong as the useful ones, and even if Gavin couldn’t break free, Martin was still easier to drag than the tall ones. One particular charm Martin had was his dandelion display. Once when Martin was bigger, he showed Gavin how pretty blowing on dandelions are. Now, Gavin could pretend he didn’t understand, and Martin would perform the dandelion display for Gavin, many times over, allowing Gavin to save his own breath. The best use Martin had which Brianne and Sarah did not, was his “Are you a kitten?” pet. Martin would run his finger up Gavin’s nose and forehead, allowing Gavin to calm down after an energetic and tiring day of being a toddler.

However, despite his uses, it did not make up for Martin parading around the campsite like he owned the place. Martin would take Sarah’s lap, a seat which is undeniably reserved for babies, and yet Martin did deny it. Sarah seemed to be taking his side. If Gavin wanted to be held, he would have to sit beside Sarah as if he was some kind of animal. This camping trip was going to suck.

Part 55

Dakota fell asleep in the woods, using a baby blanket to provide some shelter over her and Rory. Rory was okay with the bugs, but Dakota was finding them far more frustrating. With Rory at Three and Dakota at eight, it seemed their phobias had reversed since they met Lauren. While the night was hot, it felt much colder when contrasted with daytime. Luckily Dakota woke up warm and snug. Though she did wake up to screaming, and when she opened her eyes she saw she was in a crib. Again.

Rory stood at the other end, holding onto the bars, with Lauren standing over him. When see saw the brown stain on the back of his green footed pyjamas, the smell of poop grew strong. At first it smelled like the ambient scent of the nursery, but with the immediate danger of getting poop on her, it was all she could smell.

Lauren giggled at Rory as he screamed and stomped his feet. “Is Ro-Ro trying to get Lauren to buy him diapers? Is he trying to be a baby?” Rory screamed and babbled and shook the bars of the crib. “He doesn’t look like a baby. I don’t see how he could be a baby again.”

Dakota noticed the pacifier in her mouth, and spoke despite it. She tried to spit it out, but the strap around her head held it in place. “I’ll get to you in a second, Koda. I just have to make sure Ro-Ro knows he’s right where he belongs.”

Dakota tried sit up, and then noticed the straps holding her down. She was wrapped in a blanket like a burrito, and the straps over her legs, chest and arms kept her in place.

Dakota spoke around the pacifier again, and Lauren kept her attention on Rory. “Does Rory wanna be a big boy?” Rory didn’t hear her over his tantrum, and kept thrashing on the crib. “No? Does he miss his diapers?” Rory stomped and screamed. “No? What does Rory want then?” Rory screamed and cried. “He can’t make up his mind can he?” Rory banged his head on the bars. “He needs a grown-up to decide for him, eh?” Rory slouched and screamed into the bars. “Babies can’t make decisions for themselves, can they?” Lauren spanked his bottom. “You can give a baby undies, but they’ll just ruin them.” Lauren held up her hand in front of Rory. “Look at that mess! All I did was give you a gentle rump and my hands are all gross!” Rory continued screaming, and Lauren switched from her sing-song voice to a thundering yell. “Enough!” Rory startled and continued crying. “You’re two years old, I don’t care how old you think is too early to potty train, you’re too old to be shitting yourself. Stop acting like you don’t want to be a baby, the only way you’re getting out of there is taking your medicine. And if you think this stuff will clear up any diaper rash you get, you’re going to be- pardon the expression -sorely mistaken. So you better hurry up.”

Lauren held up the eye-dropper and Rory whined. Lauren shook her head. “Nope!” Rory whined again, and Lauren shook her head. “Nope!” Rory whined again and Lauren shook her head. “Nope!” Rory whined again. “Is your bum sore yet? Or is it just itchy?” Rory whined again, as he dug his hand through his pyjamas into his butt crack. “Nope!” Rory looked at the stain on his hand and whined. “Nope!” Rory stomped his foot. “I don’t got all day. I’ll have to leave. You really wanna stay in there all weekend!” Rory whined and shook the crib. “Seriously, your bum is gonna get infected before I get back.”

Dakota squirmed in her swaddling, trying to break free, but also trying to tell Rory to unbind her. Rory gave her no attention, and focused on whining at Lauren. “Nope!” Rory stomped his feet and screamed. “Okay fine. I’m going to take care of Dakota and get back to you.” Lauren screwed the eye dropper back onto the bottle and stepped to Dakota’s side of the crib. Rory sat on his bottom and banged his fists into the mattress. “Sorry about the restraints, pumpkin. I had a feeling you were going to try to escape again. And I didn’t need you teaching Rory any of those nasty swear words you love spitting. You may as well get used to being on your back, anyways.” Lauren held up a baby bottle, but Dakota noticed the absence of a nipple. “Now, I’m going to attach this to your pacifier, there’s just one problem. I need you to actively suckle it. If it helps, this doesn’t have any baby formula in it. By that I mean you won’t shrink. But it will definitely help you get used to using your pants for, well, what Rory seems to think they’re for. However.” Lauren leaned on the crib and grimaced. “I have a feeling you might not want to drink it anyways. So I have this.” Lauren reached over to the changing table to hold a clear plastic mask. The mask was shaped to cover a nose and mouth. “Sometimes I have babies play drink or drown. It’s a great incentive. However, not a lot of kids win. Or maybe they do, I never get to ask them if they wanted to lose. Wanna have a go?” Lauren smiled as she rotated the mask in her hand. Dakota stared at Lauren with wide eyes. Lauren giggled and spoke in her baby-voice. “Lauwen wooden do dat. My pawents ah especty me to be awive.” Lauren shrugged. “I guess you believed those recordings then. Why the hell would I call your parents, dummy?” Lauren put the mask back on the changing table and held her phone over Dakota. “I can’t quite understand you, so I’ll give you the benefit of a doubt. I’ll set a timer for sixty seconds, and if you finish before then, I’ll take that to mean you don’t need the threat of death to be a good girl. Sound fair?” Lauren stared at Dakota. “Sound fair!?” Dakota nodded, and Lauren smiled. “Great!” Lauren put the bottle to the opening on Dakota’s pacifier and turned the bottle until it was screwed in. Lauren flipped the slider on the side of the cap. Lauren looked at her phone. “Okay, clock’s ticking.”

Dakota sucked on the pacifier, causing milk to squirt into her mouth. She drank like her life depended on it… Okay, bad choice of words, I’ll admit. Lauren glanced away from her phone and smiled at Dakota. “Awe! Your being such a good girl! Better hurry. Thirty seconds.”

Dakota suckled as fast as she could. Though it tasted just like regular milk, Dakota was expecting the dizzies to come on at any moment. If Dakota didn’t think Lauren had a punishment for it, Dakota would have spat a portion of the milk out onto her face. “Five.” Dakota kept drinking. “Four.” Half way there. “Three.” Now, she is spitting some out, and not intentionally either. “Two.” She’s fucked. “One.” Royally fucked.

“And time.” Lauren looked down, still holding the bottle. “Well, you’re out of time, but you’re still drinking. I guess that means you’re a good girl, eh?” Dakota nodded. “Okay, then. Finish it up, and I’ll let you go play.” Dakota relaxed, and paced herself.

After the bottle emptied, Lauren unscrewed it from the pacifier, and removed the gag from Dakota. “You cwazy bi-”

Lauren put her hand over her mouth. “If you think I’m okay with little girls cursing at me, we’re going to play an entirely different game.” Dakota tensed up and Lauren lifted her hand. She stared at Dakota, daring her to finish her thought. “That’s more like it.”

Lauren unstrapped Dakota’s legs, and then her chest, and Dakota sat up, unraveling the blanket wrapped around her. Dakota looked herself over. Naked, except for the training pants with Dora the Explorer on them. That wasn’t as bad as the fact that her legs and arms were much shorter than before. Sitting up, she could see she was barely taller than Rory. She was a toddler again. “Are your pants dry.”

Lauren shoved her finger down Dakota’s training pants. “Hey!”

Lauren repeated Dakota with a shout. “Hey!” Dakota pressed her lips together and Lauren nodded. “Good girl. But don’t get too comfortable.”

Dakota remembered what Lauren said about the milk. A diuretic, a laxative, both? She didn’t feel any different, but either way, she had to get on the toilet. “I need de basoom.”

“You’re a big girl.” Lauren stepped to Rory’s side of the crib and held the mask up. “So, Ro-Ro. Drink or drown?”

Rory hung his head and weeped at his crossed legs. Dakota could see why he had his hand tucked under his knee. He had a brown smear on his face, which meant he had just cried into the hand he picked at his bottom with. Dakota shook her head. “Stop it.”

“Oh? I didn’t realize you were Ro-Ro’s Nanny. Are you sure you wanna be bossy-pants with me?”

Dakota shrugged and hung her head, staring at Lauren. “You can cats mo flies with honey instead of vinega.”

Lauren chuckled “Oh, is that it?” Lauren smiled down on Rory. “Does Ro-Ro need a loving mommy now?” Rory kept weeping. “No? He needs a mommy to tell him his place?”

Rory looked up and shook his head. “Peaaaathe.”

Lauren held up the eye-dropper. “Uh-uh! I’m done with you being bossy-pants. Time to drink. I’ll even let you wear a diaper if you’re good.”

Rory closed his eyes for a moment, while his lip quivered, and then he propped his mouth open, with his eyes sealed shut. “Good boy!” Lauren squeezed the medicine onto his tongue and he swallowed it. “There! Was that so hard?”

Rory weeped again, making Lauren coo. “Awe, does Ro-Ro not want to be a baby?” Rory nodded. “Awe, would Ro-Ro feel better if he wore a diaper?” Rory shook his head. “Really, you had no problem wearing a diaper the other night. You looked quite happy to. Maybe a bath then.” Lauren lifted Rory out of the crib, holding him at arm’s length.

Dakota stood up, and saw she couldn’t lift her feet high enough to throw her leg over the railing. “Lauwen, I’m stuck.”

Lauren kept walking. “You’re a big girl, right?”

Dakota felt her belly start to rumble. Dakota put her hands on the rail and jumped until she stood on her arms. She threw one leg over, and saw Lauren come back, to install a baby gate on the door to the nursery. By the time she was on the floor, Lauren was gone. The gate was easier to climb over, thanks to the bar halfway along the plastic grate. A few steps down the hall, across from the nursery, Dakota entered the bathroom. Lauren sat next to the tub, and across from her sat Rory’s poopy clothing, right in front of the toilet. “Better hurry.”

Dakota picked up the pyjamas by a pinch, and carried them away from the toilet. She felt a soppy and goopy cloth hit her foot, and squealed when she saw Rory’s undies had fallen out of the pyjamas and on to her foot. “Ew!”

Lauren chuckled. “It’s okay, Pumpkin. That was Rory’s accident, not yours.”

Dakota dropped the pyjamas, and looked at the toilet bowl standing up to her neck. A stool, with a wedge that wrapped around the neck of the toilet allowed it to be tucked under, and pulling it out allowed her to gain some height on the toilet. She stood up, and despite the seat being down, the mouth was far too wide to sit on. She saw the ring printed with repeating pictures of the characters from Sesame Street. It was a toilet seat for toddlers. Lauren leaned over and put it under her bum. “Ah, that’s better.”

“I needat!”

Lauren chuckled, keeping her eyes in the tub. “Nah, you’re a big girl. Where do big girls go?” Lauren kept her eyes on Rory, as she kicked her foot. Dakota noticed the potty chair rattling against the tiling. Of course. Embarrassing as it was, this was the last place Dakota could go that wasn’t her training pants. She hopped off the stool, dropped her training pants to her ankles, and dropped her bottom onto the cold hard plastic. With no need to hold it, Dakota’s bottom opened up, and the goop poured into the plastic bowl, causing an outpour of noxious fumes that almost made her puke on herself.

Lauren waved her hand over her face. “Ooph. I admire your tenacity. Most kids don’t make it after that milk, but could you maybe light a match?” Dakota glared at Lauren until she faced her. Lauren forced an awkward smile. “I know you’re too little for matches. It was a joke.” Lauren shook her head and looked back to Rory. “Guess girls don’t like potty humour.”

Dakota stood up, and pulled her training pants back up. Lauren dried her hands off on a towel, and lifted Dakota up. “Not so fast, Pumpkin. We gotta clean that mess off your foot.”

Lauren lowered Dakota into a seat in the water. A plastic cone, with an indent to allow her bottom to fit, with a plastic post to keep her legs apart. Rory sat across from her, in one just like it. He was tiny, just half of Dakota’s height. His head looked so big it could have snapped off of his tiny body, but what Dakota found most alarming was his hair. Just as long, but it had thinned out. She could see his scalp underneath the wet strands hanging over his head. Then she noticed the hairs floating in the water around him.

Lauren interrupted Dakota’s observation of Rory with an eyedropper in her mouth. She held her free hand under Dakota’s chin, and squeezed it into her mouth, and then dropped the eye dropper in the water, to hold the top of her head. Dakota licked at her teeth, but Lauren kept her from extending her jaw. Dakota looked at Lauren with pouty eyes, and Lauren’s chuckling told Dakota her eyes instilled no sympathy in her. “You know why we don’t leave babies unattended in the tub?” Lauren paused, but didn’t let Dakota answer. “They’re so clumsy, and even if it doesn’t look like a lot to an adult, it sure is enough for a baby to seriously hurt themselves. If you don’t swallow, I will leave you and Ro-Ro unattended. Three. Two.” Dakota swallowed and Lauren removed her hands. Dakota gasp and gagged, trying to force herself to puke. “Too late.”

Dakota grabbed the post keeping her legs apart, and leaned forward. “Peas stop.”

“It’ll be over soon.” Lauren reached her hand into the water to poke at Dakota’s training pants. “You got your pants wet. You aren’t a big girl anymore.” Dakota heard a plop. “Look, you’re even losing your big girl teeth.”

Dakota opened her eyes, and could see the brown dot on the underside of a tiny tooth. Dakota stuck her tongue to the front of her mouth, and before she felt a gap, her tongue knocked several other teeth loose. She screamed, and before she sat up straight, Lauren put her hand on the back of Dakota’s head. “Uh-uh. Don’t swallow.” Three mouth teeth fell into the water. Lauren stuck her finger in Dakota’s mouth, and wiggled it, knocking the rest of her teeth loose. Dakota screamed and cried, and begged for it to stop. “Sorry, pumpkin. It’s better to take the band-aid off in one pull. Too much of a choking hazard. Besides, you don’t want me doting on you all morning. Keep spitting.” Dakota spat, and four more teeth fell out. Lauren stuck her finger in Dakota’s mouth. The finger running along her naked gums made Dakota thrash against Lauren’s hand. “Hold still.” She ran her finger around, and then removed it. “Good girl.” Lauren rubbed Dakota’s head, and then she saw the hair fall onto the water. “Awe, your head’s so small now. You can barely fit your hair-do.”

Lauren lifted her hand, and Dakota looked up to her, which caused her back to straighten out, as her bottom emptied again, and the water around her back got really warm. “Ewwwww. Koda! What you do that for?”

Lauren lifted Rory out, and the sudden motion made him giggle. Then Lauren lifted Dakota out of her sit. She gave Dakota several dips in the other end of the bath, and then lifted her onto the towel next to Rory. Dakota tried to sit up, making her arms and legs spin in circles, doing nothing to get her head off the floor.

Lauren grabbed a dozen baby wipes and wiped Dakota off one wipe at a time. Afterwards, she took Rory out of the bathroom, leaving Dakota alone. Dakota spent the next while scrambling to stand up, but her arms either ignored her, or disobeyed her. They were no longer wired for motions like bending, planting, or even grasping. Dakota could tell them to do something, but she couldn’t tell them what to do. Dakota could hear the baby crying from down the hall. Lauren came back and lifted Dakota up, and carried her to the nursery. After a short flight through the hall, she was in the nursery. Rory was lying in the crib, or at least it looked like it could be Rory, given a few years. Lauren put Dakota on the changing table, waved her finger over Dakota’s face, and babbled some nonsense.

Lauren put her enormous fingers against Dakota’s head, turning it until a giant and grotesque alien came into view. The creature had the head the size of a melon, and almost spherical, except for the small stub where its chin should have been. The torso was tiny, ovular, rolly and wrinkly. The appendages looked like sausages that had been bent out of shape on the assembly line, and waved around in frivolous, uncoordinated motions. The hair was thin, just patches of long strands. The deformities made Dakota want to throw-up, and looking into the monster’s giant eyes made her scream.

