Chapter Description: After a crazy week, Clark is taken by Janet for a 'nice' trip the zoo.
PART 6: Descent
Chapter 60: “Nice”
In case you’ve forgotten or I haven’t been clear enough up until this point: Oakshire is a dump. Not a dump in the interesting sense, either. Misty Brook and the surrounding area is a dump due to social and economic disparity. It’s made by people who have learned to survive on scraps. Living in a trailer park sucks, but it doesn’t speak to the character of the people who make up a trailer park’s population. No one with any hope left in them chooses to live in places like Misty Brook. They live there because they have to, not because of choice.
Oakshire, on the other hand, is a cultural wasteland. It’s technically a city, but it’s not the kind of city that appears in movies or television. It’s simply not interesting enough to be worth filming. It’s got it’s basic luxuries like parks, shops, restaurants, and movie theaters. There’s malls and grocery stores and churches. It manages to maintain public transportation and city waste disposal. The people who settle in Oakshire struggle paycheck to paycheck and wait for retirement, but generally speaking most of their basic needs are met. Misty Brook is hard. Oakshire is just…’nice’.
It’s just that the people who settle down in Oakshire really are settling. Oakshire is the kind of sleepy little town where stuff like a public Winter Parade or an Elementary School’s Fall Carnival are regular big events because there’s very little else to do. It’s the kind of place where people brag about the interesting stuff and attractions being an hour or so’s drive away in the next city over; as if being interesting adjacent beats interesting. Oakshire is where you can make a day trip to an amusement park but not have to worry about a hotel. It’s…’nice’.
It’s the kind of place where the Amazons and Tweeners who have the means and motivation to do so leave when they’re able and never come back because there’s much more to the world than just ‘nice’. It’s the kind of place where the people who live there have an almost twisted sense of town pride based not on the fact that the people there have accomplished anything but because it’s ‘nice’ and not a trailer park.
And obviously, it’s also a place where even relatively careful Littles get suckered into living there. It’s where the housing market worked in their favor, and they fooled themselves into thinking the relative population density would ensure privacy while keeping them from getting snatched up and shoved into a stranger’s stroller like in an actual big city. Oakshire is the kind of place where settling, for a Little, can seem like a tempting paradise. Because ‘nice’ can seem like something worth settling for when your options seem severely limited.
I’d be lying if I said that any of this was going through my noggin while Janet pushed my fancy stroller along the pathways past overpriced concession stands to directional signs reading “Hippos”, “Birds”, and “Alligators”. Generally, people are unable to think and reflect in such clear and cynical undertones when their heart is racing and their attention is going every which way.
The pace was slow and the ride was incredibly smooth. That didn’t stop me breathing in and out like I was on a roller coaster. It had nothing to do with the animals. We were at the Oakshire Wildlife Gardens and Rehabilitation Clinic. I know I just said that Oakshire was a boring, if ‘nice’ cultural wasteland. Even cultural wastelands can have their curiosities.
Located on the edge of town opposite of Misty Brook, the Gardens was one such curiosity. Technically, it was a zoo and a place for veterinary students to get field experience without pay. Functionally, it was a place where broken wildlife got put on display and retired circus animals came to die slow boring deaths.
The Gardens didn’t have much in the way of fancy enclosures. No impressive recreations of natural habitats surrounded by twenty-foot walls. Just animals in cages. Lemurs got a big tree with a tire swing enclosed by chicken coop mesh on all sides. Deer got a field to graze in with barbed wire that they couldn’t jump. The small reptiles and fish got dark rooms and aquariums. Otters got a waterslide. No animal on display got what they really needed, even by the standards of a zoo, but everyone got something so that the zookeeper’s could feel good about themselves. The animals were kept in suboptimal conditions, but the walkways were clean and there were plenty of decorative plants enhancing the scenery so that it at least looked pleasant in the short term for the visitors.
If that wasn’t a metaphor…
Obviously, it wasn’t the poor animals that had me so on edge. Not counting the errands Janet had run to complete my adoption and transformation, this was my first time out in public as her ‘Little Boy’. The animals weren’t the only ones on display that day. Janet had dressed me up in one of Beouf’s toddler outfits: sunshine yellow shorts and a matching t-shirt to keep me cool. If the shorts had been a little baggier and a little higher waisted, it might have been easier to keep my cool.
“Look, Daddy!” An Amazon child; someone who was old enough to be in my class, “It’s a baby!”
Her father looked down, turned around from watching a bunch of alligators pretending to be logs, and said. “That’s not a baby, honey. That’s a Little. You can call him a baby, though. Close enough.”
It might have been calming to hide my face in my hands or to stick a pacifier in my mouth to relieve tension caused by embarrassment, but I had ‘accidentally’ decided to unclip the pacifier Janet had given me and ‘lost’ it in the cushioned folds of my stroller. I made do by chomping down on my anger and biting the sides of my tongue.
I was not going to curse out a child. I was not going to curse out a child. I was not going to curse out a child while her father was present. I was not going to curse out an Amazonian child while her father and Janet were present.
“Let’s go see the monkeys,” the dad said. He held his daughter’s hand, and the stroller stopped as the actual parent and child crossed our paths. In passing, the guy looked above the stroller and mentioned, “He’s cute.”
“Thanks!” I couldn’t see Janet but I could tell she was melting on the inside just from her voice. Some women want to be told they’re pretty. Others want to hear that their Littles are cute.
I inhaled and dug down deep not to scream in either fear or anger. Janet had been acting in remarkably good faith, recently, even for a baby crazy Amazon, (sspecially for a baby crazy Amazon). It was stupid of me, but I’d quietly decided not to put up a fight if I was able. Some part of me wanted to reward her.
More honestly, however, I just needed a break. I’d been adopted for slightly more than a week and resisted in what ways I could muster, but resistance is draining. It’s physically and psychologically hard to stay mad all the time. It’s difficult and draining to be on guard every minute of every day. It’s almost impossible to be sad and mourning everything that’s happened from the minute you wake up to the second you fall asleep. People just aren’t up for that, no matter their size.
It’s why people grieving can go days, weeks, or months in between crying over their dead loved ones. Bills need to be paid. Life needs to be lived. Work only has so much patience for your grief. The tears stop because you’re overwhelmed and it takes less energy to go along with the program and live with your remaining crappy life than it does to change it or even process it.
Same principle as to why captured Littles are suddenly ‘naughty’. Our Maturosis isn’t ‘flaring up’, it’s just that it’s sometimes easier to cry quietly and go back to sleep in wet pants than it is to put up a fight that’ll get us smacked back down in the crib. Then something else will come along and act as a catalyst and then we’ll grieve and process all over again how far we’ve fallen. If we’re lucky, we’ll see an opportunity and take it…
I’m getting off track though, and depending on who is reading this I’m either preaching to the choir or campaigning to the wrong party.
