Chapter Description: Janet corners Clark and finds a way of probing his thoughts.
Chapter 67: Tough Questions
“No! Maxine!” Sosa screamed there on the carpet of the OT/PT room. “Don’t! We don’t have to keep the bird! I swear!” She back crawled to the corner, trembling at the sight of her infuriated lover.
Winters held the diaper in hand, unfolding it before her cowaring girlfriend. It wasn’t a ‘true’ diaper; not like the one I was trapped in. There were no ‘adorable’ decorations so that whoever ended up wiping Sosa’s ass on a day to day basis got to associate it with cartoon characters. The tapes weren’t likely enough to overcome the Sosa’s strength, either. Conditioning, psychological torture, and societal pressure would have to be the primary thing to keep Sosa wearing it. That and maybe duct tape...
“I’m sorry, Jazzie. It’s too late for that.” Winters pronounced judgement. “Clearly you can’t handle big girl responsibilities anymore. You must have some Little in your family tree. Your Maturosis has clearly expressed itself.”
“Why would you...?” Sosa shrieked. “Why would you say that? I’m an adult! A big girl”
“Big girls don’t poop their panties.”
Sosa rolled over onto all fours, in complete shock as she patted her muddy backside, having been completely unaware that she’d soiled herself.
I paused the fantasy. Now how in the heck was I going to get training chocolates or any other kind of poison slipped into her food to make it happen? She freely ate the gelatin when she was putting Littles through their paces. Maybe I could find a way to spike it? With what, though?
Annoyed at myself, I reset the stuffies back to their starting positions on the floor. Winters was the big clunky elephant. Sosa was being played by the panther. Lion stayed flopped over on his side, representing me and my fantasy as the ultimate string puller. Gingerly, I refolded the Monkeez I’d snatched from off the changing table, and placed it in the stuffed pachiderm’s lap.
“How do I get you,” I whispered and twitched at the diaper Janet had left on the coffee table, “to put that...on her…?”
It was a nice daydream, but one that I couldn’t yet write a satisfying conclusion to. Most of the melodrama, especially the dialogue, remained firmly inside my skull, but it helped me to visualize the blocking. However I was going to do this, it’d have to be perfect.
I leaned out and looked into the kitchen through the living room doorway. Janet had sequestered herself with over a week’s worth of papers and worksheets to grade in various subjects. She was falling behind. Another thing about being a new Mommy that she was coming to regret was that entertaining me was cutting into her time grading papers. She’d half done it to herself, trying to get a reaction, almost any reaction, out of me that just wasn’t coming. As a result, she was buckling down and catching herself up and I was being given some much needed benign neglect.
Such neglect allowed me to relish past victories and envision what might yet happen. Part jouska, part strategizing, part revenge porn, it was my brain’s way of working through hypothetical future encounters and how I might inflict more mischief and hurt.
If I’d been a master thief, I would have commissioned an exact replica of where my crime would take place. If I’d been an old time detective I might have used a cork board, photos, yarn, and a strict timetable of events as best as I could predict and understand them.
I was a captured and adopted Little. I made do with stuffies and plastic bins to pass the time. To me it was less like playing pretend and more like arranging pieces on a chess board or staging a play; a tragedy preferably. Using this technique, I’d already come up with half a dozen ways to get Skinner’s goat, and I might have dreamed up one or two curveballs for Zoge. Sosa and Winters though…? I was both immensely proud that I’d started that ticking pipe bomb and utterly disappointed that I very likely wouldn’t get to see the shrapnel fly when it went off.
A large yawn bubbled up and came out of me and I let out a massive cat-like stretch. Not quite eleven in the morning and I was dozing on my feet . Boredom can make a man sleepy. So can the drain and strain of making captors miserable. I’d spent most every night declaring my hatred for Janet over the baby monitor. At least a thousand times before I’d shut up and try to sleep.
“I hate you, Janet. I hate you, Janet. I hate you, Janet.”
Always calm. Always level. I wasn’t going to give her my rage; nothing that could be written off as a tantrum. I wanted her to feel my resentment and anger like cold icepicks into her eardrums. I wanted to keep her up at night.
That was part of the ‘new Mommy’ experience, right? If not, I was going to make it one.
“I hate you, Janet. I hate you, Janet. I hate you, Janet.”
I kept this ritual going throughout the night. Before I’d let myself close my eyes, I’d say it a thousand times to the baby monitor before laying my head back down. If I had a nightmare and woke up, or I had to pee or whatever, that meant a thousand more ‘Hate Janets’ before I could get rest. It was very likely I was getting more sleep in Beouf’s cribs than in my own.
Beouf wouldn’t have stood for that particular flavor of nonsense, and there’d be enough snitches to immediately single me out assuming she somehow didn’t recognize my voice. Beouf wasn’t above group punishment, either. It would have been hard to keep allies if Beouf and Zoge rained down as hard as they had for Why Day. So I used the afternoons to recoup the energy used to antagonize and inspire others. That and I was legitimately tired.
With Janet and the baby monitor, I had more options. I could pretend to be asleep when I heard her approaching footsteps or just look up and stare at her, unspeaking. A ghost that she only heard when her back was turned. Kind of like that one cartoon with the singing frog. Problem was Janet never came.