The monster screamed with her, though Dakota couldn’t hear what it sounded like. She felt the soft and synthetic material folding over her crotch, but she didn’t break eye contact with the creature that mocked her horror. Then she saw Lauren’s face come into view behind the monster. Dakota turned away, only to see Lauren was able to be in two places at once. Dakota looked back at the monster, almost forgetting how much of an eyesore it was, and she screamed again. The monster didn’t break eye contact with her. Its face copied her fear, but didn’t make a sound. However, the arms and legs couldn’t copy her. She’d lift her legs, and the monster just kicked them. She put her hand on her forehead, and the hand behind the monster just shot up for a moment before falling back down. She threw a punch at the monster, but its arm only hit over her chest. When she noticed her own arm in the corner of her eye flopped over her chest instead of throwing into a punch. She looked back at the monster, finally figuring out that it was just a fucking mirror. Dakota screamed, the baby screamed. Dakota stopped to check the baby for any mistakes, the baby stopped to check her for any mistakes. She screamed, examined the baby, screamed, and examined the baby. Looking over it’s face, every detail looked wrong, and then she realized she couldn’t remember how it was supposed to look. She looked at the chin, but couldn’t remember what hers looked like. She looked at the nose, and couldn’t remember what hers looked like. Lauren’s laughter scored the next few minutes as she realized details of her life weren’t there. Her brain didn’t even bother making up memories she tried to remember. When was her first kiss? Who was it? What is a kiss? When did she graduate school? What was school like? What was school? Any attempt to remember a detail of her life came up blank. Lauren lay her down in the crib, next to Rory as the two screamed in each other’s ears. She screamed until she couldn’t remember what her parents looked like. She screamed until she couldn’t remember what reading was like. She screamed until she couldn’t remember what talking was like. She screamed until she couldn’t remember what her name sounded like. She screamed until she couldn’t remember anything. She screamed until she couldn’t remember why she was screaming in the first place, and then she screamed some more.

Part 56

Sarah heard a child crying, and the crying stopped once she opened her eyes. Both Martin and Gavin were sound asleep, and she could see a few faint spots of sunlight sliding down the tent. It was cold, and Sarah couldn’t smell burning trees anymore, which made her worry that she had gotten used to them. With forest fires ruining the air quality the last few days, she used any wake-up to check Martin and Gavin’s pulses. Both were normal, and not just for low air quality, but back to normal. She pulled at the zipper to look through the screen at the back of the tent, and morning sky was blue and clear. The gust of what felt like cold air made her close the flap right away, and she lay back down, pulling the sleeping bag up to Gavin’s neck, and the same with Martin’s Nana-Quilt. Martin took this as a cue to nestle in, which wouldn’t be easy with Gavin in between the two of them. Martin rolled onto his side, sandwiching Gavin between him and Sarah. Sarah had the idea to sleep-in, right up until Gavin opened his eyes. Sarah smiled at him. “Morning kitten.” And then she ran her finger along his nose and up his forehead. Gavin blinked, with his eyelids opening less and less, until they stayed shut. Sarah stroked his face a few more times and then put her head back down.

With Delores’s closest associates at ages 13 to twenty two, the room looked less like a board meeting than a college hangout. Delores pointed at the laptop sitting on the clear plastic table in front of Sierra. “Get that thing out of here! Are you insane?”

Sierra waved her hand. “Relax, we haven’t been talking business.”

“Out!”

Sierra scooted the clear plastic chair back and went over to a metal door hanging on the wall, deposited the laptop in the door, and closed it. Sierra sat back down and a puff of smoke sprayed from the seams of the metal flap. “What was so urgent that you brought a laptop into the meeting room?”

“I’m buying a baby on the darknet.”

Delores nodded. “Yeah, you better be.”

Mister Monoghan shook his head. “We have plenty here, Sierra.”

Sierra shook her head. “The poor pusher takes his own supply.”

Layton glared at Sierra. “It is our supply.”

Sierra shrugged. “Ah, but where’s the fun in that? The darknet. It’s sounds so ominous. I had to give it a try.”

Delores sat down on another clear plastic chair. “Okay, have we all either left or disposed of our electronics?” Delores scanned the room. “Okay, great. Last week of august, and our summer has drawn to a close.”

Mister Monoghan nodded. “It wasn’t as successful as we had hoped. The gang connection in the lower mainland fell through.”

Richmond leaned onto the table. “What happened?”

“They were asking far too much. When we said we’d take any undesirables, they decided that meant price them as desirables.”

Sierra scoffed. “Flesh peddlers.”

Delores nodded. “What kind of margin?”

“With maintenance, red. But they’ll come around.”

Delores looked to Sierra. “And in counter-intel?”

Sierra shook her head. “Only news is we’ve had to shift three pharmacists. Third quarter in a row.”

Delores shook her head. “Bad year. For what threats?”

“Gambling debt, bi-polar disorder, and a crack.”

“How bad?”

Sierra shook her head. “Sent the dogs after a few nannies. They were put down before they knew what they smelled.”

“And their colleagues?”

“Local gang hit, open and shut.” Sierra folded her arms, and leaned back. “With a bad year for pharmacists, I have to wonder about the surveillance issue.”

Winifred nodded. “We’re working on establishing a relationship with the eyes.”

“I was talking about the public. We were wrong. people are more than happy to photograph the Mona Lisa. Every moment is a photo-op.”

Eric shook his head. “Times are changing, and now we have to.”

Burton leaned forward. “But what if we changed the times?”

Delores sighed at the ceiling and glared at Burton. “How do you figure.”

“A nuclear winter. Just long enough to throw humanity back into the bronze age.” Delores rolled her eyes, and noticed everyone else considering it. Burton shrugged. “What’s your guys’ least favourite ocean?”

Delores shook her head and held up her finger. “Okay. No. There are way too many complications for that. You have been thirteen for way too long. You’re getting reckless.”

“How do they say it these days? Age is just a number.”

Delores glared at Burton and held her finger up. “Don’t say that. You can go a few years without chasing teenagers.”

Burton rolled his eyes. “Maybe you can.”

Sierra scratched at her forehead, weighing the pros and cons of having Burton executed without the rest of the board’s approval. “So. How are things with your grandson, Dela.”

Delores smiled. “I’m happy to say my arc is finally over. My daughter, however, did not fully carry out my wishes. Though Elliot may not be cooperative, he’ll be very malleable within a few months.”

Layton looked to Delores. “And what about your daughters?”

“I have a nanny on Brianne. I have a better rapport with Kathleen, so she’ll see things our way better than Brianne ever could, given time.”

Brianne opened the two heavy doors. The walls were lined with rectangles extruding out from the wall to varying lengths, each covered in the same gray carpeting as the floor beneath the metal grate that acted as the floor. As important as sound proofing was, the lack of any echo always made her feel like she was in an enclosed space. The board sat on transparent plastic chairs at an ovular, transparent and plastic table. At the head of the table sat her mother. “Brie, what are you doing here?”

Brianne shrugged, walking in, and leaving the doors open. “I am vice chairman. Good thing I didn’t miss the memo eh?” Brianne scanned the room with quick glances, but her eyes spent most of her time on her mother. She could tell by the way others were exchanging glances that she was not expected here. “You did send me that memo, right?”

Delores nodded. “Well, there’s nothing out of the ordinary. Just discussing the end of the summer quarter.”

Brianne nodded and paced around the table. “Ah. Quite the change of tune. You must come to every meeting, Brie. You have to know how to run the business.” Brianne planted her hand on her mom’s shoulder. “My arc won’t be forever.”

“Don’t you have somewhere to be? Perhaps tending to my grandson’s refreshment, which you so foolishly thought he wouldn’t need.”

Brianne lifted her hand and shrugged. “Nah.” Brianne walked to the other table and poured herself a glass of water. “I disappeared them.”

Delores grabbed the table. “You did what?”

“Yeah. I gave them new identities, had the analysts scrub their records and told them to fuck off.”

Delores stood up and shouted. “Are you insane!?”

Sierra lifted her head. “Even if that were true, how would you do that without my knowledge?”

Brianne shrugged. “Bribery, extortion, intimidation. I’m sure you can imagine it just fine.”

Delores banged her fist on the table. “You’ve been reaping the benefits of the company for too long, and you never worked enough to appreciate it.”

“Actually, I-” Brianne stepped to the table and tripped, throwing her glass at her mother in the process.

The water splashed onto Delores, making her tense up and she glared at her daughter. “Get a hold of yourself, you clumsy fool!”

“Sorry, lot of kids in our family are feeling watery. Gavin is still, well a baby.”

“Calvin, you mean?”

Brianne shrugged. “Elliot’s wetting the bed again, poor guy. And not just with pee.” Brianne leaned her back against the beverage table, and emptied the jug through the metal grate while holding eye contact with her mother. Brianne knew her mom knew her point, but spoke anyways. “Ellie maoghojet. Maoghojei engudhaofei dhot veesaat.” Ellie has cried. He’s our new Spring.

Delores nodded. “Ngünt kimp koevaimei gojikhiat, keedh dheng.” Then if you didn’t make him a child, I forgive you.

Brianne chuckled. “Pangad dhengas?” You forgive me?

Layton interrupted. “If this is about your nephew, we know he’s the new spring.”

Brianne switched to English. “You were trying to extend your arc. God, you’re an arrogant cunt.”

“I beg your pardon.” Brianne saw her mother’s shoulder’s tense up and her hands clench the table.

Brianne nodded. “Wow, grandpa was right about the tears.”

Delores glared at her daughter. “What have you done?”

“I have a feeling Elliot isn’t crying innocence yet. Growing pains are a bitch when they’re all at once.”

“You petulant little snipe.” Delores stomped her foot, maintaining the scorn on her face despite the trembling in her limbs.

Brianne knew the spiteful cunt would try to take her with her. Brianne masked her fear from the years falling off of her mother’s face. Before her mother took another step, she put her wrist to her mouth. “Go.”

Three people in hazmat suits entered the board room, one pulling a gurney, one pushing it, and one holding a cross bow, which he fired into Delores’s knee. The young woman fell to the grating, and the team restrained her to the gurney. Brianne pointed at the teenage girl her mother had become. “Get that bolt out of her. She’ll be too young for another dose in a minute.”

Delores screamed and the team dragged her out of the room. She shouted obscenities and Brianne covered her ears. “Lalalala! I have nothing more to hear from you!” Brianne watched the door close, and looked to the board members.

Mister Monoghan broke the board’s silence. “So, you’ve made your power play. You’ll need help running the company. I take it you are declaring yourself chairwoman.”

Brianne smiled and nodded. “You bet your sweet tush.”

Monoghan sneered at Brianne’s lack of respect, even though she was physically older than him. “Very well. So why should we support you?”

Brianne grimaced. “Oh, sorry. I thought we were making small talk. Er, I forget your first name it’s been so long.” Monoghan opened his mouth, but Brianne continued. “Ah, fuck it. No no. My first act as chairwoman: you’re all fired.”

Monoghan stood up and yelled. “Your mother was right about you. If you think we need you more than-”

Brianne cheered. “Yes! That’s just what this fucking room needs. It is too damn quiet in here.” Brianne continued to the door. “Though I think we could go louder. You should probably know that sound proofing is a double-edged sword.” Brianne stepped aside as she pulled the door open, and a swat team entered, pointing their rifles at the board. Some of the men and women stood up, and all of them froze. “No matter. You can scold your security details in hell.” Brianne put ear plugs in and stepped behind the officers. “Kill them all.”

Lauren was waiting in the lobby. She stood up and smiled when Brianne entered. “Your Majesty?”

“As close as I’ll get.” Brianne held her fist out, and Lauren bumped it. “So about that promotion. Are you finished with your little ones?”

Lauren chuckled. “I was wondering if I could keep Dylan. He’s holding on. But I didn’t give him the same treatment I gave his friends. Have I ever told you about my play, Finger Al Dente?”

Brianne through her arms up, and cringed. “Ew! Yes! Once was once too many, and I told you not to ever mention that again.”

Lauren held her hands up. “Sorry, forgot about that.”

Brianne pointed at the corner next to the window. “Go to the corner.”

Lauren chuckled. “Wait, you’re not flirting with me.”

“That’s an order.”

“How long?”

“You want that promotion?”

Four hours later, Lauren was waiting in the lobby of city hall. A grown woman having Corner Time wasn’t unusual here, and no one dared question why she was standing there. They were too busy cleaning up the bodies anyways. Her pager buzzed and she read the display. “You’ve been promoted. -B” The pager buzzed again. “Stop standing there. You look like an idiot. -B”

Lauren sighed and shook her head. “Everyone’s a critic.”

Earlier, Sarah had fed the boys breakfast, and was practicing playing pass with a soccer ball with Martin. Martin kept passing to Gavin, though the toddler was far less interested in soccer than he was in exploring. Sarah brought out the carseat, and sat Gavin on the picnic table, and the game was scored by his tantrum to be set free.

Martin ran to the ball and tumbled, and fell into a somersault, ending back on his feet. “Bonk! Oh. Oh nice one, Bubba.” Her moment of concern left her open, even though Martin wasn’t trying to shoot a goal rather than kick the ball in a straight line, and the ball flew past Sarah. “Wow, good shot.”

Martin frowned and scratched his head. “Thanks.”

Sarah retrieved the ball when Brianne pulled up in Sarah’s car. She climbed out, and Sarah nodded at her. “You look pleased with yourself.”

“I am.”

“All good then?”

Brianne shrugged. “For now. Shi-” Brianne glanced at Martin. “Poopstorms just keep coming.”

Martin giggled. “You said poop.”

Brianne giggled. “Yeah, I sure did, Martin.” Brianne unbuckled Gavin and put him on the ground. “Could you go take Gavin for a walk. He looks like he’s been sitting for too long.”

“Okay.” Martin held his hand out for Gavin. “Come on, Gavin.”

“Don’t stray too far, Bubba.” Sarah looked to Brianne. “What’s up?”

“Thought I’d offer you a job. You probably don’t want any more kids right now, huh?”

Sarah nodded. “Yeah, I’m good.”

“How would you like to foster one or two?”

“And when you people say foster, you mean?”

Brianne nodded. “You care for a baby or two until we find a home for them. That way you can have a baby without making Martin one.”

Sarah nodded and scratched her head. “I was actually going to ask you something first.”

“Anything.”

“You lied to me.”

Brianne sighed. “Don’t take it personally. I lie to everyone. It’s how I was raised.”

“Brie. Lauren told me three is the worst age to end up at.”

Brianne shrugged. “Well, depends on what measure you use.”

“You didn’t bring me here because I did the right thing for Martin. You brought me here to convince me to finish the job.”

Brianne sighed and sat down on the picnic bench. “Look, Sarah. I know you love him-”

Sarah interrupted. “I wanted to ask if you’d accept my resignation?”

Brianne nodded with pursed lips. “No.”

Sarah shook her head. “It’s fine. He may not like you, but he likes what we did.”

Brianne shook her head. “Sarah. It’s not the secrecy I’m worried about. I could burn the whole operation and have enough money to buy a small country.”

Sarah shook her head back and forth. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Well, I’d have to sell the moon first, but yeah. It could be done.”

Sarah shrugged. “Okay, I’m not in the mood for jokes. If you’re not worried about secrecy what is it?”

Brianne watched Martin and Gavin playing on the field and shook her head. “Sarah, Martin’s going to have a lot of obstacles. Not to get too metaphysical, a three year old brain can’t handle a twenty-two year old mind. He’s running a factory on a candle. Yeah, we don’t do it a lot, and maybe Martin will be fine. But we just don’t know. We can’t.”

Sarah frowned and sat down. “But he’s my baby.”

Brianne shook her head. “No. Not yet. You can stay as long as you like, but I can’t let you leave with him like this. It’s not fair to him.”

Sarah ran her hand across her mouth and closed her eyes. She opened them and looked down at her hands. “Is there nothing I can do? Is there some way to get him adoption-ready and still let him be himself?”

Brianne scoffed and rolled her eyes.

“Don’t shake your head at me.”

“Memory is linguistic, Sarah. There’s a reason the first criterion is two or younger. You delete the word, you delete the concept. Without concepts, circumstantial memories collapse, and likewise the biography. I’m sorry. But you knew what you had to do. That was the deal.”

“Why is it okay for Elliot, but not Martin?”

Brianne almost cried before she cleared her throat. “Because I deluded myself into thinking I could keep my nephew and do what my mom wanted. And now Elliot is suffering the consequences, indefinitely. I would never wish that on you. Or Martin.”

Sarah shook her head. “He is my baby. I don’t care how big he is. If he really is going to have problems, I’ll deal with it then. But I won’t trade him. Not for a new Martin. Not for you, and not for even one of my memories. I know restraining Elliot was right for him, but if you yourself drove him to the point where that was the ethical thing, maybe you don’t have all the fucking answers. I’ll stay until you get sick of us, but if you want my job finished, you do it yourself.”

Brianne frowned. “Sarah.”

“This conversation is over.”

Brianne rolled her eyes. “You got this mom thing down.”

Sarah frowned and rolled her eyes. “I’m going to go play with my son while I still can.” Sarah stood up and went after Martin and Gavin to play a game of I’m Going to Get You!