Point being, I wasn’t escaping this weekend, and I needed a break. If I saw Cassie, I would absolutely lose it. Otherwise, I would do my best to play ‘nice’.
Being strolled around the Gardens wasn’t all that bad. Oakshire was a cultural wasteland, and the technically-still-a-zoo was in that happy sweet spot of being a community landmark. Thus, everyone knew where it was, but hardly anyone went there. It’s like having a pool in your backyard. When you can go swimming anytime you take it for granted.
Old couples took leisurely walks, getting their exercises and viewing parrots and tortoises that were older than they were. They paid us no mind. Bored highschoolers leaned against posts, bitching about essays they had to write. They had money and time to kill, but nowhere else to go, and paid me no mind. Employees dressed in khaki shorts and button up shirts like they were going on suburban safari breezed past, giving Janet a curt nod here and there on the way to muck out some pen or another. I practically leaned into the seat to the point of being enveloped when a pack of eight year olds in party hats obliviously tromped by. Somebody was having a birthday party…
After the first ten to fifteen minutes, I calmed myself down and unclenched. The Gardens was still relatively uncrowded. The second week of school was done. No discounts were being offered and no new exhibits were opening up to attract customers. It was just…slow. Very slow. Boring. ‘Nice’.
Good. I needed slow. I needed a break. I needed a chance to be in the open air, with few machinations and hurdles to leap over. I needed…’nice’.
Curiously, I was just beginning to get the sense of something else. Something that started on Monday around breakfast and was only really beginning to settle in out there in the open. No one was really looking at me.
I was an adopted ‘baby’ Little. The old folks didn’t much care. Neither did the highschoolers. The kindergarteners and younger might point me out if they didn’t have a baby or a Little sibling too; I was one of the few things tinier than them at their age and thus a curiosity. But by the time they were even eight I’d lost my novelty to them.
As a free Little walking around with a belt and tie on and a well trimmed goatee I stood out like an old circus elephant. More importantly, I was a target and potential commodity. I was someone to snatch up and adopt. I was, to say the least, interesting.
Now? In the stroller? I was Janet’s Little. Taken. Spoken for. According to the schema of Oakshire as a whole, I was exactly where I was supposed to be and therefore worth noting but ignoring. Even if I fought or resisted, that was something to be expected, with giant society long since deadening their nerves to Little protestations. As long as I had an Amazon minding me, I was accounted for and socially invisible.
On an existential level this was full on dread inducing. How cruel the world was to take anguish and suffering and write it off to the level of infantile fussing. I already knew that, though. So on a personal, shell-shocked level, it was possibly more privacy than I’d ever gotten while out and about. It was…’nice’.
Once my muscles stopped aching and my tongue stopped hurting, I leaned forward and realized that the reason why I’d been able to notice these patterns and come to this realization is we hadn’t moved very much. Not since the father and daughter duo had complimented Janet on my cuteness.
“Janet?” I called back behind me. I winced a second later. “I mean…Mommy?”
Damnit! I shouldn’t have self corrected so fast. She might have responded to her name. Maybe next time… “Why aren’t we moving?” I asked.
“We’re waiting.” I could hear her smile.
“For what?” There was only silence. “Janet, for what?”
“Not what,” she answered. “For whom?”
Oh no. Oh shit. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
This wasn’t just some Mommy/Baby bonding nonsense. This was a-
“HI, BUS KID!”
I startled and jumped in my stroller. A half-second later, I whipped my head forward to the right, following the sound. A double stroller had pulled up beside me, it’s sole occupant in the far left seat closest to me.
“Mommy,” Amy Madra said through missing front teeth, “look! It’s the bus kid!” She refocused her gaze on me and waved. “Hi, bus kid!” The second time she greeted me it was more like a stage whisper.
“Amy, his name is Clark.” her Mommy, Helena, corrected her.
“Gotcha. Hi, Clark.”
“Bus kid?” Janet said. “Clark doesn’t ride the bus. Why does she call him ‘bus kid’?”
“With Amy?” the other Amazon said, “Who knows? She’s always had quite the imagination.”
Social invisibility theory: confirmed. Social amnesia hypothesis: created.
The two giantesses stepped in front of the strollers and took a knee to make eye contact. “Clark,” Janet gestured to the stroller beside me. “This is Amy.”
I looked at the Little that had gone full native. Of course it was Amy. Her hair wasn’t in a bow or a ribbon this time, but she was still missing those front teeth and had those light brown bangs draped above her eyebrows. The Khaki dress with decorative buttons down the front looked almost like the uniforms the zookeepers wore. It was probably something they sold in the gift shop. The floppy bucket hat didn’t quite match but it gave the rough appearance of a pith helmet. Helena had dressed her doll up to go on a mock safari.
“Hi Amy,” I managed a polite wave for show.
“Hi Clark,” she waved back. She opened her mouth to babble out some more, but then caught sight of her mommy’s eye. She made a zipping motion across his lip, instead.
Helena said, “Miss Grange and I are becoming friends, so we thought to take the two of you out to play and get to know each other better, too.”
The wardens were hitting it off and now their personal prisoners had to make ‘nice’.
“Where did you two become friends?” I asked.
“We met Thursday,” Janet said. Not quite an answer, but at least she wasn’t saying that they hit it off over the ashes of my burned down house. She had that going for her.
“Do you want them to share a stroller?” Amy’s mommy asked. “Amy’s has room for one more, and we can park yours.”
I glanced over at Amy. I don’t know when she started waving to me again, but she hadn’t stopped. Her hand was fidgeting at me more so than waving, and the close lipped smile and blank stare signaled she might be on a kind of mental autopilot. Definitely not thinking about me. If it had been Chaz, or even Billy or Annie; someone I could commiserate with and hand off snide little remarks to, I’d have been tempted to call Janet the M-word and play up the cute factor to make it happen.
As it stood, the Little girl I’d met on public transportation that dark and stormy night was just this side of Ivy in terms of company. At least the smaller Zoge was something of a known quantity.
Maybe some bit of reluctance showed on my face and Janet chose to read the signals I was sending… “Let’s just keep their strollers close together,” Janet said. “I’m trying to break this one in.” I felt myself relax again.
“You just haven’t pushed a stroller around enough, yet.” Helena said. “You want the experience.”
Crap. From the sounds of it, Janet had found not only a friend, but a kind mentor; an Amazon mommy that had been where she was. Which meant that Amy was another ‘good influence’.
The two giants maneuvered themselves back behind the strollers. “Where first, kids?”
“Hmm-hm!” Amy said. Her eyes were wide and bright, but her lips were still welded shut by an invisible blowtorch. Aaaaaand she had obviously transitioned herself into some kind of game. She tucked her middle and ring fingers on each hand behind her thumb, almost like she was at a heavy metal concert, but then turned her arms and pointed her remaining fingers at each other. “Hmm-hm-hmm-m-hmm!”