Part 57

Elliot may not have been able to pack a punch, but if anyone told him a woman couldn’t drive, he’d bite off a piece of their ankle. He wanted no contact with his mother or Tiana, even though he was on the run with them. Whether his dad liked it or not, he was the only parent Elliot had anymore. He and his dad spent all morning and afternoon in the bedroom at the back of the camper, while Kathy and Tiana drove in the front. The pavement became more bumpy as they got further north, and the sway of the winding rode, along with the rumbling of the road beneath the tires provided a rocking sensation that soothed him. Only when he had to use the bathroom would he emerge, and he would avert his eyes from whichever of the women had the nerve to exist in his line of site. Elliot was sick of hot dogs, but he wasn’t going to take his dad up on his offer of steak, especially a steak that was already cut into Julienne strips. “You gotta eat something.”

“Why? I’m not a growing boy.”

“Ellie, come on.”

Since Elliot didn’t have leverage for any other form of conflict resolution, he opted to yell until his dad gave in. “I’m not hungry!” It’s not like he was too old to act petulant.

Tiana sat on her sofa, as her aunt sat on Elliot’s. The railing was able to slide down, which was great, since Kathy was getting a bit old to be climbing over furniture. Tiana threw a hacky sack in the air to pass the time. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so disheveled.”

Kathy sighed. “Love you too, Tea.”

Tiana propped herself on her elbow to face her aunt. “Something troubling you?”

“You seem pretty chipper for someone who just lost a baby.”

Tiana shrugged. “Meh. I’m over it. Just another day in this family.”

“And yet skipping one shower irritates you.”

“Is it because your son hates you?”

Kathy turned her head to glare at her niece. “You think this is the first time my son has hated me?”

“I think it’s the first time he ever meant it.”

Kathy chuckled and stared at the ceiling. “He was three and a half. I hate you! I hate you! Nah, he meant it. I knew it was just somethings kids say. I told my mom I hated her all the time. So did Brianne. Even your mama’s boy of a dad did a few times. Didn’t realize how much it hurt, even if it was just because I didn’t let him stay up passed his bedtime.”

“So you’re not sad that he might never like you again because you were complicit in a conspiracy that ended up with him stuck at five so he could never have his old life or a new life for a long time?”

Kathy scowled at her niece trying to catch her breath from the run-on sentence. “Have another cigarette, why don’t you?”

“Shut up. I haven’t smoked in weeks.”

“Are you concerned or projecting?”

“Why not both?”

“Yeah, I’m sad. But I still love him, no matter how long he hates me. It’s not my job to make him like me.”

Tiana nodded. “That sucks. I’m never having kids.”

Kathy nodded. “Smart girl. It’s not for the faint of heart. One day they’re getting ready to go out into the world, the next and your baby is hurting because of a mistake you can’t take back. Doesn’t matter how old or young they get, the hits just keep coming.”

Tiana frowned and scratched at her wrist. “Do you ever get tired of it? Being in our family?”

Kathy nodded. “I’m tired a lot.”

“Gavin is my dad.”

Kathy nodded. “Yeah, I saw him the other day.”

“Why wouldn’t she tell us?”

“That’s how it works. We keep things to ourselves and pretend we’re protecting our loved ones.”

Tiana scowled and nodded. “You think Elliot will ever forgive us?”

“Probably not. All I can do is be here. Maybe he’ll need me, maybe he won’t. Reminds me of what my mom told me when he was little.”

“What’s that?”

“Let them come to you and hold them. Don’t make them stay more than they want to. Don’t push them away until they do. Just give him loving arms to be held in whenever he wants, because one day he won’t. Like I said. It’s not my job to make him like me, all I can do is be here.”

Kathy woke up to a poke in the breast, to see Elliot standing in the aisle. “Mom?”

She could hear the sadness in his voice and sat up. “What’s wrong, Elliot? Are you baby-brained or something?”

Elliot shook his head. “I don’t wanna be five.”

Kathy sat up and nodded. “I really wish you weren’t.”

“Would it be stupid if I asked you to cuddle?”

Kathy nodded. “Yeah. But we’ve had a really stupid summer. Come on, Ellie.” Elliot sat on the sofa, and Kathy lay back down, guiding Elliot to lie in front of her. She pulled her sheet over them and stroked Elliot’s hair, occasionally running her finger along the back of his ear between strokes. Elliot could tell he wouldn’t be himself as long as he was five, because after so many times of hearing his mom say “you’re okay,” he actually started to believe it.

Brianne stood in the observation deck over the operating room, watching the surgeons work on the infant splayed open on their table. She wanted to see every movement, and refused to look away from the window, or sit down. Lauren entered the room. “You skipped our playdate.”

“I’m pretty sure you did.”

“Well, I had to warn you if I were to get a bribe.”

“You’re always dependable, Lauren. A good chunk of cash and some Space-Saver to let you indulge your fetish, and you’re as loyal as a Rottweiler.”

“Awe, how sweet. But your mom could have done that for me. I just like your friendship.”

Brianne scoffed. “Okay, then. Good to know.”

Lauren peered down onto the operating table. “So why are you watching a baby have surgery instead?”

“To ensure proper disposal.”

“Disposal? What kinda surgery are they having?”

“Hysterectomy.”

Lauren looked to Brianne, who kept staring at the procedure. For once, it was Brianne that was doing the horrifying between them. The worst part was Brianne’s satisfied smile. “Since when do we give babies hysterectomies?”

“Since I decided the world has had enough Springs.”

Lauren felt like a deer in the headlights watching the surgeons cut away at what little there was left of her old boss.

[b]Chapter 4: Immunity

Part 58:[/b]

Peter woke up to the smell of eggs, something he hadn’t woken up to since his son moved out. He sat up, stretched his back. Several cracks in his spine announced a few of the aches fading. He staggered into the kitchen to find a young woman about his son’s age in the kitchen. Lucinda noticed him in front of the bathroom and smiled. “Morning, Pete."

Peter nodded. “Good morning."

“Hungover?”

Peter nodded. “Uh huh. You look pretty chipper. Did you drink as much as me?"

Lucinda nodded. “Oh yes. I don’t get hangovers."

Peter nodded. “Give it a few years." He stood behind Lucinda, and put his hands on her hips. “Is there enough for me?"

“Oh of course. Thought I’d pay you back for last night.”

“Oh? That good huh?”

Lucinda chuckled. “Oh yeah. Was it good for you?"

Peter shrugged. “I guess so. Don’t remember it."

“Oh, we’ll have to jog your memory before I go.” Peter smiled and growled as he started kissing her neck. Lucinda turned her head away. “After we’ve eaten breakfast."

Peter pulled his lips from her neck and nodded. “Of course."

While Peter sat at the table with his heads propped up on his elbows, Lucinda finished the omelette, emptied a small glass vial into a mug of coffee, and then served breakfast. Near the end of breakfast, Lucinda found Peter had forgotten her name, or even bringing her home. “Come on, I want to hear your best guess. What do I look like?"

Peter sighed, and gave up asking. “You look like… A Gabby."

Lucinda smiled. “Well, either my parents made the right choice, or you remember more than you think."

Once Peter finished his coffee, Lucinda got up and sat in his lap. Soon they were standing. They made their way to the bedroom while they made out, and by the time they were there, Peter was struggling to stand up. Lucinda had to help him stay standing. “Why is your suitcase in here?"

Lucinda pulled away from Peter’s face and rolled her eyes. “My flight leaves this afternoon. Remember?" She didn’t wait for his response before pushing him onto the bed. She climbed on top of him and continued sucking on his lips until Peter stopped reciprocating her affection. Lucinda pulled her face from his and pushed on his shoulders. “Peter?" Peter’s eyes stayed closed. “Yeah. I thought so."

Lucinda climbed off the bed, and opened her suitcase. She put on a pair of latex gloves and retrieved her camera. Lucinda began taking pictures of each room, table and shelf. She opened every drawer and cupboard and took a picture of the contents. She pulled out a black plastic box, which unfolded around a long wheel and a lightbulb. She placed the device on the desk. Lucinda then grabbed a box of photos off of the bookshelf in the living room. She stacked the photos as they were arranged in the box in one lid. She adjusted the inner panals to line up with the width of the photos, and turned the machine on. One by one, the photos were pulled through the wheel, and stacked on the other end. She removed two binders of photos, removed the pages, and did the same. She skimmed the other binders and folders on the book shelf, and ran any pages of interest through the scanner. Afterwards, she checked the photos of the bookshelf and put everything back accordingly. She ran the same procedure through the house, and a small plastic bin. Inside, was a ratty old blanket, a few small stuffed animals, a few outworn and outdated outfits, and a few toys. Lucinda muttered “gotcha" and closed the lid.

Once she swept and reassembled the house, she grabbed a packet of wetwipes from her suitcase. She ran a wet wipe over Peter’s lips, neck and face. She scrubbed the inside of his mouth with another, and then did the same with his hands. She took a nailfile and dug the dirt out from Peter’s fingernails and toenails, wiping the file with a wet wipe between each scrape. She went to the kitchen and used the same wipes on the cutlery and dishes she had used.

She packed her suitcase, and brought it out onto the porch, along with the plastic tub of old baby items. As her colleague pulled into Peter’s driveway, she looked to the end of the small bungalo, where Peter was still passed out on the bed. She smiled, and yelled just loud enough for any neighbours to overhear. “Thanks Peter, my new nephew will make good use of these!" She loaded her suitcase and the plastic bin into the trunk of the car, and got in the passenger seat. Once they turned off of Peter’s street, Lucinda removed her wig, and the baldcap to let loose what little hair she had.

Part 59:

Angela and Luca sat on the two arm chairs facing the couch. Olivia was tense, but she wasn’t distraught as they had seen her before. “Is your husband here?"

Olivia shook her head. “No. He is at work. Has there been any news?" Olivia bit her lip and looked back and forth between her two guests. “Is this bad news?"

Angela shook her head. “We haven’t reached any conclusions. We’ve been considering the possibility of abduction."

Olivia guffawed and shook her head. “Who would want to abduct my son?"

“That’s what we’re trying to find out.”

Olivia shook her head, and Angela saw the denial coming before Olivia said it. But she had seen it too much to care for it. “You said people disappear for lots of reasons."

Angela nodded. “Your son wasn’t the type of person to fall off of the map without a word. He called you every night, didn’t he?" Olivia nodded. “You were close?"

Olivia nodded. “There was some tension. We were estranged but we reconciled. He mentioned a lot of things I could have done differently."

“See, I don’t think your son would disappear without telling you. Willingly.”

“He already did.”

Angela continued. “Did anyone ask about your son in the weeks before you last spoke?"

Olivia noticed Luca stop staring at her to examine Angela for any cues. “Yes. Lucille. No- Lucinda. Met her while I was getting coffee. Sweet girl. We struck up a conversation. A gamer like my son. She started asking about him, we talked a bit about his childhood, and then I had to go."

“Did you get a number?”

“No. I’d like to, but I don’t think he would like me to errange a date. You think she had something to do with this?”

Angela shook her head. “What else did you talk about?"

“All we talked about was Martin’s childhood.”

Angela nodded. “Do you have the receipt?"

Angela felt like she was grasping at straws with a receipt for coffee as her only lead, right up until she returned to the precinct, and found a folder in the top drawer of her desk. Cyber had run a facial recognition search of Martin, looking through social media for any pictures of him in the hours after he was last seen. One was taken by his neighbour, a picture of a dog, with him at the top of the frame, getting out of a car. She didn’t recognize the woman driving, but the hair of the passenger looked like it could have been Sarah Basset. The only other picture was at a water park. In the corner was four people, Sarah Basset, the driver from the other photo, and two little boys eating lunch. The oldest child had triggered a false positive. Angela rolled her eyes.

“Is that the face search?”

“Yeah, no luck. Just Basset and her friend dropping Talbot off, like she said. Then her and her friend with two kids.” Angela scanned the report. “The next day."

“Where’s Talbot in it?”

“False positive. Software thought this kid was Talbot.”

Luca glanced at it the photo. “Could be his kid."

Angela scoffed and then stopped. “You think so? Did the mother say why they were estranged." Luca shook his head. “Kids who estrange, they usually forbid contact with their kids. Right?"

Luca shrugged. “You tell me."

Angela had that look about her, that told Luca she had a theory she liked. “Pull up Basset’s address."

Luca opened up the database and ran a search for Sarah Basset. “Prince George?"

“Hmm?”

“Her address is listed as a maildrop in Prince George.”

“Really now. When did she move?”

“August…” Luca looked to Angela. “Five days after we spoke to her." Luca scrolled down. “Sold it to a numbered corporation."

Angela nodded. “What if Talbot wanted to keep his son a secret, he and Basset move in together, house is in the corporation’s name, parents can’t get in contact with the kid."

Luca shook his head. “Not unless Talbot made billions as a sandwich artist."

“Billions!?”

Luca turned his screen to face Angela. “The company is worth a little over thirty billion."

“How common is that for a numbered corporation?”

“Not vanishingly so. But it never means anything good. Anywhere from tax evasion to intelligence agencies. It’s the same company Basset bought the house from.”

Angela scanned the screen. “Private company. One board member. Delores MacNamara. Who is she?"

Luca turned his screen back to himself and ran a search. “Nothing."

“Nothing?”

Luca nodded. “Nothing. There’s no one by that name in here."

“How do you get a corporation without an ID?”

“It’s an old corporation. Maybe they failed to digitize hers?”

Angela nodded. “Okay, look into this company. I’m going to write a letter, we’ll see where it ends up."

“To who?”

“Basset.”

Part 60:

The leaves were already turning orange. Everyone in the park was soaking up the sun before it disappeared for the next five months, only to be seen through the occasional gap in the clouds. Brianne scanned the park and approached a jogger. “What the hell are you doing?"

The man took his headphones out. “Pardon?"

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Jogging?”

“And you chose here of all places. Yet I don’t remember meeting you.”

The man looked around at all the other civillians. “This is a public park."

“I’m aware that it’s a park. Everyone here is right where they’re supposed to be. Except for you.” The man glanced around and nodded. “It’s fine. There’s no eyes here. You’re breaking our truce. Do you know that?"

“Our truce was with your mother.”

“Our truce is with the company.”

The man smirked. “You’re not a company."

Brianne shrugged. “Well, we don’t have a number, or a list of board members, by-laws, or any of that. But I like to think of us as a company. A group of companions. Why are you here?" The man opened his mouth, but Brianne continued. “It doesn’t matter. Tell your boss that our truce is still in effect, and to keep doing their jobs. Or I’ll find someone who will."

“You’re not in any place to make idle threats.”

“If you were anymore than a front-liner, you’d know my threats are never idle. You ought to know that your boss only cares for facts. Be sure to leave your personal take out of your debrief.”

“I’ll pass it along.” The man turned to see several men standing behind him.

“Speaking of debriefing. I’m afraid you’ll have to strip. These fine gentlemen will escort you out of city limits.”

The man looked to Brianne in disbelief. “You’re serious?"

“Don’t toddle. Nights get cold this time of year. I’ve also taken the liberty of confiscating your partner.” The man glanced to the street, then scanned the rest of the street for the car. “Consider it reconciliation for a one-time encroachment." Brianne saw the man’s anger, which only slipped through before he returned to his unfeeling mask. The man stripped down and handed his clothes to Brianne’s security detail. “Consider yourself lucky. Everyone wanted Swiss models a few years ago. Now multi-ethnic babies are in vogue." Brianne took a moment to admire the man’s muscularture. “A few years ago, your partner would be the one playing messenger." Brianne gave her head a shake when she noticed her eyes lingering on the man’s penis. “Get out of my country."

Brianne watched the man leave, with a few of her men behind him, until she noticed a boy standing next to her. “Good morning, Jason."

The boy handed Brianne a folder. “A woman is in town. We think to see you." Brianne opened the file. “Does the name Nancy Campbell mean anything to you?"

“Yeah. She was a friend of my mom’s. What does she want?”

“We’re not sure. Her digital footprint is sparse to say the least.”

Brianne closed the file. “Well, that helps."

Jason shook his head. “I don’t like this. Your mother’s been gone for only a month and now she’s here. Too many of her communications are done in person." Jason picked a coin out of his pocket and threw it on the ground behind him, then turned to pick it up.

“Being friends with my mom could make anyone paranoid.”

Jason picked the coin up, then began re-tying his shoe, scanning the park while doing so. “Woman after my own heart."

“You don’t have to keep doing that. We have plenty of eyes here.”

Jason stood up and put the coin back in his pocket. “Can never be too careful. Don’t want to fall out of practice."

“A ten year old boy practicing counter-surveillance. Nothing conspicuous about that.”

Jason gave his head a slight turn. “It’s not counter-surveillance. I’m playing spy."

Brianne smirked. “Oh, is that it?"

Jason nodded at the naked man leaving the park. “Are they going to be a problem?"

“Nah. People are always most comfy with the enemy they know.”

“Then get cozy with them soon. We have a bigger problem.”

Brianne bit her lip. “More than a family friend?"