I looked at her arms lightly clapping against each other, like a big chomping mouth with four prominent teeth. Then I read the directional signs. Fine. Why not? Screw it. “The hippos”, I said.
Amy threw her hands up in the air and waggled them in celebration. “HMMMMMMMMMM!”
“Hippos it is!” Janet said.
I hung my chin to touch my chest and exhaled. This was going to be a long play date. Maybe I could lay back and pretend to fall asleep until the real thing happened. Would that count as ‘good’? As ‘nice’?
The hippo pen was a muddy bank fenced and railed off from the park goers in case the lumbering dump truck of an animal decided to charge. The ditch dug in the ground made for a deep enough hole where the hippo could lounge, but it was basically a pig pen.
“Hmm-hm-hmmmm-hmm-hmmm!” From her stroller, Amy pointed excitedly to a yellow sign near the cage that read. “Hippo Splatter Zone.” Her eyes were alive with excitement. From the drawing it looked like the backside of a hippo that was wagging its tail and shaking water off of it or something. “Hmmmm-hmm-hm-hmm!”
What kind of bullshit meds was this girl on? “You can talk, you know.”
The Little girl in the bucket hat opened her mouth. “That’s not water!”
“That’s not water. When hippos poop they use their tail like a windshield wiper and make it go all everywhere!” she said. “They’re one of the only animals that can wipe themselves also they can fit about nine-thousand four hundred and sixty two marbles in their mouth without choking!”
“Honey,” her mommy said. “That’s only the hippo game we have at home.”
Amy paused for breath and looked at me knowingly. She shook her head slightly as if the giant woman misspoke but she didn’t have the heart to correct her. It was almost condescending, in fact. “Hippos are so dense they can’t float but that lets them run while underwater but unlike a certain documentary they don’t wear tutus when they dance with crocodiles that part was staged even though the choreography was pretty accurate.”
Oh no. What had I done? “Amy…” I said.
“Were you playing a quiet hum talk game a second ago?”
“Um….? Yeah I think so it seemed good cuz the grown-ups were talkin’.”
“Do you wanna play it again?”
“Nope. Too late. Some scientists believe that hippos are related to pigs which is why you should never ever ever feed one bacon because that would be cannibalism and that’s frowned upon in most non-komodo dragon societies this zoo doesn’t have a komodo exhibit and that’s a good thing for the goats also hippos are vegetarians so they wouldn’t like the bacon it’s why I could never be a hippo. ”
“Amy’s going through a hippo phase,” I heard Helena say to Janet. “I think it’s because she saw the commercial for those new diapers. The ‘hippobottomuses’.”
“Oh yeah!” Janet said. “The ones with the little pink hippos on them!”
“They fade when wet,” Helena went on. “Something about hippos hiding under the water. I’ve got some in her baby bag I can show you later. They come in blue, too.”
Great. I had a nonsense rambling Little that had gone the way of Ivy, as so many of Beouf’s students eventually did, and two giants talking about what to put on other people’s bottoms. So much for ‘nice’.
The strollers started moving again. Fortunately for my ears and sanity, the distance between our two strollers in motion was enough to send Amy Madra back into whatever quiet mindfucked haze she lived her life in. Unfortunately for my sense of dignity, the two so-called parents pushing us had no such compunction and their voices carried.
“So, remind me you work at the elementary school?” Helena said to Janet.
“Third grade,” Janet replied.
“I don’t know how you do it.”
“Third graders aren’t so bad,” Janet said. “I think they’re neat. They’re really just starting to figure stuff out and get into more complex thought processes but they’re still kids.”
Before Janet could inevitably get out some twisted metaphor of comparing me to her students, Amy’s warden both beat her to the punch and corrected herself with a, “Oh no, not the third graders. Four? Forty? Kids of any age are great. I meant your principal. What was her name? Brawl? Bowl?”
“Brollish,” I called back.
“Yeah,” the Amazon said. “Brollish. She’s easily one of the most unpleasant people I’ve ever met. How does a woman like that even get into education? I remember talking to her at one of the Fall Carnivals when Amy used to go there and she just had this…this…incredibly nasty and fake aura about her. Like, I can’t quite describe it.”
“Yeah…” Janet sighed.
“Does she talk to you that way? Like she’s above you and you’re just a file or a number to her?”
Professional courtesy might have been restraining Janet. I was no longer a professional by that point. “She’s a witch.” Then I dared to add, “or something that rhymes with witch.”
“Clark!” Janet didn’t sound too upset. More embarrassed that her ‘baby’ had spoken out of turn.
Helena laughed. “It’s true!” Over in her stroller, Amy was bobbing her head deeply as if I’d just expressed one of the great unspoken truths of the universe.
“I know it’s true,” said Janet, “but that’s not something we’re supposed to say out loud.”
“Don’t worry,” Helena said. “Amy and I won’t tell. Right baby girl?”
“No, Mommy.” Amy puckered her lips. “Or yes Mommy. I won’t tell, I mean.”
Another mad giantess and her brainwashed Little. At least they didn’t like Brollish. They had that going for them. “And is that ditzy receptionist still there? I never learned her name, but I didn’t like her,either. I felt like she was always staring at Amy.” Okay. Wow. Two things. “Thank goodness, for teachers like you and Mrs. Beouf.” Swing and a miss.
A ways away from the hippos were giant heavy wooden fences. They were closer to barricades, almost like a fortress. The fences were still not tall enough to conceal the lanky yellow horses with tiny nubs on their heads and ridiculously long necks…
“A giraffe’s neck is exactly as long as it needs to be,” Amy told me once our rides stopped. “Also it’s an even toed ungulate meaning each foot has two hooves that surround what would be its third and fourth toes so if they played piggy toes they’d only get roast beef and none.”
My eyebrows shot up. That last part didn’t didn’t sound like complete horse crockery. “How do you-? Where did-?”
“The giraffe belongs to the family Giraffidae the genus Giraffa and the species camelopardalis which I did not see coming at all.”
My left ear almost went parallel to the ground in my confusion. Did that mean that hippos really were too dense to float and could wipe themselves? How much coming out of this lady was crazy and how much of it was actual fact?
“Oh look!” Janet said. “They have feeders! Clark, do you want to feed the giraffes?”
Amy burst in with more ‘facts’. “You should do it I love feeding giraffes they have purple tongues that protect them from the sun because if they didn’t their tongues would either get sunburned or they’d have to eat a lot more sunscreen and that’s not the best flavor although some people really really like coconut but I don’t think giraffes do.”
“Is there a brand of diaper or something that features giraffes?” I asked Amy.
She blinked. “No. Why?”