“Nannies are complaining of waters losing their potency.”

Brianne sighed. “How bad?"

“A few botched walkbacks, no lasting consequences. However. People are talking. If they haven’t heard about your mother’s deposition, they’re very much aware now.”

“Have you got a location on my family?”

“A general location. They’re hiding well for people who’ve lived outside city limits for so long.”

Brianne sighed and nodded. “Recall every Nanny, have real estate arrange accomodation. After they’ve finished their current jobs. I’m going to send Lauren to deliver a message to my sister. You can provide her a following." Jason nodded. “Good. Thank you, Jason.”

Jason nodded and walked away. “Ma’am."

Brianne nodded, and then called out. “Jason." Jason turned around to look at her. “A new day is dawning. I need you to do what you do best."

On her way home, Brianne stopped at a halfway house, a small bungalo not much bigger than the house she shared with Sarah, with a considerable portion of it converted into a daycare. Of the five babies and toddlers there, Brianne picked out her mother right away. Delores was the only baby who could display burning hatred for more than a second. Brianne didn’t care if her mom saw how pleased she was to see her, nor how scared she still was of her. If anyone had any way to destroy someone from a playpen, Delores was the most likely candidate.

Tamara came in with a sixth child on her hip and walked over to one of the other packable playpens. “Sit nice with Koda, Tamara will be back soon."

Tamara stood up straight and nodded. “Ma’am."

“Can people stop calling me Ma’am. It’s only cute when Jason does it.”

“If you’re concerned with your age, why not do what Lauren does?”

Brianne shook her head. “How’s the research project?"

Tamara glanced at Delores and nodded. “No change. Ten years of Simplicity every meal, like you say. Nothing. Not so much as a giggle. It’s a good thing she doesn’t have teeth. She’s not above gumming. A lot more persistent than, well, anyone."

“Yeah, Research did a number on her.”

“Maybe if I stop dosing her, she’ll lose her immunity.”

“It’s not Simplicity that caused her immunity. Give it time.”

“Was she a psychopath?”

No. Brianne’s mother was just a run of the mill monster, but she wasn’t going to allude to that. “Possibly. Why do you ask?”

Tamara shook her head. “She just. Has those quirks. Stares at the wall for hours on end. I had to separate her after she tried poking Rory’s eye out. It’s hard to sleep with a kid like that in the house. Baby or not, she’s still lucid."

Brianne nodded. “Rory and Koda. Those were Lauren’s last charges.”

“Yeah. Two of them. She’s keeping the other kid.”

“How are they?”

Tamara sighed. “Better. It was funny at first, but after a while you gotta wonder what they’re crying about. But they all go quiet at some time.”

“I suppose I should find her new charges before she gets bored of him.” Brianne glanced at her mother, who was still glaring at her. “I have an idea. I’ll get her out of your hair in a few days, if it works." Tamara nodded. “Excuse me. I have a visitor in town.”

Lauren came back to the diner upon Brianne’s request. The woman of Brianne’s interest had been in a booth for nearly an hour, and had yet to eat or drink anything. “Can I offer you coffee?"

Nancy responded the same way she did each time. “No, thank you. I’m waiting for someone."

“Water, then?”

“No, thank you.”

“I don’t mean to be rude, but this is a diner.”

Nancy shook her head. “It’s fine."

Lauren rolled her eyes. “I mean to say there’s no loitering."

Nancy smiled and shook her head. “Honey. I know exactly what you meant. Just as I meant that it’s fine if I loiter. And if you don’t think so, then it must be above your paygrade, because the Chairwoman said so." Nancy gestured her head down the restaurant. “Skedaddle."

Lauren walked away, returning to the bar to check her pager. “Is that true?"

Lauren heard several beeps and vibrations as the other diners checked their own pagers and stood up. By the time her own pager buzzed, the diners were heading to the door. Lauren knew what was going to be on the display.

CHAIRWOMAN APPROACHING. STAND READY.

Lauren nodded. “Copy that."

When Brianne walked in. Lauren gestured her head towards the booth. Brianne scanned the floor for anyone still in the diner as she walked towards Nancy.

Nancy smiled at Brianne and began to stand up. “Brie."

Brianne held her hand up. “/jo.βo.my ʃʊ.jo.ŋe zɛŋ.'gæo.dʒæs/?" What are you doing here?

Nancy squinted and nodded. “['vi.'sat]… ['vɪ.sən.'doɪ.gə.'tik]… ['naʊ.'ʃaʊ.'ʃeɪ]?” It is… Discretion… Did i prioritize?

Brianne nodded and corrected Nancy. “[βɪs.'noɪ.ɣo.'tik 'næo.'ʃæo.'ʃe 'βi.'sat].” Is discretion important.

Nancy gave her head a shake. “I’m sorry, dear. I can’t carry a conversation in your language. I could never get past the cases. Is there somewhere we can chat freely?”

Brianne found the pretense lazy. Nancy was more than competent in Uyoshot when Brianne was a child. Nancy would even teach her words she didn’t know. Nancy could have wanted privacy, where none of Brianne’s employees would be able to help before it was too late. Or maybe Brianne’s childhood memories weren’t accurate. Maybe Nancy had no one else to speak to in Uyoshot and lost the language over the years. Two reasonable explanations, but Brianne wasn’t going to act on a maybe. “What are you doing here?”

Nancy glanced around the diner, and nodded at Brianne. “Jacob’s sick again.”

Brianne sighed. “He’s always sick. Why are you here?”

Nancy frowned. “Because he’s always sick. Your mother has been unresponsive this last month. I was expecting her to come here.”

“My mother’s dead.”

Nancy froze for a moment. While her eyebrows only lifted for a moment, Brianne saw the pause as Nancy’s moment to plan her reaction. “What? How?”

“I killed her. Had SWAT storm the board room for a Bolivian execution.”

Nancy stared at Brianne, and Brianne stared at her. Nancy started to frown, but her eyes didn’t dart away. Nancy wasn’t sad for Delores, she was sad for Brianne. “What did she do to you?” Brianne sighed and tapped her finger nail on the table. Nancy nodded and interrupted Brianne before she spoke. “Okay, fine. Jacob is already doing poorly in school.”

Brianne nodded. “School’s only been in for three weeks.”

Nancy shrugged. “That’s my point. He’s not doing homework, he’s not able to concentrate in class, and now he’s faking being sick so he can come home.”

Brianne rolled her eyes. She was raised to believe school was so kids could forget how to move, question, and think for themselves. Brianne, Kathy and Calvin only went to school a few months per year to assimilate to the rest of the world, or at least know how to. “So?”

Nancy sighed. “We’re not like you. Jacob has to actually work for a diploma.”

“I don’t have a diploma.”

“You have dozens of diplomas. All of them forged.”

Brianne sighed. “What do you want me to do?”

“Your mother’s been pioneering in fields of medicine, if only in funding.” Nancy noticed Brianne tapping her nail on the table again. “I want to Jacob to have his immune system… repaired.”

Brianne nodded and looked out the window to gaze at the mountains. “Okay. I think that can be done. I’ll have to check with the hospital.”

Nancy smiled. “One more thing.”

“Just one?”

“They’ve reformed the education system. Moving away from the Montesorri method.”

“It’s about time. We developed the new system years ago.”

“Jacob’s missed out on quite a lot having been born so early.”

Brianne grimaced. “You understand what you’re asking of me, right? If we help him with his immune function he could gain his confidence back, and be able to handle school.”

Nancy shook her head. “I fear the damage has already been done. I can pay you.”

“Very well. Are you staying here?”

“I can.”

“I’ll arrange accomodation and get back to you.” Brianne stood up.

“It’s good to see you again.”

Brianne nodded. “You too.” On her way out of the diner, Brianne stopped at the bar to speak to Lauren.

“All good?”

“Sort of.” Brianne nodded and handed a piece of paper to Lauren. “I need you to deliver a letter to my sister. Jason will provide a following.” Once the letter was in-hand, Lauren felt her pager vibrate.

Part 61:

“I’m sweaty.”

Sarah nodded. “That’s really good to know. Thanks for that."

“Yo’ welcome.” Martin scratched at the denim over his legs. “I know thew pwickaly but I can keep my feet away."

Sarah dropped the handful of blackberries into the bucket and took her gardening gloves off. Martin held onto Sarah’s arms for balance as she unbuckled his overalls and pulled them down. He leaned forward and wiped his nose on her sleeve. Sarah sighed. “Martin, what did I tell you?"

“Ummmm. That blackbewy booses aw pwickaly.”

“About wiping snot on my arm.”

Martin stepped out of his overalls, and let go of Sarah’s arms. “Oh wight. I’m sowy."

Sarah wiped the dirt and snot on her sleeves onto her gardening gloves. “You gotta stop doing that."

Martin shrugged. “I can’ help it. Iss like thumbsucking, or nosepicking, I don’ notice it."

Sarah nodded and continued picking blackberries. “I understand. But please do your best. It’s gross." Martin nodded and continued picking. “Watch your step."

Martin looked down at his feet to make sure his exposed legs weren’t near the vines. “I know. Why do we need so many bewwies?"

“Well, we gotta eat. I thought you said you picked blackbewies when you were a kid.”

“Only when I walk pass a booses.”

Sarah nodded. “Oh, I see. Don’t worry, it’ll be worth it."

Martin nodded and dumped a handful of berries in his Go Diego Go bucket. “Did you pick blackbewies when you wuh little?"

“Mmm, not as little as you. I just thought it would be a good way to keep you busy.”

Martin smiled at Sarah, then felt a thorn snag on his gardening glove and shook it off. “Yeah. You nevew talk about yo’ tsiyalhood."

“No, I guess I don’t. Well, I grew up in a ranch outside of Penticton.”

“Did you make salad dwessing?”

Sarah chuckled. “No, Bubba. We grew tomatoes."

“A wænts. So did you have howses?” (sorry for the ash, “wants” was taken)

Sarah nodded. “Sure did. My parents still do, last time I checked."

Martin gasped. “Can I have a pony?"

Sarah glanced at Martin. “I didn’t think ponies were your thing."

Martin giggled. “Ah you kidding me? They can cwuss a man’s tsest with one kick!"

“There it is.” Sarah nodded. “Um. Maybe when you’re older."

“Cool. What did you do with blackbewies?”

“Well, we snacked on them for a few days, before they soured. And then my mom made them into pie and jam. Put it on toast, or ice cream.”

Martin winced as he dropped a few berries into his bucket. “You cam put dzam on ice cweam? Izin it too galoopy?"

Sarah nodded. “Well, you heat it up so it’s more runny, then drizzle it on."

“Oooooh. Can we do that tonight?”

“In a few days. I want to eat what we can while they’re fresh.”

Martin ate a blackberry and smiled. “Mmmm. Yummy. Thew souwa now."

Sarah glared at Martin. “And yet they’re yummy?"

Martin nodded and then stopped smiling. “Oh, wight."

“Jam takes a few hours to make, anyways.”

Martin rolled his eyes, and continued picking. “Fine, I can wait fow dzam."

After Sarah’s bucket was full, and before Martin’s was too heavy for him to carry, Sarah took Martin over to the shade under a massive cedar tree. While the two took a break in the shade, Sarah took the chance to get some leg-lifts in. Sarah propped her feet on Martin’s abodmen, lay her back on the grass and hoisted him into the air, holding his hands for balance. If Martin were twenty-two, the fall would pose far more risk, but now, even though he was scared, his position made him giggle. Sarah giggled with him. “You okay, Bubba?"

“Yeah. Don’t squiss my pee-pee.”

Sarah looked at her feet, and her heels were still on his belly. “Martin, don’t be gross."

Martin grimaced. “How is not wanning my peepee cwussed gwoss?"

Sarah nodded. “Okay, fair point. Silly Sarah."

Martin giggled. “Silly Sewah."

“Wanna try no hands?”

“Is it safe?”

“I dunno. Are you scared of bonking?”

Martin giggled. “Yeah."

“I dunno, you bonk a lot and you still look healthy to me.”

“Not yet!”

“Okay, I’ll hold on.”

Sarah swayed her feet up and down, making Martin both squeal and giggle. “Ah! What ayou doing?"

“Relax. You’re fine. It’s like a swing.” Sarah lowered her feet until she felt Martin’s legs bend from his feet touching the ground, then hoisted him back over her. She kept her legs straight for a moment, and then rubbed her fingers on the back of Martin’s hands. “Bubba, I barely have to pull on your hands now, and you aren’t tippy at all."

“Okay.”

“Wanna try no hands?”

“Keep 'em close!”

“Okay.” Sarah opened her hands and smiled in amazement. “Bubba! Are you floating?"

Martin giggled. “Sut up! I got yo’ feet unde me!"

“You sure do! And you aren’t even close to falling. Good job!”

Martin giggled. “Yeah."

“Can you fly, Superman?”

“We didin bwing anotha sirt.”

Sarah rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I mean hold your arms out like Superman."

Martin looked down at Sarah’s feet. “Will that wook?"

“Want me to keep my hands near yours?” Martin nodded. Sarah held her hands open, close to his wrists. “Okay, big stretch." Martin lifted his arms straight up, and Sarah followed his wrists with her hands until his legs and arms were straight. “Wow! You’re quite the acrobat!"

“What’s an acwobat?”

“You’re very good at balancing on your belly.” Martin giggled, and his arms dropped fast enough to almost knock him over. Sarah brought her feet up and put her hands on his shoulders. “It’s okay, I gotcha."

“Again!”

“Again!? I don’t wanna drop you. Especially on my face.”

Martin lifted his arms. “No, I wanna fly, Superman."

Sarah followed his arms, keeping her hands closer to his shoulders this time. “Good job!"

“Can I go to pweschool?”

“I thought you didn’t wanna go to preschool?”

“No, I was dzust scawed, but I wanna go.”

Sarah sighed. “Why didn’t you say so?"

Martin put his arms down, and grabbed Sarah’s hands. “I was scawed, and then we stopped talking about it."

“So you wanna go?” Martin nodded. “Okay. I’ll give the teacher a call."

The wind picked up speed, and Martin shivered. “I’m cold."

“Ready to go home then?”

Brianne returned home and made tortellini for herself and Gavin. Brianne sat at the dining room table with Gavin in his high chair. Alfredo sauce decorated her face, shirt and lap. She gave the boy a stern look as she held the tortellini up on a spork. “This one is going down your throat."

Gavin giggled and took the tortellini in his mouth and spat it out. Brianne turned her head out of the noodle’s trajectory, and then she glared at Gavin. “You’re going to be really hungry, really soon."

Brianne heard Martin’s tiny feet behind her, entering from the sliding glass door, followed by a skid and then a thud. “Ow!"

“Bonk!” Sarah declared.

Brianne turned around, and saw Martin on his back with his hand on his head. She could also see the noodle squished against his foot, along with a few others he had yet to step on. “You want some pasta?"

Martin scowled and gave Brianne a side-eye. “Has it been on the flow?"

“Nah, I still got some on the stove.”

“You okay, Bubba?”

Martin sat up. “Yeah. I’ll eat after I get dwessed."

“Want some help?”

Martin left to the nursery. “I got it."

Sarah sat down and shook her head at Brianne. “He doesn’t got it."

Brianne glared at Gavin. “Last noodle. I thought he liked you dressing him."

Sarah watched Brianne glaring at Gavin as she brought the noodle to her son’s mouth. “If he’s trying, I’m happy to help him after the fact."

“Maybe he wouldn’t be pushing you away if you left him alone for more than a few minutes.” Gavin took the noodle off the spork and spat it out. Brianne turned her head away, and set the bowl down on the table. She held her hands up and open, and gave them a twist. “All done."

Gavin licked the sauce from his lips and glanced at the bowl, then at his tray, then at Brianne. “Ah!"

Sarah nodded, making no effort to hide her scorn. “Maybe I could leave him with you. You think I’m that petty that I’d think him dressing himself is pushing me away?"

Brianne sighed. “Sorry, Gavin. You spat them all out."

Gavin kicked on his high chair. “Ah!"

Brianne looked to Sarah and frowned. “Well, you don’t want to. Would you feel less guilty if I did it?"

Sarah shook her head. “Not one bit."

“So you’re just going to stick around until I refresh you both. Is that your plan?”

Sarah shrugged. “Sure. But for now, I’m going to sign him up for preschool, let him have some sort of childhood in the mean time. With your permission of course. You own the moon, I take it you own the preschools here too."

“I don’t own the moon. They decided they saw all there was to see." Brianne sighed, and saw Gavin pointing at the noodles on the floor. “Oh for goodness sake." Brianne lifted Gavin out of the chair and set him on the floor. The toddler then began scowering the floor for flyaway noodles. “There. Be a good dog and lick the floor clean." Brianne shook her head. “Well I’m not going to. But I will keep you around until you see why it’s necessary. For now, take him to preschool." Brianne stood up to wash Gavin’s bowl. “I thought Martin didn’t want to go to preschool."

“He was just scared to.”

“And what about you?”

“I’d like to keep an eye on him, but I could use the time to myself.” Sarah glanced at the hallway. “Plus the briefer my witnessing of Azure’s Indicators, the more optimal for my psychological stability."

Martin walked in, wearing an inside out T-shirt and backward overalls. “What about Blue’s Cooz?" Sarah rolled her eyes. “Sewah, can you help with the buttons?"

Sarah shook her head at Martin. “The bib goes on the front, Bubba."

“I don’t need a bib, and I wanna weh them backwuds.”

Sarah sighed. “Of course you do." She waved her hand for him to come closer. Martin backed up to her and Sarah buttoned the strap over Martin’s back. She put her hands on his shoulders and gave him a shake, making him giggle. “You are such a nerd."

Brianne looked to the living room when she heard the brass flap opening and then slamming shut. “Oh. We just got a letter."

Sarah winced. “No don’t say that." And then she sighed when Martin ran to the door to retrieve the letter, singing the tune from Blue’s Clues.

“We just got a letter! We just got a letter!” Martin picked up the mail and ran to Brianne. “We just got a letter! Wonder who it’s from!" Martin hopped, stopping in front of Brianne.

Brianne accepted the mail. “Thank you, Martin." Brianne looked to Sarah. “I see what you mean about television."

Sarah nodded. “Uh huh."

Martin looked up at her with a disappearing smile. “Well? Who’s it from?"

Sarah shook her head. “That’s private, Bubba. Come here, let me finish buttoning you up."

Sarah clipped the last button on Martin’s shoulder blade. She dug her fingers into his sides, making Martin squeal and giggle. “You really want your new teacher to see you like this?"

Martin tried to kneel down to escape the tickles, but Sarah’s hands held him up. “Yeah."

Brianne put the letter on the counter. “How would you like your own charge?”

Sarah scoffed. “I’m not exactly looking for work right now.”

“I may have been wrong. About.” Brianne stared at Martin until Sarah nodded. “I think it’s worth seeing what happens.”

“Wow. You really want me to work this case.”

“I’m serious.”

Sarah shook her head. “Bull.” Sarah patted Martin’s back. “Go get your shoes."

Martin ran to the door and Brianne sat down. “Would twenty do?”

“Twenty?”

Brianne nodded. “It’s a return.”

“A return?”

Brianne nodded. “Adoptions we charge based on supplies. Returns are a steady fee.”

Sarah watched Martin putting his shoes on in the living room. On the off chance Brianne was serious, she could put that money towards their future. “Twenty it is. Where do you want me?”

“Take Martin to preschool. But we’re going on a jet tomorrow.”

Martin ran into the kitchen. “Okay I’m weady! Whatsiss about taking a dzet?"

“No, I’m taking a jet. You’re going to school.”

Martin shook his head. “No I tsanze my mind.”

Sarah glared at her son. “Martin.”

Brianne nodded. “He can come too. It’ll be a straight forward case.”

“Okay, fine. Let’s go, Bubba.”

Part 62:

With the work day done, Angela and Luca were on their way to the parkade beneath the precinct. In the elevator, Luca noticed Angela checking her phone. “Any news on the letter to Basset?”

Angela shook her head. “The tracker went down before it even got to the maildrop. Could be damaged, or.” Angela sighed. “I don’t know. I get a bad feeling whenever we work this case.”

They exited the elevator. Angela found the parkade quiet for this time of day. Once the door to the stairwell closed behind them, Luca patted at his pockets and sighed. “Forgot my phone.”

Angela continued walking as she continued to her car. “Hurry it up, then.” To her annoyance, the fob on her keychain wasn’t working. If she had an older model, she could have just as easily unlocked the door with a key she didn’t have. “Great.” Angela pulled out her phone to find she didn’t have any reception. The fourth beep caught her attention, and she noticed Luca still trying to scan his access fob on the door to the elevator. “Having trouble?”

Luca sighed and turned to Angela. “Apparently.”

“Fine, I gotta go up anyways.” Angela went to the door, and found her fob didn’t scan either.

Luca sighed. “I guess we’re going around then.”

Walking to the ramp, Angela noticed the parkade was still quiet. “Don’t patrols have a shift change around this time?” In the corner of her eye, she noticed someone standing between cars.

“Scheduling error.” Luca and Angela stopped to look at a fourteen year old boy standing in between cars. The boy was dressed in baggy and torn jeans, and a baggy hoody. The boy stood with his back straight, shoulders back and held his head high that if he were Angela’s height, the bridge of his nose would line up with Angela’s eyes. “The latest update has made many computers think today is Daylight Savings Time.”

Angela shook her head. “There’s no civillians allowed in here.”

“I’m aware.” The boy walked forward and leaned his butt on the grill of the sedan he was standing beside. “You two aren’t together in many places that allow for privacy.”

Luca squinted at the boy. “You think a police presinct is private?”

Angela shook her head. “You’ve been following us?”

“Not personally.”

“Why don’t you come upstairs with us and you can tell us all about it.”

The boy smirked. “I’d love to, but it appears the scanners have also received a defective update. And more importantly, you two are way too out-gunned to be detaining anyone.”

Angela and Luca glanced around the parkade, seeing that it was still empty. “I don’t see anyone else here.”

The boy’s smirk did not waiver. “You find that encouraging?”

Angela turned her head back to look down at the kid. “And what is your name?”

“It’s not in the database, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“You’ve gone through a lot of trouble to speak with us privately. About what?”

The boy shrugged. “I wish to reconnect with an old friend. I believe helping you find out what happened to Martin Talbot will accomplish this.”

“What happened to him?”

The boy tilted his head and gave Angela a knowing smile. “I can tell you what happened to him, or I can help you find out, but I can’t do both. Which would you prefer?”

“Are the two mutually exclusive?” The boy nodded. “How?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Try me.”

“No.”

Angela looked to her partner. Luca, as he always did, kept his focus on the suspect while she did the talking. She scanned the still empty parkade as she turned back to the boy. “I choose for you to tell me.”

“I didn’t offer you a choice, I merely asked of your preference. If I tell you, you dismiss it, and no one will ever know what happened to him.”

“Then I’m arresting you until you tell me.”

The boy looked forward and sighed, ignoring Angela walking towards him, brandishing her cuffs. Angela grabbed the boy’s wrist, and pulled until he faced her, then grabbed his other wrist. “We’ll add threatening the life of an off-” As she finished cuffing the boy’s first wrist, she noticed a group of men in SWAT-gear turn the corner from the ramp, all pointing rifles at her and her partner.

The boy laughed. “You can arrest me, or walk out of here alive. That’s your choice. Now make it.” Angela and Luca were frozen, eyes focusing on the rifles pointing at them. The boy reached back with his free hand, receiving no resistance from Angela’s grip, and pulled the key off her belt. “Do decide soon. My hand is losing circulation.”

Angela released her grip, and the boy unlocked the cuff on his wrist. “I hope you can excuse the theatrics, I thought buying a SWAT team prudent.”

“You don’t buy SWAT teams.”

“Spoken like a detective’s salary.”

Angela nodded. “Okay. Fine. What do you have to say?”

The boy nodded. “Brianne Eckhart. She’s the social worker overseeing Sarah Basset’s adoption of her son.” The boy sighed handed a business card to Angela. “Call her in for questioning. You’ll get a secretary. If she agrees, she’ll come in herself.”

“Is Eckhart the close friend of yours?”

“Your investigations are not my concern. We have a lead in common and Talbot’s social worker is that lead.”

“So he is adopting with Basset?”

The boy bit his lip and scowled. “As I was saying. Do not waste my time thinking I am cooperative. Otherwise you’ll only get half of my gift.”

“So Eckhard comes in, what do we ask her?”

“That’s more like it. Ask her whatever questions you already have. They’ll make a good baseline for the one I’m giving you.”

“Which is?”

“This part is very important. You cannot tell anyone Eckhart is anything more than a line of inquiry. I’m going to give you a name, and you must not ask anyone about it, or search it in any database whatsoever. If you do, Eckhart will not come in, and you two will probably end up dead. You are to only mention it when Eckhart is in the interrogation room, is that clear?” Angela nodded. “Ask Eckhart about her relation to Sarah Renfrew.”

“Who’s Renfrew?”

“You’ve already met her. Though she used a different name.”

Luca broke his silence. “Basset.”

The boy nodded. “Remember. Don’t even think the name Renfrew before you ask Eckhardt about her.”

Angela looked from her partner to the boy. “And then what happens?”

The boy turned and started walking towards his guards. “One way or another, you’ll find out exactly what happened to Martin Talbot.”

Author’s note:

Here’s part 63 to 65. This post contains test written in Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics. If you see a bunch of null characters, all it is is a note written to Kathy in her family language, Uyoshot.

Part 63:

Martin changed his mind about letting his new teacher see his backward overalls, as well as himself. “I don’t wanna go!"

Sarah pushed on the steering wheel and pushed the back of her head into the headrest. “Yes you do!"

“I tsanze my mind!”

“You’ve changed your mind five times now! Do you know how much gas costs?”

“Nothing.”

“Gas does not cost nothing, Bubba.”

“Yes it does. I’ve seen you nah pu’ youw cawd in the pumps. This town is a sosalist hellscape.”

“Then what about the planet?”

“What about the pannit?”

“Aren’t you worried about carbon emissions? You’re going to inherit the Earth, eh?”

Martin folded his arms, and harrumphed his back against his carseat. “I’m mow wowwied about hypa-ozia."

Sarah massaged her forehead with her middle finger, regretting her decision to bring her medical textbooks to Outreach. “Hyper. Oxia. X makes a ksa sound."

Martin banged his fists against the sides of his carseat. “That doesn’t make any sense! Why don’t they spell it KS! Why isn’t xylophone ksylaphone!?"

“Because ksylaphone sounds weird!”

“That dozen stob em fwom spelling it wiewd!”

“Oh my God!” Sarah took a deep breath. She knew Martin wasn’t changing his mind over and over on purpose. He was just scared. “We’re getting off topic here."

Martin nodded in agreement. “I don’t wanna go."

Unemployment was starting to weigh on Sarah. As fun as it was trying to reason with Martin, it was his choice of television that annoyed her most. Without patients to heal, Sarah found herself with the desire to do harm. What little free time she had was now spent plotting the murder of Barney the dinosaur, with Blue and Magenta as weapons. Sarah shrugged. “Dual wielding is kinda lame, but I could make it look good."

Martin grimaced. “Huh?"

Sarah gave her head a shake. “Right. Daniel Tiger."

Martin smiled. “You like it now? Wanna go watts it?"

No. Absolutely not. But Martin did. Though Blue’s Clues and Barney held a weird place in Martin’s heart, he had developed a fondness for Daniel Tiger. The strategy songs gave him tricks to navigate being three again. The worst part about them was that they were as basic as they were catchy. Sarah did the last thing she ever thought she would and sang a line from a strategy song. “When we do, something new."

Martin chimed in. “Let’s talk about what we’ll do."

“Remember that episode?”

“Yeah, Daniel was going to pweschool and was wowwied abou- ooohhh, I don’ like wheh this is going.”

Sarah smiled. “Then what happened?"

Martin rolled his eyes. “Then he saw they had all his toys there except fow Tiggy."

“And then?”

Martin shrugged. “And then he was allowed to take Tiggy okay fine, I’ll do it."

Sarah turned around. “That worked?"

Martin unbuckled himself from his carseat and pushed the door open. “I hate when you quote hymns."

Sarah hoped Martin didn’t remember what hymn actually meant, otherwise it meant that Martin found them to be paramount to life. Then again, maybe that was the point of strategy songs.

The first door inside was the cubby room, a narrow hall with a long bench attached to both walls, with coat-hooks under each cubby, each with a name-tag taped above. Martin saw the doorway at the end of the cubby room, and heard the children from around the corner. Real children. Martin realized he was just a pretender, and decided to assimilate the best way he knew how: wrap himself around a grown-up’s leg.

Sarah didn’t have to look down to know what it felt like to have Martin sitting cross legged on her foot, holding her leg like a tree in a hurricane. Sarah sighed at the ceiling. “Relax, Bubba."

Martin pushed his cheek into her thigh. “I tsanze my mind."

A man walked into the cubby room and smiled. “You must be Sarah."

Sarah nodded. “Sure am."

The man held out his hand. “Donovan."

Sarah glanced down at her foot. “I’m anchored." Donovan chuckled, approached and shook hands with Sarah. Donovan knelt down, and Martin turned his head to hide his face behind Sarah’s leg. “And you must be Martin."

“I knew a Donovan. He weplaced Steve on Blue’s Clues. I don’t like Donovans.”

Donovan chuckled. “Well, I’m not that same Donovan. And between you and me, I always liked Steve much better."

Martin turned his head to rest his other cheek on Sarah’s leg. “Weally? What do you like about him?"

Donovan shrugged. “He’s much more nicer."

Martin nodded and smiled up at Sarah. “I like this guy."

“Does that mean I can have my foot back?”

“Oh, sowwy.” Martin let go of Sarah’s leg and rolled onto his back.

Sarah saw Martin clunk his head against the floor, and shouted “bonk!" to cheer him up. Then she heard a few kids in the other room yell “bonk!" Sarah smiled down at Martin. “You’re in good company."

Martin hopped back onto his feet. “We’ll see about that."

Donvan smiled. “Martin, do you like colouring?"

Martin gasped. “I love colouwing!"

“I understand you know a lot better than most kids your age, huh?”

Martin glanced at Sarah, and she nodded. Martin nodded. “Yup. I was twenny-two. I know aaaalll the wules."

“How many crayons do you take out of the cup?”

Martin held up his index finger. “One?"

“That’s right.” Martin clapped and smiled at Sarah. Sarah nodded, and Martin smiled back at Donovan. “And what do we do with the one crayon if we want to use another?"

Martin giggled, holding his hand out to illustrate putting a crayon in a cup. “We put it back fiwst, and then take the new one."

Donovan sighed in relief. “Oh good. I was worried I couldn’t let you come colour with us. It’s nice to have a kid who already knows the rules."

Martin looked up at Sarah. “Sewah, I alweady know the wules."

Sarah nodded. “It’s true, he does."

“Me and Sarah are about to talk about grown-up stuff, like income tax and Gilmore Girls, but I don’t wanna bore you. Wanna go colour with the others?”

Martin nodded. “Can I?" Martin looked up at Sarah. “Can I?"

“Go ahead. I’ll come get you when we’re done.”

Martin was about to bolt when Sarah took his hand. “We don’t run inside."

“Oh, sowwy, Donovan.”

“It’s okay, dude.” Martin walked with an emphatic pause on each step. Donovan chuckled as Martin entered the classroom. “He’s a hoot." Donovan stood up straight. “Let’s go talk in the kitchen." Sarah followed Donovan into the kitchen. Despite having a little over a dozen students, Donovan’s kitchen was far cleaner than her own. “Thirsty?"

Sarah shook her head. “No thank you. I got a trunk full of juice boxes."

“Who doesn’t? So you had some concerns, but I take it Martin wanting to come wasn’t one of them.”

“Oh it was. He changed his mind half a dozen times on the way here.” Sarah folded her arms and leaned on the counter. “I was actually wondering about Martin’s refreshment."

Donovan nodded. “You’re new, right? How long have you been at it?"

“Eight months.”

“While he is a bit older than usual, it seems like it’s stuck. Other than knowing that he used to be twenty-two. He’ll shrug it off eventually.”

“No, actually I- Shrug it off?”

“Yeah. Even at three, he’ll remember next to nothing about being an adult by the time he starts school. Not a lot of kids remember me after a few years.”

Sarah bit her lip and tilted her head. “Really?"

“Oh yeah. Did your trainer not tell you this?”

Sarah stretched her eyebrows up and nodded. “She did not. But my concern was that Martin hasn’t been fully refreshed."

Donovan nodded with his mouth open. “Ah. So, what’s he at?"

“Eighty-three percent is the official estimate. However that metric works.”

“You think he’ll be a problem?”

Sarah nodded. “I was hoping to ask you the same. He’s an angel for me, but stubborn. He seems to like you, so he’ll be cooperative when the mood strikes him. I don’t know when Martin will need to finish his treatment. I was wondering if you- um."

Donovan shook his head. “Oh, no no no. I’m not a Nanny, at least not actively. We only have a few bottles of medicine in here, but none of us has access to it. We just store it for you guys. If you don’t want to treat Martin yourself, you’ll have to find another Nanny."

Sarah nodded. “I actually don’t want to. As long as possible."

Sarah was expecting some sort of reaction from Donovan, a sneer, a look of pity, anything that said “dead woman walking." But Donovan only nodded. “Okay. No, we don’t do that here. This is a school for ready kids. Or mostly ready, in Martin’s case."

“Good. So, he won’t be a problem?”

“History of violence?”

“A few fights in elementary school.” Sarah scratched her head. “Got scolded a lot for breaking things. By choice or just clumsiness, I don’t know."