The stroller jostled when Janet locked the wheels and stepped around “Clark? she said, ‘Do you want to feed the giraffes?’.”
I looked up at the vacuum sealed horse camel things. I have no idea how old giraffes live to be but they’d clearly been here long enough to be as close to tame as a wild animal could get. Through big cow-like eyes they were peering down at us, looking from our group and then over to the feed dispensers, hoping that we’d take the hint.
More importantly, Janet had asked me if I’d wanted to do something. She’d asked. Not told. “It’s okay if you don’t want to.”
She was asking me. Really asking. And I had the option to say no. That was really…nice.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s feed the giraffes.”
Janet reached in and unbuckled the lap restraints keeping me in the stroller. By the time I was riding her side Helena already had Amy up and out, too. “My treat,” she said, handing over some coins to Janet.
The feed vending machine was close enough to the giraffes that they could see it but far enough away that even their serpentine necks couldn’t reach it… There was a good reason for this.
With her free hand, Janet popped a coin into a gumball machine-like contraption and twisted the big sterling silver handle until it clicked. We were treated to the sounds of tiny fine grains and pieces dropping and then ramming against a heavy steel flap. “Open it up,” she told me. “Both hands.”
As instructed and inferred, I waited for her to stick her free hand beneath the flap and reached out to lift the trap door. Out into Janet’s hand came an Amazon sized load of animal treats slightly larger than bird seed but with the color, texture, and consistency of soft dog kibble.
Without waiting to be told, I cupped my hands and Janet dumped about half of her payload into my combined palms. “I’ll go first, then it can be your turn.”
We very quickly discovered how far the giraffes could or would reach to get their treats. The moment Janet’s outstretched hand was close enough, a mutant yellow goat lurched forward with a strangely purplish black tongue. My ex-coworker giggled as the oddly prehensile tongue licked her palm clean. “It tickles!”
A few strides away from us, Amy and Helena were occupying the other giraffe with similar treats.
Janet took a step forward to account for the differences in our reach. Nervously I held out both hands and braced myself when the black adder snaked its way out of the giraffe’s mouth and slimed my palms. “Aaaaagh!” I shrieked.
“I told you it tickles!” Janet laughed. Her dark hair bounced as she stepped back a bit. I didn’t want to admit it, but my face was contorting in ways that weren’t completely rooted in disgust, fear, or anger.
Other than the riding on the hip part, this might have been something I’d have enjoyed before last week. Hard to tell, really. I’d done research on the Gardens; know your terrain and all that; but I’d never gotten to go to a zoo before, either…
“Giraffes have the same number of bones in their neck as people,” Amy rambled, “which is good because if their bones were missing then their heads would just be floating up above their torsos and that might be uncomfy.”
My own captor laughed. “Is that true?” Janet asked. “Not the floating part; the bones part.” She wasn’t asking Amy.
“I don’t know anymore,” Helena said. “It’s what I get for having such a smart Little girl with such a wild imagination.” She looked at Amy and nuzzled her head. Amy nuzzled back and the Amazon ended it with a kiss on the cheek, complete with “Mwwwwah!” If they’d actually been mother and child, it might have looked sweet.
“It’s true,” a previously unseen Tweener in khakis stepped forward. “About the neck bones I mean.” The park kept employees nearby all the exhibits where people had any opportunity to physically interact with the animals. No sense in letting the customers break the exhibits. And like most Tweeners, this employee was just short enough to be overlooked, but just tall enough to be considered when she spoke.
“Oh really?” Helena said. “Thank you for telling us.”
“You’re welcome, ma’am.”
“Anything else you can tell us about giraffes?” Janet asked the zookeeper.
“Nothing your Little girl hasn’t already said.” The Tweener replied. She looked right at her. “Hi, Amy!”
Janet turned to the other Amazon and asked the question that was already brewing in my brain. “You two come here often?”
“At least every other week.”
Amy chimed in with, “It’s my favorite place in the whole world or maybe second favorite does anywhere with ice cream count as a place if they sold ice cream here it would definitely be my favorite place hands down that or the Little’s Science Museum but has more to do with the really good flavors of golf balls that they have.”
“She really likes animals.”
“No doubt.” The two giants moved in concert to put us back in our respective strollers. “Oops,” Janet said, reaching in. “You lost your paci.” She reached forward and dug it out.
“Oh! Amy too. Littles,” I heard Helena say. “You get all this stuff for them and they lose it anyway. I swear they’d lose their diapers if they weren’t taped on so well.”
That’s kind of the point.
“That’s kind of the point,” Janet said. A great example of how an Amazon and a Little can think the same sentence and have it mean two different things.
She buckled me into the stroller, and disappeared behind me long enough to get a baby wipe, clean the pacifier in front of me and then clip it back onto my shirt. I caught the tail end of Amy’s captor doing the same on her end.
I waited until Janet had taken her spot behind the stroller to yank the clip off my shirt collar and toss the binky back behind me. Amy looked at me, looked at her own pacifier, and did the same.
Was that…? Was that solidarity? Or just copying? Hard to tell. Like Ivy, did it matter if I could use it to my advantage?
“Where to next?” Helena asked Janet.
I spoke up. “Let Amy decide. I wanna hear what she has to say.”
And so they did. The tour of the Gardens was far from organized and efficient, but it was interesting to say the least.
We went to the reptile house:
“Most snakes are venomous not poisonous they’re very good at finding insecurities and exploiting them a snake can unhinge its jaw to better swallow food but it has to be very careful not to lose it.”
Then on to various bird exhibits:
“As a baby the owl disguises itself as a Muffet.” Looking at the owlet, she was not wrong. “Some parrots can mimic almost anything they hear most of the time they just scream and laugh though so it’s honestly just like a daycare.”
“Can confirm” Helena laughed. “And that’s why we’re never getting a parrot.”
Also we saw a group of monkeys descended from when movie makers wanted to use the woods and swamps around a middle of nowhere town to shoot their picture and just left them behind because as bad as the animals had it now they had it worse seventy plus years ago.
“Monkeys are capable of using tools and that’s why the diaper company named itself after them even though they had to change the spelling for copyright reasons turns out that tailed primates also have very good lawyers. Also Monkeez sounds better than Capuchinz”
In between the stops where Amy was blasting me with bits of animal facts and fiction with such randomness and sincerity that sorting one out from the other was becoming a kind of mini-game, I caught bits of Janet getting experienced ‘Maturosis’ Mommy tips from Helena.
So between learning that an alligator’s sex is determined by egg temperature or that skunks are oblivious to their personal flaws and thus are immune to rattlesnakes which may also explain why they don’t realize that nobody likes them, I also got to hear:
“Don’t go to any kid’s movie that offers special glasses for the adults. Same with if you have to leave the room. If you can’t experience it with them it’s garbage and they’re telling the Littles stuff they don’t want you to hear for a reason.”
As well as:
“That green goo they sell for diaper rash? Different brands all over but basically the same stuff? Only use it if they have the runs or really really need hydration. It’s great for that. Good odor control too. Don’t spread it like a lotion. Put the diaper on first, then squirt it in. That’s what the attachment hose is for. But be careful how much you use and where you use it unless you want him masturbing.”
“Ohbagosh makes some of the cuuuuutest clothes, but don’t buy from them. They donate money to organizations that promote outdated and unethical treatments. Surgical alterations. Shock aversion therapy. They don’t even officially believe in Maturosis.”
So much to unpack there.
“If it’s not a medical or mental health condition,” Janet asked, “then what is it?”
“I know, right?” Helena agreed. “That’s why I buy knock-offs and custom gear.”
Mixed in with that, were all the zookeepers in their khaki shorts and fake safari gear waving not to me, or Janet or Helena, but to Amy.
“Hey Amy! Hi Ms. Madra!”
“Good to see you Jordan!”
She really did come here often. To have that many Amazons acknowledge her, even as an adult might a child…so much for my social invisibility theory.
The morning was slipping away from me, and I hated to admit it but it wasn’t entirely bad.
“A polar bear’s fur is actually see through and not white they just choose to look white because it goes with everything.”
“Amy,” I said. “That’s a black bear.”
Amy’s eyes shifted. “I know I just don’t care about black bears and wanted to talk about polar bears.”
I stopped. I opened my mouth. I shut it again. Finally, after much internal struggle, I burst out laughing.I laughed; actually laughed! Long and loud and full.
“That might be the first time I’ve heard Clark laugh,” I heard Janet say. “Ever.” She sounded amazed. “Definitely all week.” Through my guffawing I could hear the relief in her words.
I pulled at the curls my still freshly dyed hair to settle down and relaxed back into the cushion seat. I’d kind of needed that laugh right then. It felt good. Really good. I didn’t know how much I’d needed it until just then.
There was a period of nice hazy silence from both pairs of the playdate for a minute or two. I was so worn out that I almost didn’t mind when a four year old boy pointed and waved at me. It was easy enough to ignore; this time.
“Look, Clark!” Janet roused me. “Your favorite!”
I dusted the momentary cobwebs out and saw what Janet was pointing to. Behind another barrier of enclosed chain link and a safety railing, much like the hippos, were a gaggle of old circus cats. Were they in the wild, they’d have been big killing machines hunting down gazelle on the savannah. Likely bred and born in captivity, these majestic maned beasts had the physiques of tremendous housecats.
Amy took that as her call to action. “Oh you like lions? Lions have a gestation period of one hundred ten days and have no breeding season male lions become sexually reproductive around twenty-six months old and male lions will sometimes form tag team coalitions but then they’ll break up because their pride gets too big and they’ve forgotten it was all about the music.”
This time Janet didn’t stay quiet. As Amy rambled about the reproduction habits of big cats, Janet dug me all the way out of the stroller and held me in her arms again. “Which one looks the most like Lion, Clark?”
“They all look like lions,” Helena said.
“No, no.” Janet corrected her. “Lion is the name of his favorite stuffed animal.”
“He named his stuffed lion, ‘Lion’?” Helena put her hand to her chest. “How cuuuuute! That is such a Little thing to do!”
“Oh my gosh,” Janet smacked her forehead. “I totally forgot to pack him. He’s back home in Clark’s crib. Rookie mistake!”
Briefly, very briefly, I wanted to scream. I reverted to biting my tongue as Janet recalled her version of events. Obviously, it was a lot more bubbly sounding than mine.
Amy waited for the self-appointed grown-ups to stop talking long enough to try and whisper to me. “What about Jessinnia?” My expression must have told her enough. “Jessinnia? The octopus stuffie in Mrs. B’s room? He wears a top hat and a monocle and he talks in an Albiene accent because octopuses are super smart.” She made a circle by touching her thumb and forefinger together and held it up to her eye. ‘Wat ho pip pip cheerio sweep your chimney Queen’s come for tea!”
I was so befuddled I accidentally held my breath.
“It’s okay, bud,” Amy said. “You’ll get it.”
That entire exchange was ignored by Helena and Janet, either because they thought the conversation of two permanent children was beneath them or they were just as confused as I was and sometimes you just have to press forward. “I don’t know about you,” Helena said, stretching her arms, “but I could use a sit.”
Janet thumbed behind her. “I saw a playground nearby. Why don’t we have a sit and let the Little Ones stretch their legs.”
The playground was well kept but clearly wasn’t meant to be a main attraction. With benches on the periphery a turtle shaped sandbox and the kind of generic jungle gym that could be found at most any fast food place sans the ballpit, it was doing what it was supposed to be doing: Giving very big people a place to sit and catch their breath and small people with short attention spans minor recreation. The area was so dinky that even the eight year olds I’d seen earlier would be too big for it. No one would come to the Gardens for the playground, but no one was supposed to.
“Ooooof,” Janet said, sitting me down for a moment on her lap. ”You don’t realize how tired you are until you sit down.” She bounced me a little on her knee, then let me gently slide off to my feet.
“You get used to it,” Helena said. She didn’t slide Amy off. Instead she said, “Clark? Are you a good walker, honey?”
I looked at my feet like it was a trick question. “Um…yeah?”
“Will you help Amy get to the sandbox? She’s not wearing good crawling clothes right now and I don’t want her knees getting dirty.” Oh yeah! Flashbacks from the bus incident came back to me. She was kind of wobbly.
“If you’re tired,” Janet offered, “ I don’t mind carrying her.”
“No, no. It’s fine. Let the kids help each other. I trust Clark.”
Before I had a chance to digest any of that, the other Little took the moment out of my hands. “Mommy Slide!” With a single huff, she pushed herself off and skidded down her giantess’s knees and shins. “WHEEEEEE!”
I won’t say it was instinct as much as me trying to be decent, but I ran the few steps and reached out. Amy’s hand reached back and clasped onto mine- not nearly as strong as Ivy’s but it was firm- and steadied herself.
From her splayed out legs, the fact that the hem of the dress was too short to begin with and because it bunched itself up sliding down Helena’s legs, the state of the Little woman’s diaper was very apparent to anyone with even a day of experience with such things.
Tiredly, Helena Madra tucked her feet under the bench so that she could lean forward and grab the back of Amy’s skirt. “I’m going to have to change that.”
“Now?” Amy whined.
Her mommy yanked the skirt back down with one hand. “I didn’t say ‘right now’, baby girl. Just soon. Go play with your new friend.”
Amy used her free hand and smoothed out the front of her skirt. “Okie doke. Thank you, Mommy.” She nudged me. “C’mon, bus kid.”