Donovan nodded. “I don’t think he’ll be a problem. He might actually behave better than the ready kids."

Sarah glanced to the floor and stifled a frown. “Yeah, that sounds like him."

After Donovan showed Sarah around the house, giving her a run-down of feeding, bathing, and dressing protocols, along with cleaning and first-aid, Sarah was happy with where Martin would start his education. Martin was too. Too happy to leave. “But wih playing duck duck goose. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve played duck duck goose? Because I don’t."

Sarah shrugged. “You can play lots of games tomorrow. They weren’t planning on us here, and I don’t want to impose."

Martin frowned and looked to Donovan in desperation. “Is Sewah imposing?"

Donovan looked to Sarah. It wasn’t his business, but he wanted to know what Sarah’s stance was. Sarah wanted to spend the day with Martin, but she figured it would be better if Martin started branching out while he was excited to, and she nodded at Donovan.

“I suppose we could squeeze you in for the day. The classroom looks like it has room for you, what do you think?”

Martin looked back at all his new friends, and there was lots of places he could stand or even sit without being pressed against another kid. “Yeah! The class is weally big."

Donovan smiled at Sarah. “How does two o’clock sound?"

Sarah nodded. “That sounds good. Okay, hugga Bubba." Sarah knelt down and gave Martin a big hug. “If you need me, just tell Donovan, okay? I’ll be over fast as I can."

“Okay!”

A bench sat between the sidewalk and curb. It was stainless steel with no back, so Sarah grabbed a hoodie from her car to keep the residual heat from burning her buttocks, along with a book to pass the time. Unemployment was one thing, sitting on a bench, alone with your thoughts was another.

“First day away?”

Sarah jumped, and looked at Donovan standing over here. “Away?"

Donovan sat down. “From Martin?"

Sarah shook her head. “No. Just first day I haven’t had to be." Sarah glanced at the preschool, then to Donovan. “How’s he doing in there?"

Donovan waved his hand in dismissal. “Ah, he’s eating it up."

Sarah smiled. “Really?"

Donovan nodded. “He’s taken on tutoring his new friends on reading. Or helping them put stuff away. Never seen a kid who thought my organization system was intuitive. He’s quite the helper, even though I already have one for the day."

Sarah nodded. “Yeah, he’s like that with Gavin, too."

“He’ll be a teacher.”

Sarah chuckled. “You think you can tell that early?"

“Absolutely. Give me a boy under seven and I’ll show you the man. But I didn’t mean just career-wise. Though it will be a good fit.”

Sarah nodded. “I’ll keep it in mind."

“You can come in if you like. Many hands make lots of work.”

Sarah tilted her head. “Don’t you mean less work?"

Donovan scoffed. “Oh no." He held his hands up and wiggled his fingers. “I mean the little hands."

Sarah chuckled. “Of course. Martin needs to make his own friends."

“Separation anxiety?”

Sarah nodded. “Is he okay?"

“Well, he asked after you a few times.”

“Why didn’t you let me know?”

“He just missed you, but he wanted to stay. Those times when if I call you he’ll beg you not to take him.”

Sarah smirked and nodded. “Yeah. I could see him doing that."

“But I was actually asking about you.”

Sarah stared at Donovan for a moment, and nodded. “It’s my problem, not his."

Donovan nodded and stood up. “Okay. Let me know if you get bored out here."

Sarah nodded. “I will."

Sarah did get bored, but she didn’t let Donovan know, and when her watch showed it was two past two, she went inside. She went to the end of the cubby room, and leaned on the doorway. Donovan sat on a stool, next to a boy with his head against the wall. “Eleven. Twelve. Ermmm Twelve. Donovan. What comes affa twelve?"

“After twelve, comes thirteen.” The boy continued counting.

Sarah looked down into the toy bin next to the door and saw a little girl. The little girl held her finger up over her mouth and whispered. “Pwetend I not hee."

Sarah nodded, and looked up and took the chance to scan the room. She used to be great at hide-and-seek, but found it was much harder playing with Martin. She could see now that it was because she had out-grown all the good hiding places. One kid was under the table, lying on two chairs to keep him off the ground. Sarah could see two little socks over wiggly toes under Donovan’s desk. She saw a coat rack in the corner, with tiny costumes hanging from it. Underneath a shawl, Sarah could see half a bib of overalls and the back of Martin’s head. She rolled her eyes for convincing herself that Martin would decide to put them back on properly. Sarah whistled the tune of “When we do, something new." Martin turned around and peaked one eye from under the shawl. He held up his finger over his mouth in a shush. Sarah used her hands to illustrate pulling the shawl over her back. Martin nodded, and draped the shawl over both of his shoulders. “Soody! Weady or not! Hewe I come!"

Martin wasn’t the last kid to be found, his feet gave him away, but he was close. Afterwards, Sarah was ready to take him home. Donovan asked Martin if he had fun, then he asked if everyone had fun with Martin, which the children answered with a resounding yes. He had everyone say good bye to Martin, and Martin headed to the locker room with a smile threatening to get stuck that way. Sarah helped him back into his shoes, and took him back to the car. “You have fun today?"

“Yeah! Lots! My oh my, lots!”

Sarah laughed and hugged Martin’s head to her side for a moment. “Yeah? Tell me all about your day."

“Well, we got to colouw, and then Donovan let us all make a volcano bubble! It’s like when we put vinega imbaking soda and it goes fooooof!” Martin held his arms out. “We all got a tun. And then we did math and I was weally good, once I lund all the numbas again to wead. And then we had lunts, it was vedzebles but Donovan gave us hummus, and it made them weally good, have you eva used hummus fo dip? It’s weally good and then we played duck duck goose oh no that was before, and then we did wiggle wum so we wa all still and quiet fo the stowy." Martin stopped talking and walking to give himself a shake. “Brrrr."

“You cold?”

“No!!!” Martin clasped his hands over his mouth. “Sowwy fow yelling, I dzust had so muts fun, I cang calm down."

“It’s okay, Bubba. Just take a breath.”

“And then we did hide and seek, and I hid behind the dress-up costooms, and then you whistled to let me know you wah theh and you signed to hide bettew, wemembew?”

“Yes, Bu-”

“And then I did and then I was thwee before last and we went home and I said good bye and you helped my sooes on and then I told you about my day and then.” Martin looked around, and then up to Sarah. “How am I in my cahseat?"

“I put you in there, like a second ago.”

“Oh, that was fast.”

Sarah chuckled and closed the door. Then she went around and climbed into the driver’s seat. “So, you wanna go back tomorrow?"

“Yeah!” Martin stretched over and picked his back-pack off the floor. “Oh yeah. Donovan gave me a sopping list fo you. I need school supplies."

“Oh good!”

Martin dug around in the bag. “Oh, I fowgot." Martin pulled a piece of paper. “I dwew a piksa fo you." Martin leaned forward and handed Sarah the paper.

“Oh?” Sarah took the paper. A drawing of four basic blob figures, with smileys drawn on them, with frizzy lines pointing out from the two tall figures, and short straight lines coming off of the two small figures. “Wow, this is really good."

“Yeah, iss me, you, Gavin and Bwianne, see?”

“I can see that.” Sarah handed Martin the paper.

“No thats fo you to pud on the fwidz, thass what mommies do.”

Sarah chuckled. “Yes, I was gonna do that. I was just gonna ask you to hold onto it for me until we get home. I don’t have anywhere up here to put it."

“But iss going on the fwidz?”

“Yes, it’s going on the fridge.”

Martin leaned forward and took the drawing. “Good."

Part 64:

It had been a long five weeks for Elliot, and an even shorter summer. Once they entered Yukon and passed the arctic circle, things got cold really fast. The sun, the one thing that made summer summer, turned into Elliot’s greatest nemesis. With the sun refusing to set, sleep eluded Elliot. Summer had also been ruined by the lack of swimming. Every river in this part of the country was glacial-fed, which even in southern areas wasn’t so bad in shallow waters. After several attempts to adjust to the water, Elliot was certain he had set the re-descension of his testicles back at least two years.

The worst summer of his life had the courtesy to end early, followed by roughly two weeks of autumn. What little trees there were either lost their leaves, or the bright green pines turned to a dark green like the needles that came previous summers. Elliot understood why they had to stop at a department store back in British Columbia: they were going straight into the thick of winter. Thick indeed, as Elliot had to wear half a dozen layers: underwear, long underwear, pyjamas, a t-shirt, sweatpants, a pullover, snow pants, a hoodie, and a jacket, along with thick mittens that made grasping anything nearly impossible. Elliot had never imagined himself clubbing a seal until he had seen for himself exactly why the Inuit turn them into coats. Lucky for the seals, they didn’t go to the Arctic coast. Or maybe lucky for Elliot. Death by Seal is not how I see myself killing off a character. Elliot glared at his parents when he stepped outside. “I can’t move."

Kathy shook her head. “Yes you can."

“Barely.” Elliot waved his arms. “I feel like I have the flexibility of- well, me at nineteen."

Derek shrugged. “So it’s no big deal for you."

“I have too many clothes. What if I have to go to the bathroom?”

Tiana shrugged. “You wearing bedtime pants?"

Elliot huffed through his nostrils. “No."

“Then you won’t be warm for long.”

Elliot glared at his cousin. “It’s easy to be cavalier about frostbite when you don’t have a dink to freeze off."

Kathy grimaced. “Ellie, come on!"

“Dad gets it.”

Derek nodded. “He’s got a point."

His family actually liked Elliot’s bickering. He was acting like his old dramatic self again, something they hadn’t seen since he was nineteen. It made Tiana uneasy, because it reminded her of when Elliot was jonesing for internet access when they were out of cell-reception. She should have listened to him when he said “we have to get out of this fucking town."

But for all their misfortunes, they all would have one good memory from this summer: the Aurora Borealis. The green bands dancing in the sky left them in awe every time, and the wonder never dissipated. The snow glew in such a brilliant green that if you tried to show someone a dictionary to correct them on the past tense of glow, they would be in too much awe to acknowledge you. Dictionaries be damned. After Kathy and Derek went to bed, Elliot and Tiana sat outside the camper one night, staring up at the sky. “Has anything ever made you feel so small?" Elliot stopped staring at the sky to glare at his cousin. Tiana looked down and chuckled. “Okay, bad choice of words."

Elliot nodded. “I’ll say." Elliot looked back up to the sky. “Think I’ll have to go to school?"

Tiana glanced at her cousin, then looked back to the sky. “Not if you don’t want. You’re still an adult, on at least some of your birth certificates. It’s your choice."

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“I may be an adult, but I’m not full-grown. I tell a nanny it’s my decision, they-” Elliot shrugged. “I don’t actually know what they do when they can’t refresh someone."

“Fuck that. You don’t answer to them. They answer to you. If anything you can turn to Brianne.”

Elliot nodded, and rubbed the ear of his stuffed bunny. “That’s the nanny I mean."

“Ellie, we almost lost you. You get that, right?”

Elliot shook his head. “It would have been better if you did."

“Fuck you it would.”

“I can remember things now. When I. You know. Maoghoj. Brianne says it’s just as hard being a baby because they still have stuff to learn.”

Tiana nodded. “The reason we grow up, she calls it."

Elliot nodded. “But she’s wrong. It’s easier when I don’t remember who I am. Or what I lost. My life. My friends. My kid."

Tiana was once again aware of the ache in her scar. “You realize we’re cousins?"

Elliot nodded. “I’m aware."

“Why didn’t you say so?”

“You were smoking. Deliberately. It was obvious you wanted it gone.”

Tiana nodded. “Yeah. I did. Right up until it was."

Elliot shook his head. “Does that make us ships in the night? I wanted it right up until, well, I thought I was a kid. It’s embarrassing, really. Feel like an idiot for not noticing. You know what the weirdest thing about it all is?"

“What’s that?”

“My parents have known me since I was born. As a baby. As a kid. All the stupid shit I did as a kid. The stupid shit I thought. All those afternoons watching fucking stupid shows. And yet they still like me. Like, they aren’t embarrassed to be seen with me.”

Tiana chuckled. “Yeah, that’s kind of alarming."

Elliot giggled. “Yeah. What the fuck is wrong with them?"

Tiana noticed the stuffy in Elliot’s lap. He had been carrying it more and more these days. “Have you given him a name?"

Elliot looked down. “Oh, ['e.'dʒyn]. It’s always been Ejün." They heard the door open and saw Kathy come out. “Hey, Mom."

“Hey guys. What are you doing up?” Kathy came over to sit beside Elliot.

“Watching the northern lights.”

Tiana recognized the ü sound, but neither of them spoke French or German. “Is that from the family language?" Elliot nodded. “What’s it mean?"

“Stuffed animal.”

Tiana rolled her eyes. “Not the most creative name, but okay."

Kathy chuckled. “It means rabbit, Ellie."

Elliot grimaced. “Then why did we call my bear, my dog, and my turtle /'edʒynæɣ/?"

Kathy smiled. “Cute story. I was going through a letter book on animals with you, teaching you to talk, and rabbit came up." Kathy poked the bunny in Elliot’s lap. “I used this very stuffy to show you. Of course the difference between Ejün and the others didn’t click. And you started calling all stuffed animals Ejün. So that’s the word for stuffy now."

Elliot giggled. “That’s stupid. How did that even catch on?"

Kathy shrugged. “Well it was just me, Brianne, Calvin, and grandma who spoke our language, so it didn’t take long at all."

Tiana saw Elliot’s wistful smile, and looked back up at the sky. The aurora was much more gratifying than self-pity. Elliot’s regressed accent made Tiana feel like an outsider. With only faded memories of her father, and her time in a halfway house, Tiana didn’t speak her family’s language. Elliot, Kathy, and Brianne were all native speakers. Even her Uncle Derek could speak it with some competence. Tiana left them and went inside to sleep.

Elliot sighed. “I don’t wanna go to school. I’m not a kid. Not between the ears. I don’t wanna sit around and eat glue all day."

Kathy rubbed Elliot’s back. “Is that what you’ve been worried about?”

Elliot nodded. “If or when we go back. Not sure what we’ll do.”

Kathy nodded. “Okay, Honey. I never said you had to."

“Thank you.” Elliot leaned into his mom, and after a while of watching the aurora, a car pulled up. A moment after the car lights turned off, Elliot’s eyes adjusted to the green light of the night sky, and tightened his arms around his mother’s arm. “It’s a nanny. I know her."

Kathy turned her head to the camper, keeping her eyes on the woman walking towards the camper. “Derek! Tea! We’ve got company!"

Lauren held her hands up, holding nothing but a piece of paper. “I come in peace." Lauren smiled at Elliot. “Good to see you again."

Elliot grimaced. “Okay."

Lauren watched Derek and Tiana step out, noticing Tiana keeping one hand behind her back. Lauren looked back to Elliot. “Still sour about the chili fiasco?"

Elliot shrugged. “The chili fiasco, the milk fiasco, the spaghetti fiasco."

Kathy stood up. “Can we help you?"

“The chairwoman sends a message.” Lauren giggled at the Kathy’s look of horror. “Ah, you haven’t heard the news." Lauren smirked at Elliot. “Reception that bad out here?" Elliot squinted at her and she looked back to Kathy. “Brianne’s big cheese. The Queen Brie."

Elliot was the only one who joined Lauren in giggling. He looked to his dad and smiled. “Brie’s a type of cheese."

Derek nodded. “Yeah, I got it, Ellie."

Lauren forced an awkward frown. “Tough crowd." Lauren held the piece of paper out, and froze when Tiana pointed a revolver at her. “I’m unarmed, and if you’re going to keep it behind your back, you may as well shoot when you draw."

Tiana nodded, cocking the hammer back. “You think so?"

Lauren shook her head. “I’d rather you not." Tiana wasn’t even aiming, but she was still too far for Lauren to do anything about her. “It’s really wet in this area. I can’t really drop a note on the ground."

Tiana shrugged. “Then take it with you."

Elliot stood up. “Oh for fuck sakes."

Kathy watched her son approaching Lauren. “Elliot! You’re small!"

“She’s Brianne’s employee. I’m not scared of her.” Elliot held his hand out. “Give."

“I was told to give it to your mom.”

“I won’t tell.”

“Very well.” Lauren handed Elliot the note, then jerked it back out of his reach. “But the line between bravery and stupidity is paper thin." And again, she handed Elliot the note. “Very easy cross. Remember that."

Elliot side-eyed Lauren as he turned to his mother, and then handed her the note. Kathy opened it up and read it.