The walk over to the sandbox was slow but steady. Amy leaned on me, not putting her full weight but more like using me as a cane. Her gait was clumsy and unsteady, but she had strength in her legs. Months ago, I might have wondered if her legs had atrophied. Now I wasn’t so sure. It definitely wasn’t the diaper. Even with the thickest nighttime one Janet had put me in and feeling as weak as a kitten from exhaustion I could balance better than Amy.
This was more like Chaz. Chaz’s Amazons had been using hypnosis on him to hurt his continence and to give him a childish lisp whenever he was wet. Based on Chaz’s speech lately, Beouf had nipped that in the bud early enough to prevent lasting damage. Maybe his and Amy’s impairments were the result of a more subtle form of hypnosis that Beouf either approved of or just didn’t know about. I wouldn’t likely get much useful information from someone as far off the wagon as Amy, however.
“Thaaaaank you.” Amy said when we got to the sandbox. She turned around, sat backwards on the green rim and then pivoted her legs around so that she was facing the right way. “Good job.”
“Um…you’re welcome,” I said. I stood there, feeling awkward. I was in the proximity of someone who clearly was possessed of a brain, but who as far as I could tell had had their eggs completely scrambled. I glanced at the jungle gym about fifteen feet away. Maybe I could go lean against one of the supporting posts and think about nothing for a few minutes.
Me being alone with my thoughts wasn’t always the best option. Still might be better than this. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I was still mildly uncomfortable being in this place; the playground. It was the same kind of nasty back of my brain itch that I got whenever I was on Beouf’s new playground.
There were no shovels or buckets in the sandbox, so Amy started digging in the sand with her bare hands. That wasn’t surprising. “Hmmmm….” she hummed. What was surprising was how she lightly dusted her palms off and then licked the remaining residue off. “Hm. Good sand,” she said. “Artificial but not too processed zero preservatives and free of cat urine and gluten. Very good sand.”
“Eww!” I didn’t shout it but my face made my confusion and disgust pretty plain. “Why?!”
She shrugged. “Why not? Also it’s gluten free. Now about Jessinnia…”
“What is wrong with you?”
The other Little tilted her head to the side and looked up at the sky. “Nothing really. I’m a little thirsty though that might have to do with all the talking I’ve been doing or it might be the sand why didn’t you look for Jessnnia he’s purple if that helps.”
I rubbed my temples. Somehow I had been lured into sitting down at the sandbox. I wouldn’t have realized it except that I was looking dead at her instead of down on her. “I don’t care about your octopus stuffie. I really don’t.” I didn’t say it angrily. I wasn’t angry. It’s hard to be angry with a person just as powerless as you are and who clearly doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
“Pffft…rude!” She kept digging, picking up handfuls of sand and letting them fall back down between her fingers. “I love sand.” At least she didn’t lick her hands again.
I rolled my eyes. “I’m sorry I didn’t look for your favorite stuffie but-”
“-But, I’ve been kind of going through a lot lately.” I powered through the interruption. “That burned down house where we saw each other last? That was mine last week.”
“Well why’d you…?” Amy froze. A new glint of recognition dawned in her eyes. “Last week?”
I hung my head. “Yeah.”
“Oooooooooooh,” she said, finally getting it. “Oh wow.”
“You’re still new to this.”
“Really really new.”
“I thought you got adopted like…months ago…like half a year ago or something.”
I picked my head up, feeling slightly incredulous. “What?”
“Yeah,” Amy said. She was doodling in the sand, not looking at me. “Two unadopted Littles. No grown-ups with them. On a bus. Dark and stormy night.” She was clearly choosing her words more carefully, but they still had that whimsical almost childlike quality. “I thought the bus driver might just drive all the way back to the bus station and say you were abandoned.”
My throat felt dry. I hadn’t thought of that. I really hadn’t. “We just waited till it looped around and got off at the same stop you did.”
“Oh? Okay. Good.”
She looked thoughtful again. “If you didn’t find your mommy because of the bus I guess I can’t call you bus kid anymore how did you find your mommy?”
“I pooped my pants in the middle of basically a parent teacher conference.” I told her. “Then my best Amazon friends all turned on me.”
“As they do.”
“As they do,” I echoed. “Somebody spiked my coffee or something. I think somebody might have stolen diapers, too to make it look like I was sneaking them or something.” It was weird, telling another Little what had happened to me, even in brief. No obfuscation or coded language or worrying that an Amazon might hear me; just telling my truth. It was…nice.
Amy started filling in the hole she’d made. “That’s kind of boring.”
I looked down between my legs, and blushed. “Yeah. Guess so.”
“Can’t call ya pants pooper kid. That’s all of us.”
“Why doesn’t your Amazon remember the bus?” I asked.
My box mate lightly shrugged. “I dunno. Grown-ups are weird sometimes.” She blinked and took a deep breath. “Like one time, I was playing kitty cat and I was crawling around on the floor and I was going in between Mrs. Beouf’s and Mrs. Zoge’s legs and they told me not to do that and that was dangerous even though my kitties used to do that all the time to me and they never got hurt and I’m bigger than most kitty cats maybe grown-ups aren’t good with things smaller than Littles do you think that’s why most of them don’t have pets?”
I took a moment to process that all in. “What?”
“I was just playing a game,” Amy said more slowly. “Sometimes grown-ups get upset when you’re playing games because they only really like it when you’re playing their games and it’s their idea at least until you teach them right.”
I thought back to as recently as Tuesday, or even the glorious potential that was Why Day and grinned triumphantly. “Yeah,” I sighed. “Amazons are control freaks. I got put in time out for asking ‘Why’ too many times.” Conveniently, I left out what an ass I was purposefully being.
“Yeah?” Amy asked. “Did you get the naughty stool where Miss Zoge can see you or did you have to go to the other classroom where the snooty Little teacher reminds you that you’re just a baby and you gotta tough it out or somethin’?”
“Naughty stool.” I did a double take. “Hey! I was the Little teacher.”
“I know,” Amy simply said. There was a silence as I tried in vain to get a read on her. “No offense I don’t think you’re snooty as a person I’m not gonna start calling you ‘snooty kid’ I just thought that was part of your job like an actor or something.”
I didn’t talk to her as much as I talked to myself just then: It wasn’t like that. Except that it kind of was. All teachers were part actor, and I did have something of a spiel…
“Who replaced you?”
“An Amazon,” I replied. “An ugly one too.”
“Oh,” she frowned. “That sucks.”
“That won’t work as good Littles are used to being told they’re babies by grown-ups.”
I just nodded, taking a kind of grim satisfaction in that. At least another Helper wasn’t taking my place. Somebody would have to be a bigger fool than me to take my place as a Little immediately after I’d been fired for essentially being ‘too Little’.
Amy opened her arms wide. “Do you want a hug?”