ᑌᓀᐁᒃ,

ᑄᔒᐝᑦ ᑺᐃᑎᐃᑫᐁ ᐼᐃᓴᐊᑦ ᓱᒃ ᔐᑾᑡᐝᒃ ᐼᔅᑑᐯᐁᓶᐁ ᐼᐃᓴᐝᒡ. ᐼᔅᑙᑲᐃᐝᒻᓄᓪ ᑗᑀᒦ ᑝᐃᑶᐺᐁ ᑙᑯᒧᐃᑗᐁ ᓚᐃᐝᔾ ᐼᐃᓴᐊᑦ. ᑲᐃᑗᐁᒐᓜᐁ ᔗᐁᑕᐃ ᓸᒶᐝᓪ. ᓢᐃᑦ ᓄᐅᑴᓪ ᓄᐅᑴᓚᐊ ᕴᔥᑎᑂᐝᓪ.

ᔡᐃᒴᐆᓅᔅ ᐸᒍᐃᑦ ᓱᒃ ᓭᑾᐅ ᕴᔥᑎᑂᐝᓪ. ᐼᔅᑙᑲᐃᐝᒻᓄᓗᒦ, ᓢᐃᑦ ᑝᐃᑶᑀᒦ ᑲᐅᑏ ᔓᑡᐊᔔᐝᓪ.

-ᐼ

“Did you read this?”

Lauren scoffed. “I looked at it, if that’s what you’re asking."

Kathy nodded. “Is that all?"

Lauren nodded and went back to her car. “I suppose it is. Be seeing you."

Elliot muttered under his breath. “It’ll be too soon." Once Lauren was back in her car, Elliot looked up at his mom. “You think it’s a trap?"

Kathy put her hand on Elliot’s head. “Come on, Ellie. Let’s go inside."

Tiana nodded, watching Lauren’s car pull away. “I think I’ll stay outside for a while."

Derek nodded. “I’ll join you."

Part 65:

Brianne sat across from Nancy, with her eyes staring out the window. The headphones connected to the armrest played the radio from the flight deck.

“Leer jet November Niner Charlie Three One Four, Cleared for take-off, Runway one-eight.”

“Cleared for take-off, Leer jet Three One Four.”

The engines roared to life. The runway moved faster and faster beneath her until it was a band of streaks shooting across her vision. A sensation of heaviness, and the horizon pitching forward announced they were off the ground, and Brianne watched the city fall behind her, followed by the valley, and then the mountains. Brianne could see Nancy’s lips moving, and decided that three minutes was enough time cut off from the world, and took her headphones out.

Nancy smiled. “You always loved takeoff. Even as a baby.”

“Nicest moment I get these days.”

“Would you mind walking me through the plan?”

Brianne nodded “I would. All you need to know is that once we land, they’ll come pick you up. Sarah will handle the refreshment while I’m gone.”

“Why waste fuel? We can fly with Jacob can’t we?”

Brianne shook her head. “Sarah’s still new. Having the parents around can be counterproductive. You’ll see him once you’re back in Outreach.”

Nancy leaned back and sighed. “Okay then. So what’s going to happen to him?”

“I’ll feed him something on the flight to give him a fever-”

“Whoa!” Nancy held her hands up. “I told you, his immune system is weak.”

“It’s not a real fever, Nancy. It’s just to trigger an immune response. There won’t be a real infection.”

Nancy scowled in horror. “To what end?”

“To make him feel cared for. Build trust, that sort of thing. He’s been sick a lot, so it’s a good avenue. Sarah’s a medical doctor. They’ll get along swimmingly.”

Nancy sighed and shook her head. “Then what?”

“Then we walk him back. You can see him in between treatments, and once he’s two you can take him home.”

“Two? I want to give him another chance, but not that many seconds.”

Brianne shook her head. “Look, kids don’t take it well if they’re still lucid.” Brianne rolled her eyes when she thought of Martin. “Usually. There has been precedent of walking them back to five, but most of them didn’t take.” Then she thought of Elliot and suppressed a frown. She had gone years without seeing him, but this last month was agony. Last time she saw him he was a baby-brained five-year old, and before that, he was banging his fists on her, begging for her to be his aunt again. She had to keep herself from imagining what he must be going through. Is he scared?

“Can we at least try?”

Brianne looked out the window, thinking about how she “just tried” with Elliot, and then she remembered seeing him in the hospital, curled up into a ball underneath a blanket. Is he lonely? Or banging his tiny fists on her belly with nothing but hatred for her. Is he angry? That was what she got for trying to both keep Ellie and keep her mother happy. Brianne looked back to Nancy. “I refuse.”

“Brie, he’s my son, I know undoing the bad means undoing the good, but do we have to undo all of it?”

Is he himself?

Brianne realized she would rather have Elliot miserable than not have him at all. Elliot would hate her for that, which made her feel a tiny bit of self-loathing on his behalf. “Fine, we can try. But if it fails, we’re going the whole way.”

At the other end of the plane, Sarah sat with Martin on her lap, with her seatbelt over the two of them. Gavin sat across from them, fidgeting with his seatbelt, and giggling at the G-force of the plane pulling him forward and down. Martin watched out the window as the horizon rose above them, with very little force pulling him towards the window. “Wow! Look Sewah! Thewe’s the obzetovy!”

“That’s right, that’s the observatory.”

Martin giggled. “It’s so tiny now.”

“Yup, that’s 'cause it’s so far down.”

Martin watched the horizon dip back down. “Oh no, it’s gone.” Martin gasped as the clouds and sky disappeared into a gray haze. “Whewe’d the sky go!?”

Sarah giggled and bounced her knee under Martin. “Shhh. We’re just passing through a cloud.”

Martin stared out the window and gasped. “Wooowwww.” The cloud passed, revealing the blue sky, and Martin could see the clouds below the plane. “Sewah! Look! We’we hiya than clouds now!”

“Yup, we sure are.”

“How high do we have to be to be hiya than clouds?”

“Depends on the cloud I guess.” Sarah noticed Martin staring at her. “Go on, you’re missing the sky.”

“But how muts?”

Sarah turned and peeked her head into the aisle. “How high do you think we are, Brianne?”

Brianne turned to face the flight deck. “What’s our altitude at, Steve?”

“Five-three hundred!”

Brianne repeated the pilot. “Five-three hundred.”

Martin grimaced at Sarah. “Five-thwee hundwed?”

“Five thousand and three hundred feet.”

“Why did they say five-thwee hundwed?”

“Well, you know how the radio sounds fuzzy sometimes?” Martin nodded. “Well, it gets fuzzy for them too. And pilots need to understand air traffic control, and air traffic control needs to hear them. So they say the individual digits instead of the whole number.”

Martin squinted. “Individzuel.”

“It means each digit one at a time.”

Martin held up three fingers and smiled. “So is thwee an individzuel didzit?”

“That’s right.”

Martin leaned over to look down the aisle. “Bwianne!” Martin held three fingers up. “I’m an indivizuel.”

Brianne stared at Martin for a moment and nodded. “Wow Martin, that’s impressive.”

Martin sat back up straight and smiled. “I impwessed Bwianne.”

Sarah giggled. “Yeah you sure did.”

Nancy smiled at Brianne. “What was that about?”

Brianne waved her hand. “Oh who knows. Kid’s not mushing with all eight huskies.”

“Is he a charge?”

“He was. Not completely refreshed.”

“I thought that was unhealthy?”

Brianne sighed and looked out the window. “It can be.”

Part 66:

A car was supposed to come pick Jacob up in the morning. He would be flying out to a medical center to try a newly approved treatment. Jake had been sick much of his life. A cold was a monthly occurence, strep throat had become scarlet fever three times in his life. Asthma left him open to all sorts of complications from resperatory infections, with several spans of a week or two spent in hospital for croup. Even when he wasn’t sick, school was exhausting and boring. Jake had neither the patience to pay attention in class, or complete his homework. Although he had already gotten a detention three weeks into grade nine, he wouldn’t have to do homework for a while. That is if the car ever showed up.

The morning became afternoon, and the afternoon was inching towards the evening. Jake was left sitting on his bed, with his back against his suitcase, playing on his phone, or his DS or even working on his homework. He couldn’t find anything on the internet about newly approved treatments for poor immune systems. He found lots of experimental treatments, and he also found out that as a minor, his parents wouldn’t need to inform him of any decisions to place him into experimental trials. Though if he was taking something experimental, his parents wouldn’t be staying behind to catch up on work, would they?

Nancy was sitting on the couch, staring out the window when the car finally pulled up. She stood up and went outside just as Brianne was leaving the car. “You took your time.”

“Busy afternoon with the kids. Is he ready?”

Nancy nodded. “We’ve been waiting all day.” Nancy went inside and called down the hall. “Jake, the car’s here.” Jacob followed his mom’s voice with his suitcase behind him. “Okay, you got your toothbrush?”

“Yes.”

“Underwear?”

Jacob glanced at the woman in the doorway and blushed. “Mom! I got everything.”

“Okay, I’m just checking.” Nancy ran her hands through her son’s hair, then straightened the hem of his shirt, and then nodded. “Okay, all good?”

Jacob nodded and hugged his mom. “Love you.”

“Love you too.” Nancy hugged her son back.

Jacob broke away and nodded at Brianne. “Hi, you must be my mom’s friend.”

“You must be Jacob. Brianne Pembroke.” Brianne offered her hand.

Jacob shook Brianne’s hand. “Are you the doctor?”

Brianne shook her head. “No. Just a chaperon. You won’t need a doctor until will get to the centre.”

Jacob nodded and began walking. “Bye mom.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow.” Nancy stepped to the door and nodded at Brianne, then looked back to the back of her son’s head. “I love you.”

“Love you too!”

It took way less time getting through security than any other time Jacob had flown. He still had to check his bag, take his shoes off, walk through a scanner with his devices in a bin, and a quick swab of his hands to check for trace chemicals. This was all done through a line separate from the rest of the airport, one which you wouldn’t be able to tell existed because it only consisted of Jacob and Brianne. Three security guards escorted them, one in front, and two behind them at either side, forming an equilateral triangle. They were escorted directly to parking, out onto the windy tarmac. The roar of a Boeing Triple Seven passing by made him deaf to anything else going on around him. He followed Brianne over to a Leerjet. The pilot waved and then waved for them to step in. Jacob went in and Brianne followed, leaving the guards behind. Jacob stuck his fingers in his ears and wiggled them around. The sudden silence made his ears feel sore, but he found out he could still hear after that noise.

Jacob could hear a little kid talking. “That was loud.”

A woman replied. “You didn’t plug your ears?”

“No, I did, it was still weally loud.”

“Well, the door’s closed now, Bubba.”

Brianne looked to Jacob. “Jake, this is Steve. He’ll be our pilot.”

Steve held his hand out and smiled. “Nice to meet you, Jake.”

Jacob shook the man’s hand and smiled. “Nice to meet you.”

Brianne nodded. “Okay, Steve. We’ll buckle up, while you request clearance.” Steve nodded and climbed back into the flightdeck. Brianne put her hand on the back of Jacob’s head to push him forward. Jacob walked into the cabin where a woman sat on a blanket with two little boys. “Jacob, this is Doctor Basset.”

Jacob nodded. “Hi. Are you my doctor?”

“Hopefully not the only one.” Sarah chuckled. Jacob grimaced in confusion. Sarah nodded. “I’m just a resident.”

Jacob shrugged. “What’s that mean?”

Martin interrupted the two. “Wanna play blocks?”

Brianne put her hands on Jacob’s shoulders. “He can’t Martin. We’re about to taxi.”

Martin grimaced. “I thought we wuh staying on the plane.”

Sarah patted Martin’s back. “She means the plane is going to taxi to the runway. That’s what planes do when they move without leaving the ground.”

Martin nodded. “Ooooh. Okay.” Martin stood up and climbed into his chair. Sarah lifted Gavin up and put him in the chair across from Martin. Brianne pointed to the seats next to the cockpit. “Please, have a seat right there.”

Jacob sat down and buckled up just as the engines hummed to life, and they began taxying to the runway.

Jacob was going to inquire about his treatment, but Brianne held her finger up once they were short of the runway. “I love take-offs.”

Jacob nodded. “I see that.”

Brianne looked at him. “It’s also really loud, so let’s wait until we’re somewhat close to cruising okay?”

The plane wobbled as it taxied onto the runway, and Jacob nodded as his head bobbled about. “Alright then.”

After take-off, and when the ping announced the seatbelt light turning off, Brianne looked away from the window to Jacob. “Sorry. What were you saying?”

“What exactly am I getting? Like, what kind of treatment?” Jake clenched his jaw and swallowed, wincing at the popping in his ears.

“Can’t remember the name. Something unpronouncable.”

“Because I looked into it, there’s nothing for immune function that’s been recently approved.”

Brianne nodded. “We’ll have to ask Sarah. Sarah! Could you come over here for a second.” Sarah unbuckled and stood up. Brianne looked back to Jacob. “Can I get you anything to drink?”

“Do you have cola?”

“I do. I’ll go get it.” Brianne stood up and exchanged seats with Sarah.

“You have a question for me?”

“I couldn’t find anything on newly approved treatments for my immune function.”

Sarah nodded. “Ah, well none of them are exactly new.”

“There’s more than one?”

Jake heard Brianne digging through the ice cubes in the cooler at the back of the plane. Sarah continued “The treatment we’re giving you depends on the underlying cause. Some people haven’t built up the antibodies needed, some have trouble with maintaining white blood cell count. The human body is very complex. Lots of things can go wrong, and when they do, we have to tailor a treatment to that specific problem.”

Brianne came over and handed Jacob a can of soda. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Brianne walked back over to Martin and Gavin.

Jacob nodded. “So what’s my problem?” Jake noticed a lot of water built up on the rim of the can and slurped it off before opening it. This made Sarah tense up. “Was that rude?” Jacob licked his lips when he noticed the water was far sweeter than any tap water.

Sarah gave her head a shake at Jake licking the water off of the can. “Oh no. Just thought of something I forgot for my grocery list.”

Jacob nodded as he opened the can. “Ah.”

“Anyways. We’re not sure yet. We have your medical records but we want to double-check in case they missed anything.”

Jacob nodded. “That’s doctor for you think they’re idiots.”

Sarah smiled and nodded. “The first few days will be spent running tests. You won’t have to waste your time in hospital for all of that. You just need to come in so we can take some samples and then you’re on your way.”

Jacob shrugged. “My parents won’t be there until tomorrow, where am I gonna go?”

Sarah nodded. “Your parents have a hotel room for you. Brianne will chaperon you there until your parents arrive.”

Jacob felt a warm and fuzzy feeling washing over him. He started to feel uncomfortable talking about a visit to the hospital, even if it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for him.

Sarah forced a smile. “You’re nervous?”

Jacob stared at Sarah and shrugged. He looked out the window. “Whatever.”

Sarah smiled. “It won’t hurt.”

Jacob could feel his heart beating faster. He wasn’t nervous until Sarah pointed out there were things to be nervous about, like needles, tubes, and doctors. “Do you mind if I just play on my DS?”

“Nah, by all means.” Jacob reached under his seat for his carry on and dug out his DS. Sarah glanced back at Gavin and Martin. “My son’s chatting with Brianne, I barely get alone time. You mind if I sit here?”

Jacob nodded as he put his headphones in. “Yeah, sure.” Sarah nodded and stared out the window.

As exciting as it was to see the opening screen for his game, Jacob was finding it far from a relief. His heart was still pounding and his breath was shallow and rapid. Sarah noticed the sweat on Jacob’s forehead, along with the rise and fall of his chest, and his carotid artery beating against the skin of his neck. She stared back out the window. Before she refreshed Martin, Brianne had already given her the gears about intervening during a panic attack too soon. It was more effective to let them stew for a minute or two. Instead, she just let out a subtle shiver and took her sweater off of her waist and onto her arms and torso, putting her hands in her pockets and grasping the asthma inhaler inside.

Stuck in a cramped cabin, with nothing to pass the time except for a DS and a cellphone that wouldn’t have reception at this altittude, Jacob had nothing else to calm himself. “Where’s my mom?”

Sarah nodded. “Ah. You had separation anxiety as a kid?”

“As a kid. What’s that got to do with anything?” Jacob poked his head into the aisle to scan the cabin. Jacob sat back against his chair.

Sarah’s eyebrows furrowed in worry. “Jake, are you okay?”

Jacob shook his head. “I’m not feeling so well.”

“You look like you’re having a panic attack.”

“No, I’m just nervous.”

“That’s not nervous.” Sarah reached over and grabbed his bag. “Do you have anything for anxiety?”

Jacob leaned forward to grab his bag away from her. “Hey that’s mine.”

Sarah returned the grab with a swift swat on the hand and continued digging through. “Ah, this’ll do.” Sarah pulled out Jacob’s asthma inhaler and scanned the perscription information. “Salbutamol Sulfate. Perfect.”

Jacob shook his head as she stood up to kneel next to him. “No, that’ll only make it worse.”

“Jake, you need to breathe. Open up.”

Jacob pushed her hand away. “No. It’ll only make my heart go faster.”

Sarah sighed and looked down the cabin. “Brianne, could you bring the spacer?”

Jacob glared at Sarah, still hyperventilating. “What’s a spacer?”

Jacob got his answer from Brianne, who was walking over with an asthma spacer, a tube with a funnel to go over a mouth. The chamber would fill with the aerosol to allow the child to inhale it with multiple breaths. He hadn’t had to use one since he was four. Brianne handed Sarah the spacer, and she attached his inhaler to it. Then she held it up to him. “Okay, hold still.”

Jacob turned his head away. “No! I said it’ll only make it worse!”

Brianne stood behind his seat and held his head by the jaw. “Do what the doctor says.”

Jacob started to whine as Sarah put the inhaler over his mouth. This doctor was going to send him into a spiral, and he wondered what would happen if she didn’t have anything to calm him down in her own bag. “I want my mommy.”

Sarah pressed down on the inhaler, releasing a dose of the aerosol into the chamber of the spacer. To his surprise, he was starting to feel better and calmer. “I know. You miss her so much. Okay, deep breaths.” Jacob took a few breaths and found he was able to breath deeper and slower.

His eyes started to flutter as Brianne rubbed his hair. “Such a brave boy. One more for the road?”

Sarah nodded. “That might be prudent.” Sarah released another dose and Jake started to feel sleepy. His eyelids were sticking together with each blink, until finally he couldn’t open them.

Brianne smiled down at the boy. “Nap time.”

Part 67:

Elliot sat on the counter with a plastic tray of poutine on his lap. He made sure to eat as little cheese curds with his fries as possible, to save them all for the end. “Are we gonna die?” Kathy, Derek and Tiana sat at the dining table across from the counter. The three of them looked up from their food and glared at Elliot. Elliot shrugged. “It’s possible.”

Tiana looked back down to her zucchini sticks and shook her head. “It’s inevitable.”

Kathy grimaced. “Tea.”

Tiana looked to Elliot. “Ellie, did you know you’re gonna die some day?”

Elliot nodded. “Yeah.”

Tiana smiled at her aunt. “See? No big?”

Elliot shrugged. “I wonder if I can die.”

Kathy held dropped her fork onto her fish to point at Elliot. “Let’s not add that to your list of problems.”

Elliot gulped down a bite of fries and reached for the soda sitting next to him. “There’s a list?”

Derek sighed. “Okay, let’s be real for a second. Kat. Could you explain the situation to us?”

Kathy nodded. “Okay. Here’s what we know. When we left Outreach, Brianne was going to stop mom from going after Elliot, a critical resource to the company. She gave us new identities, that somehow the company wouldn’t know about. God help us, it seemed to have worked for a month. Now, a note claiming to be from Brianne has said mom isn’t a threat and Brianne is the chairwoman.”

Elliot gulped down his soda. “Claiming to be?”

“We can’t know it’s from Brianne until we go there and ask her. I’m just being honest.”

Tiana grimaced in horror. “You’re not sure it’s her.”

“I think it is. She signed it with her first initial, but she signed it with a V, even though her name starts with an ambi. But she was never literate in Uyoshot. She can speak it fine, but mom wasn’t around to teach her to read it. By the time she got around to it, she was more comfortable with an alphabet than an abugida.”

“What’s an adubiga?”

“Abugida, Ellie. It means consonants change to indicate their associated vowels. I’ll teach you about scripts later, the point is.”

Elliot interrupted holding his hand up to twist his fingers around. “Oh, like how our letters turn around and have dots?”

Kathy held her hand up and nodded. “If Brianne failed, then mom is trying to trick us into coming back.”

Elliot nodded. “And then we die.”

Kathy wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “Mom won’t kill us, Ellie.”

Tiana shook her head. “She’ll turn us into babies, though.”

Elliot nodded. “With my own tears.”

“Then we’ll all be brothers and sisters, instead of mothers and husbands and fathers and uncles and aunts and cousins.”

Elliot nodded. “Nice Rainman impression.” Tiana glared at her cousin. Elliot sighed. “Except for me. You guys’ll grow up without me.”

Derek put his fork into his pasta and nodded. “Okay, so we can either risk it, or stay on the run in the arctic. The money Brianne left us could be used to rebuild until she comes to find us herself. Or live off of diner food for the rest of our lives. Or we go back, and risk being worse off than Ellie, leaving him worse off than us. Show of hands, who wants to go back?”

Derek looked around to see his son, wife, and niece scanning each other for someone raising their hand. “Who wants to drive as far from Outreach as we possibly can?” Derek raised his hand, along with his son, wife, and niece.

Part 68:

A strap pulling into his abdomen awoke Jacob as his head lifted up and fell back into the mattress. Jacob gasped for breath as he opened his eyes. The strap over his stomach had winded him. He saw the roof of the cabin above him, and the plane rumbled all around him. He sat up and saw the fleece Bugs Bunny blanket over him, and Brianne sitting across the aisle from him. She held her hand up. “Stay right there.”

Jacob tugged at the strap, and realized the dampness at his legs wasn’t from sweat. “Why?”

“We’re just landing now.”

Jacob squirmed until the strap was at his hip. He sat up looked out the window to see the runway outside his window coming to a halt. Finally the plane lurched forward and moved to exit the runway. Normally, landing terrified him, but he was glad he was still waking up by the time it was over. When the seatbelt light turned off, Brianne stood up and came over to Jacob. She sat at the edge of the bed. She pulled the blanket away and gasped. “Oh no, Jake. What happened?”

Jacob scrambled to grab the blanket. “It’s nothing.”

“Honey, that’s not nothing. Are you feeling alright?” Brianne put her hand to Jacob’s forehead. Jacob held still and stared at her. “Oh dear. You’re burning up.”

“Am I? I feel cold.” Jacob put his hands to his forehead. “Oh no.” Jacob knew he was sick again. Probably from the little snot-monsters roaring around the cabin.

“It’s okay. Sarah will have something, I’m sure.”

Jacob shook his head. “There’s no cure for the common cold.”

Sarah chuckled from down the cabin. “No, but there are ways to forget you have a cold.”

“Does she have to be here?”

Brianne chuckled, and brushed Jacob’s cheek with her knuckles. “She’s your doctor, silly.” Brianne’s pager beeped and she checked the display.

Alias: Eckhart - wanted for questioning, vancouver, RCMP. Inquiry.

Brianne sighed. “Steve. How tired are you?”

Steve climbed out of the flightdeck and shrugged. “I could use a nap.”

“How does six hours sound? With overtime?”

Steve nodded. “Done.”

Brianne put her pager back in her pocket. “You’re the best.” Brianne looked to Jacob. “Okay, do you have a change of clothes?”

Jacob nodded. “I don’t know how it happened.”

Brianne shook her head and put her hand on Jacob’s shoulder. “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before. Go to the bathroom, and get dressed. If you have protection, you might want to wear it.”

“Protection?”

“For accidents?”

Jacob shook his head. “Oh no no. I don’t have any.”

“Ah fair enough. We’ll grab some on the way to the hotel.”

“No no. I don’t need-”

“I got a mattress that says you do. Go get dressed. Now.” Jacob went to the bathroom and Brianne called out. “Your bag.”

Jacob went to the front of the cabin, walking past Sarah, Martin and Gavin. Martin coughed at the smell of stale pee and whispered to Sarah. “He peed his pants.”

“Martin, don’t be rude.”

But rude he had been. Jacob kept his gaze averted from the three on his way back to the bathroom, in hopes that they wouldn’t notice the face warm with both fever and embarrassment.

Brianne stepped out of the plane to see Jason with several guards. “Ma’am. Did you get my page?”

“Just a minute ago. I’ll be wheels up in six hours.”

Jason nodded. “Good.”

Brianne stepped down onto the tarmac and stretched her back and arms. “Any idea what they want?”

Jason glanced into the plane and nodded. “Just about the last time you saw Talbot.”

“Then it’s no trouble. Your page said I’m not a suspect. What are you so worried about?”

“It’s after your mother’s deposition.”

“It’s always going to be after my mother’s deposition.”

Jason sighed. “I suppose so.”

Brianne nodded. “Thanks for looking out for me. Now bugger off, I got a charge.”

Jason bowed. “Ma’am.”

Brianne turned to see Jacob through the windows, walking to the end of the plane. Sarah was carrying Gavin, holding Martin by the wrist and lowering him down each step. Martin was giggling away as Sarah lifted him after each step. “Jake’s just getting his stuff.”

Jacob found this airport odd. It was tiny, yes, but he had to go through another set of security checkpoints to exit. The weirder part of this journey was the limo waiting for them. “Can my parents afford all this?”

Brianne laughed. “The province covers medical expenses, silly.”

Jacob slouched at being called silly. “I meant the limo and the plane.”

“Oh. No, this is my limo.” Jacob seemed more perplexed. “Your mom’s an old family friend.”

“Oh. How d’you know her?”

“She was my nanny.”

Sarah interrupted. “You had a Nanny?”

Brianne glared at Sarah for a moment. “Believe or not, my family is quite wealthy.”

“Ah, I see.”

Brianne nodded and looked back to Jacob. Jacob shrugged. “I thought you looked familiar.”

“I’m surprised you remember me at all. Last time I saw you, you were still a baby.”

Martin interrupted. “Uh-oh.”

Sarah looked down to her son. “Martin.” Martin took a deep breath and burped. “Martin! Don’t be gross.”

“I was burping. The burp was the uh-oh.” Martin winked at Sarah.

Sarah nodded. “Clever kid.”

Jacob rolled his eyes at the weird kid. “I thought she only nannied the two kids, Kathleen and Calvin.”

“Nope, also me. Those are my brother and sister. They’re a bit older.”

“Ah. I see.” Jacob felt the itch in his lungs, and reached into his bag for his inhaler.

Brianne flinched at the sight of the inhaler. “Sarah, did you?”

Sarah nodded, and the two watched Jacob. Jacob’s lungs opened up, and the wheezing stopped, but the sleepiness came back on, and he remembered take-off, when they forced him to take another dose. He looked at his inhaler as his eyes fell shut. “Did you do something to my-” Jacob’s head fell foreward and his hand fell down.

Brianne sighed. “Out like a light.” Brianne glared at Sarah.

Sarah shrugged. “I didn’t want him to see two at the same time.”

Brianne nodded and looked at Jacob. “Welp. That was a freeby. I gotta fly out in a few hours. You mind watching the kids?”

Sarah sighed. “I suppose I could.”

Part 69:

Brianne sat in the interview room. The tabletop was made of woodchips mashed and glued together, covered with linoleum painted to look like a solid cut of wood. It was the closest thing to nature in the room. The concrete walls and florescent lights made the room feel sterile and empty. The wireless headphone hidden in her ear played Jason’s voice. “I don’t like this.”

Brianne covered her mother, scratching at her nose, and whispered “Jason. For the last time. I’m on camera.”

“Then just listen.” Brianne sat up straight and tensed her shoulders for a moment, as she glanced at the door for anyone walking in. “They found one of our companies, they know you’re Sarah’s social worker.”

Brianne sighed, breathing words in a harsh whisper. “They were supposed to.”

“Not a month after a chairwoman has been dep-” Jason stopped talking when he head the door open.

Brianne looked up at the two detectives. Angela Cardinal nodded as her partner closed the door behind them. “Miss Ekhart. Thank you for coming so quickly.”

“My pleasure, Detective Cardinal. Here I was worried I took too long for you.”

The two detectives sat down. “Your work requires a lot of travel, eh?”

Brianne shrugged. “All over the province. But it rarely brings me into an interview room with two detectives. Am I in trouble?”

Angela smiled and shook her head. “Oh no. Of course not. But you do have a right to an attorney, if at any point you feel you need one.”

Brianne nodded. “That won’t be neccessary. I represent myself in all legal matters.”

Angela nodded while shrugging her lips and raising her eyebrows. “Oh? People say a lawyer who represents herself has a fool for a client.”

Brianne shrugged and stared at the detective. “Then it’s a good thing I’m not a lawyer.”

Angela and Brianne stared at each other for a moment. Angela noticed Brianne had a certain look of contempt in her eyes. Even Luca noticed the glare between the three of them. Normally suspects had a certain guardedness to them, but Brianne was as eased as she was adversarial. Somehow Brianne seemed to feel as powerful as the two detectives in the interogation room. They weren’t two sharks circling a fish. They were three sharks circling each other.

Angela started laughing and looked to Luca who joined in with her and Brianne. Brianne smirked and chuckled, tapping her finger on her leg underneath the table. Angela pointed at Brianne. “That’s a good one.”

“As nice as it is bantering with you two, I do have places to be. How can I help you two?”

“How do you know Martin Talbot?”

“I don’t.”

“Really? You had lunch with him with your friend Sarah Basset, did you not?”

“Can you really know someone after one lunch?”

Angela nodded. “Makes sense. Well, we understand you are friends with a Sarah Basset. Is that correct?”

“You mean the one you just mentioned?”

“Did I?” Angela looked to Luca. “Did I?”

Luca nodded. “When they had lunch with Talbot.”

“Oh of course. You’re friends with Sarah Basset, right?”

Brianne gave Angela the derisive look they were expecting. These two door-kickers thought they had something, and they wanted Brianne to think them oblivious. “Yes. She’s a darling woman. Pretty good, Doctor too.”

“You’re overseeing her adoption, right? That’s funny. A single doctor. With her hours, I didn’t think she’d have time for a kid.”

Brianne smirked. “Well, I’m sure what you think is very important. But sadly I can’t discuss my charges with you two.”

“Why ever not?”

“You’re investigating a man who had nothing to do with Sarah’s adoption. A certain confidentiality is expected of me.”

Angela gave Brianne a ponderous look. “Do you know how suspicious it looks when you don’t cooperate with us?”

Brianne frowned. “Oh my goodness, I don’t. Remind me, what’s the criminal code for looking suspicious?”

“We could get a warrant.”

Brianne smirked, stiffling a laugh. “Then get one.” Angela’s neckhair stood up. Brianne was challenging her. If the boy who pointed her to Brianne could buy a SWAT team, what could his enemy do? Angela was getting the impression that she was a pawn trying to outmaneuver a queen. “For now you don’t have one. Is there something relevant you’d like to ask me, or are we done?”

Angela nodded. “Just one more question. How do you know Sarah Renfrew?”

Brianne rolled her eyes. “I just told. What?”

Jason looked up from his computer screen. “Did she just say Renfrew?”

Angela smiled at Brianne’s guard falling. “Sarah Renfrew?”

Brianne heard Jason’s voice. “What the hell is happening?”

Brianne barred her teeth and curled her lip while she spoke. “Find out. Sundown.”

“Yes ma’am.” Jason switched channels on his headset. “Lion One, the call is Sundown. I repeat. The call is Sundown. Little Ivory.”

Lion One spoke. “Copy on Sundown. Lion One.”

“Communications cut. They’re not saying anything. Badger Three.”

Angela shrugged. “Sundown?”

Brianne took a stern voice. “Oh, you two have opened up a real can of worms.”

“Oh have we?”

Brianne heard Jason’s voice again. “Ma’am. Communications are cut. We are ready to breach on your command. Make the call.”

Brianne nodded. “You two must think you’re clever, but I know you didn’t find Renfrew’s name by yourselves, so let me explain the situation.”

Angela smiled and leaned back. “Please go on. Why don’t you remove that earwig while you’re at it.”

“Oh you don’t want me to do that. If I lose contact with my legal team, they’ll get very, very nervous.”

“So much for representing yourself.”

“I didn’t say they were lawyers. And this interview ends when that door opens. Right now my legal teams orders are ‘kill them all’, and if you’d like to keep them from doing so, you’ll listen.”

Angela scoffed through her nose. She wanted seem confident, but all she could think of was the boy in the parkade. “We can add threatening the lives of multiple police officers then.”

Brianne shook her head and smiled. “If you think you’re pressing charges, you aren’t paying attention. Who do you think Lucinda works for?” Angela’s face went white as a ghost, making Brianne chuckle. “Don’t blame your babysitter. She couldn’t help but give a good reference. Lucinda’s very good at building trust.”

Angela wanted to stand up and run home, but she had to keep Brianne talking. “I’m listening.”

“One. If you or any of your co-workers so much as mentions Sarah Renfrew’s name, or look into so much as the baker her parents frequented when she was a baby, I will use your daughter to demonstrate exactly what I did to Martin Talbot and it will be the last thing you see before you die.” Brianne watched Angela staring at her without motion, but she didn’t take any time to savour the moment. “Two, you will tell me who told you her name, and hand that folder and anything else you might have on this case. Three, you must let me walk out the front door and into my car within ten minutes of me saying Dusk.” Brianne nodded. “And I just said it.”

Jason nodded and switched channels.“Lion One, the call is Dusk. Be ready to Breach on my command. Little Ivory.”

“Copy on Dusk. Ready to Breach. Give the order. Lion One.”

“Team Cheetah moving into position. ETA forty seconds. Cheetah one.”

“Ma’am. The teams are ready to breach on my command.”

Brianne spoke with open scorn, thirsty to see Angela give her a reason to spill blood. “What’s it going to be, Detective?”