I glared at her. “No.” She may have been at least partly right about me. DIdn’t make me want to give her a hug.
“Okie doke. Can you help me up? I think I want a change now.”
Placing my hands on my knees I boosted myself up. “Okay.” I stopped and shuddered. Flashbacks of Ivy. “Don’t try to hug me, though.”
“I won’t,” she replied. “Consent is key!” She said it like a kid rattling off a cartoon mascot’s catchphrase but…yeah. Who the fuck was this? She stood up and wobbled and had to grab ahold of my hand to stay upright, but she didn’t try anything. “Walk me over?”
The hobbling wobbling waddling walk was a bit faster on the return trip than the way over had been. We’d developed a kind of rhythm and balance to the whole bit. Janet and Helena, meanwhile, had buddied up and were staring at one another’s phones.
“Oh look at that face!” Helena cooed. “So serious!” The tub pictures. Had to be the tub pictures.
Janet pointed over to our approach. “Look! They play so well together! This was such a good idea!”
“Hi, Mommy!” Amy chirped.
Amy was back in her captor’s lap in an instant. “Hi baby!” Janet copied using me. “Where next?”
“Emus!” Amy said.
Something else in my gray matter tingled and it had nothing to do with being on the playground. Emus? Why was that so familiar?
“Okay sweetie! We’ll go see the ostriches!”
“But first-!” In a series of movements so fluid that it was comparable to a military drill or a martial arts kata, Helena stood up, laid Amy down on the bench next to me and Janet and started changing her diaper. No warning. No preface. Amy’s dress was hiked up and the tapes of her sopping wet diaper were undone before I consciously realized what I was watching.
I whipped my head around the opposite direction and held my hand up to shield my peripheral vision just in case. I hadn’t seen anything but not because of any hesitation on the Amazon’s part. “Fuck!”
“Clark!” Janet scolded me. “That’s not appropriate.”
“I said I was gonna get changed,” Amy called to me from her spot on the bench. “What did you think was gonna happen?”
“It’s okay, Janet,” Helena said, still likely wiping. “He’s Little and his Maturosis is still new to him. He doesn’t know any better.”
Amy started scatting the f-bomb like a jazz singer. “Fuck fuck fuck fuckity fuck fuck fucker!”
“Amy…you do know better Little girl.”
Janet bounced me on her knee. “Speaking of wet.” She reached her hand down my shorts and gave the front of my diaper a firm yet gentle squeeze.
This is the part where I stop strolling down memory lane to remind you that no one pays attention to details in a story that aren’t important to them in the moment or in hindsight. So yes, my pants were wet. I hadn’t held it in because I knew I wasn’t going to be given a choice. No, I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but yes I was very aware when it was happening. Do you keep track everytime you go to the bathroom?
I envisioned myself on the bench, out in the open, getting changed and tensed every muscle in my body. The idea terrified me. “Please don’t be too wet please don’t be too wet,” I whispered to myself, actually praying that I wasn’t close to leaking.
“Wet,” Janet said. “Very wet.” I slammed my eyelids closed and clenched my teeth.
Here we go…
I felt Janet pick me up. Pathetically, I clung to her shoulder, bracing myself for the fall back down to the bench. “I’m going to go find a bathroom with a changing station. I need to go potty, too.”
“Okay,” Helena said. “I need to find a garbage can anyways. What do you think of these?”
Amy was still laying spread eagle with her skirt flipped up; a new, pink hippo themed diaper taped over her hips.
“Very cute. Come on Clark.”
“Thank you,” I whispered. “Thank you.”
“Welcome, baby.” Janet spoke aloud.
She took us into the women’s room, right by the concession stands. Fortunately, the changing table was located in the handicap stall. Maximum privacy given the circumstances.
A smile played at Janet’s lips while she laid me down and pulled my shorts over my ankles. A quick tug at the sides and the tapes screamed loose, but no louder sounding than in Beouf’s bathroom and unlike during Circle Time no one was around to hear. I hadn’t glimpsed any feet poking out of adjacent stalls…
The outdoor humidity and the oddly stagnant restroom air made the following wipes feel refreshing against my wet skin. Janet didn’t coo at me, but she hummed to herself tunelessly. She balled up the old plastic shell and tossed it in the trash can.
“Just a second,” she said. She dug into the diaper bag and started unfolding it in front of me. Another rookie mistake. Had this been forty eight hours prior I might have considered pushing my bladder and hoping that I had enough in the tank to hit her. But Janet had been doing right by me lately.
So I was trying to be ‘good’. I was trying to be ‘nice’.
She slipped the fresh diaper underneath me. “Powder?” she asked.
“No thank you.” Wow. Janet asking again? New high score?
My ex-friend tilted her head, lifted me up by the ankles, and inspected my backside anyways. “Okay…” she said. My legs were laid down and spread. The diaper came up. Janet taped it back on, sealing me in In other words, it was a diaper change.
“Shorts back on, please.” I mumbled.
“Of course,” Janet replied. She pulled them back into place. “You didn’t leak.” I relaxed when I was fully dressed again and off the gray plastic tray. A dangling black strap that had never been pulled across my chest testified how confident Janet was feeling just then.
I had been taken to a place I’d never been before, seen some poor but interesting animals, met a strange but oddly compelling Little, and Janet was showing more and more consideration for my feelings. I didn’t want to be in a diaper or a stroller, obviously. I wanted my freedom. I wanted my adulthood back. My last name, too. But right now; in the moment; for the time being; my humiliation and anxiety and grief and resentment were lower than they’d been in many days. I wouldn’t have chosen this or traded what I’d lost, but some part of me considered that other captured Littles most definitely had it worse.
It was…nice. Not great. Not even good. But nice.
“Hello, hello!” Helena’s voice called into the bathroom. “Any Granges in here?”
Janet opened the door and walked out with me. Amy was back in her double stroller. “Just got him sorted out,” she said. “I still need to go. Mind watching him? I might be a bit.”
The big blonde soccer mom leaned over sideways and took me from Janet. “No problem! How about I take them to see the ostriches?”
“Emus,” Helena corrected herself. “You can meet us there.”
“Sure,” Janet said. “Sounds great. Can I have a bye bye kiss?” My face remained absolutely neutral. I didn’t lean in. I was happier, more content, ‘nicer’, but if I was being given the option I was still refusing. Janet’s lips twitched, a look of disappointment, if not heartbreak, sketching itself on her face.
Pivoting so that I was away from Janet, Helena Madra put a hand on the other Amazon’s shoulder. “Don’t stress, hon. It’s not just Maturosis he’s dealing with. I read a book and you’d be surprised to find out how Little communities teach their children to resist adult help if Maturosis sets in. Not that I blame them, considering history.”
Janet exhaled through her nostrils. “Mmm-hmmm.”
“He’s not just dealing with Maturosis. He’s dealing with years of programming and indoctrination.”
Programming?! Indoctrination?! The nerve! “I’m still here, you know,” I huffed.
“Let’s just have some fun at the zoo.” I was being ignored. Typical. Whelp, it was ‘nice’ while it lasted.
I ended up back in the double stroller, buckled in right next to Amy. “I can’t wait to introduce you to Emulio Estevez and Emuly Dickenson. They’re the best.”
“Hey Amy!” A passing zookeeper waved.
Amy waved back. “Hi hi, Pete!”
Fine. Crazy Amazon lady had a point. It was an unusually nice day. I wasn’t escaping today. I might as well enjoy it. Still… “We met on the bus.”
Amy’s mommy finished buckling me into the double stroller and looked up. “Excuse me?”
“We met on the bus a couple of months ago.” My voice was deadpan. If nothing else this giant nutter was going to know who I was. “I used to be the teacher right next door to Mrs. Beouf.”
Helena was as nonchalant as I was pretending to be. “Mmm-hmmm.”
“I’m serious,” I said. “You told me how much I helped Amy…? I had a goatee.”
She walked around back and started pushing the stroller. “I know.”
“Your mommy told me how she got you.”
Amy tapped me on the shoulder. Lips pursed, she nodded. “Hmm-hmm-hmm.” Which I had to assume was hum talk for ‘Yes she did’.
I crossed my arms over my chest and pouted to myself. Social amnesia hypothesis: debunked.
“Fine,” I grumbled. “Go ahead.” I needed a laugh.
“Emus have coarse hair like feathers cause they’re basically dinosaurs,” Amy rambled, “they just refuse to be told to go extinct and go rawr emu females are dominant and larger they would rule the world if they only had thumbs or else would be pirate queens cause they love shiny things but most birbs like shiny things except for ducks in my experience but that’s largely anecdotal.”
I started to chuckle a tad. The idea of basically an ostrich with a pirate hat rang funny in my mind’s eye.
“Amy loves her emus,” Helena said, pushing closer and closer to the big bird pens. Emus. What was bothering me so much about emus?
“The emu daddy sits on the eggs and they are monogamous but they don’t like labels if there was a fight between people and emus the emus would win decisively they like doing tap you on the shoulder tricks with their beaks. Also their name only has three letters but is very hard to pronounce. E-moo? E-myoo? These are the questions.”
The emu pen didn’t look like much upon approach. It had probably been a bit of reclaimed farmland originally; just grass. The fences weren’t that high. There was no ceiling or roof to the pens. I knew emus couldn’t fly. Evidently they couldn’t jump either.
Another keeper was filling up a bucket. “Hey, Amy.”
“Hi Jillian! Feeding Emulio and Emuly?”
The Amazon college student chuckled. “Which one is that, girly girl?”
Amy pointed at the giant feather dusters and labeled them. “That’s Emuliano, Emurson, Emury, Emunuel, Emulia aaaaaand, that’s Emulio Estevez and his partner Emuly Dickenson.”
“Wow, Amy,” the lady in khakis that perfectly matched Amy’s play dress said. “You’ve given them all names! That’s really neat!”
“She named them all before, too!” Helena said with pride.
Gears were just starting to turn in my too-slow brain. “Before?”
“I love coming here,” Helena said.
“Me too, Mommy.” Amy smiled openly, her missing top teeth even more evident to me. “This is my favorite place.”
“So many happy memories.”
“Amy,” Helena said. “Since you already know how Clark found his Mommy, you should be fair and tell him how we found each other.”
“We already told him.”
“Yeah. On the bus.”
Oh no. She did tell me. On the bus, smiling. In the corner of my room crying, before that.
She told me again anyway. “I was feeding the emus and I forgot to take my earrings out mainly because I wasn’t planning on feeding them that day but the schedule got mixed around and emus are very curious birbs and so when they saw the shiny things in my ears they wanted to take them and started peckin’ and peckin’ and peckin’ at me emus are very strong and can kick through steel fencing when angered.”
“And I ran in and saved her!”
“And Mommy ran in and saved me!”
I was shaking and I wasn’t even sure with what. “You used to work here?” I asked Amy.
“Yup,” she said immediately.
“And here is where you got caught?”
“And all these zookeepers used to be your coworkers?”
“Some of them, yeah.”
“And you’re dressed in a baby version of what you used to wear to work.”
“This,” my throat started choking up. “This is your Oakshire. This is your dead adult life staring you in the face.”
Trembling, I reached over to the poor woman whose life I’d inadvertently helped destroy, took her hands into my own and asked. “Doesn’t that bother you?”
The doll’s eyelids fluttered vacantly for a moment. “Not really.”
“Why the fuck not?”
“Oakshire has a really good Maturoses and Developmental Plateau unit,” Helena Madra answered for her Little. “You’re a Lucky Little Boy.”
I looked at Amy Madra just then and saw something I hadn’t seen before. I saw acceptance. I saw contentment. I saw quirkiness and cleverness and a certain willingness to go with the flow and manipulate the rules to her advantage when and where she could. I saw so much of myself.
More specifically, I saw myself if I chose to live another day like I’d lived this one. I saw someone who gave up and broke down.I saw everything that Janet and Beouf and Oakshire Elementary would do to me if I let them. I saw someone that had traded freedom, passion, her own adulthood and her professional pride for having a day that was just…’nice’. Now all she had left was a bunch of animal facts that no one else would bother with.
“Okay,” Janet huffed and puffed. “I’m back. Sorry I took so long. I was halfway here when I remembered that I forgot Clark’s stroller. How is he?”
“He’s fine,” Helena told her. “Amy and I were just sharing our story.”
“Hey baby boy!” Janet said. “I missed you. Did you miss me?”
I went quiet. Cold. Prickly like a hedgehog. Unblinking like an alligator. She unbuckled me and forced me into a hug. “It’s okay if you didn’t miss me.” She was lying, I knew, and it hurt her to do it.
“I’m fine,” I lied. I made no effort to conceal my disdain.
The rest of the day at the Gardens wasn’t nearly as ‘nice’, but there’s not much to write about in that vein. We’d seen everything by lunch. I got taken back to Janet’s, and I spent the rest of the day forcing myself to relive that awful, awful Monday.
“I hate you, Janet.” I said back into the baby monitor that night. She wasn’t getting any sleep tonight. Neither of us were. Not if I had anything to say about it. “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. I’ll never forgive you. Never.”
It’s physically and psychologically hard to stay mad all the time. It’s difficult and draining to be on guard every minute of every day. It’s almost impossible to be sad and mourning everything that’s happened from the minute you wake up to the second you fall asleep. People just aren’t up for that, no matter their size. But I could damn well try.
It was a better alternative than being…’nice’.