Which was weird. I’d seen her half of the baby monitor here and there. Toting me around the house, I caught sight of it more than once over the last couple of weeks. It’d be by her seat in the living room after dinner. Once or twice when she’d almost forgotten something heading out the door, she’d doubled back into her bedroom with me in her arms. Her half of the one way walky talky was right by the nightstand. It was on. Every time. Why wasn’t she reacting, then?
There was no way that she was turning it off and then turning it back on. Not with that kind of consistency. Why wasn’t she coming when I taunted her, then? She couldn’t be that patient, could she?
“If you want to hate me forever,” she’d promised, “you have that right. That won’t change a thing about how I feel about you.”
Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.
Not even Beouf was that patient.
She was sleeping soundly, too, as near as I could tell. Only one of us was developing bags under their eyes or yawning when not fueled by spite and adrenaline. Much like with Winters and Sosa, I felt like I was missing something; a piece to the puzzle, some bit of data that was going over my head or that I was taking for granted.
“This is both a great safety tool, and a great educational tool,” Skinner had promised at the shower. What was that about? Was I being mindfucked somehow? More reason to avoid sleep.
Quietly, I laughed to myself. Wouldn’t it have been just awful if she’d gotten the sending and receiving ends mixed up? The thing in my room didn’t have any speakers that I could see, and I didn’t hear any tossing or turning or snoring flood into the nursery in the middle of the night. So that perfectly mundane explanation was unlikely. Funny, but unlikely.
“Muffet Littles will be back, after a word from our sponsors!” The Television announced.
Inwardly I groaned. I tolerated the television being on, only because it further obscured my activities.
“I’m growing up, I do the potty dance
I don’t pee-pee in my pants”
An inaudible growl scratched the back of my throat. The diaper commercials on Amazon programming had a fifty-fifty chance for having an actual baby or a Little as the lead. The training pants always had a real toddler
“Your growing child is finally mastering potty training,” the voice over announcer said. “But because accidents happen, new Easy-Ons can be taken off like real underwear, but protect like a diaper. And because Roam wasn’t built in a day, they’ve got easy open sides to help clean up the messiest accidents.”
An Amazon wets their pants and it was an accident. Anyone smaller and it was by design. I was shaking my head in disgust before I even knew it.
I’ll be big someday!”
It always came down to size, didn’t it?
From behind me, Janet reached out and switched the T.V. off. “I think that’s enough cartoons for now.” I tensed up. I hadn’t noticed her come in. “A nice quiet weekend at home and vegging out in front of the T.V. aren’t the same thing.”
Without further comment she laid me down on the carpet and started unbuttoning my onesie. I wasn’t that wet, but it’s hard to stay dry when you have to chug three bottles of apple juice just to look busy enough to be left alone.
I rolled my head to the side away from the T.V. and saw the wipes, powder and fresh diaper Janet was about to change me into. She must have seen it in the elephant stuffie’s lap and gotten ideas.
No fussing or crying from me. I laid there and took it. Ankles in the air, cold wipes. The whole nine yards. I would give her nothing to work with. On the bright side, being changed on the floor was still better than being tied down to a matted table; doubly so compared to Beouf’s bathroom where my own infantilized reflection taunted me through the whole process.
“You’re not that wet,” she said, stating the obvious. “But a dry diaper still feels oodles better than a wet one.”
I fought back the urge to scream, or quip, or argue. I wasn’t going to give her anything to work with. I took a deep breath, ignored the perfume coming from her or the soft scent of the baby powder she was putting on my bottom.
“Much better,” she said, taping up the Monkeez and snapping onesie back up. She wasn’t done though.
Grabbing my hips, she started rocking me to the left and right and began chanting.
“You roll it,
You roll it,
You roll it,
You roll it,”
Each ‘roll’ signaled a change in direction. Left. Right. Left. Right. I held my breath and tensed my stomach for what was coming next.
Every syllable of the last line, she poked a different spot in my abdomen. I was her ball of dough, and her tickling pokes and prods were her adding ‘special ingredients’. It was one of the songs she’d acquired at that Little Voices meeting. Raisins. Chocolate chips. Walnuts. Infinite potential variations and repeats. Infinite verses.
Thankfully, Janet stuck to the one. My jaw unclenched and I exhaled. It tickled like crazy, but I was committed to reinforcing as little of her crazy as I could manage. My silence was rewarded from the hint of disappointment I was able to glean from her fading smile.
In the long run, Little Voices might be good for me. How rewarding would it be, over time, for Janet to see all those giggling Natives who’d long since been broken and then wonder why oh why couldn’t her Little love it like they did?
To be clear, I didn’t expect her to reach the correct conclusion about me and my ‘Maturosis’. I expected her to suffer an existential crisis concerning the nature of her fitness as a Mommy. It was terrible, dark, vengeful thoughts like that helped me get back to sleep in the dark of the night after I’d woken up and been forced to evacuate my bladder or bowels into the padded seat inside my pajamas.
“Do you want to help me throw your diaper away?” she asked. She grabbed the wet, balled up Monkeez. and held it out for me, almost like she was offering me a chance to play with it. I sat up and made my face blank. If I didn’t have to speak to Janet, I wasn’t going to.
She held the putrid piss soaked plastic firm. “Yes or no?”
So much for silence. “No.” I made my voice as hard and clipped as possible. Janet was up to something. What, I wasn’t sure, but she was up to something. The gears were definitely turning.
“Alrighty then,” Janet said. She stood up and took the diaper with her back to the pail in the nursery. With fast, powerful strides it didn’t take more than fifteen seconds for her to come back. I hadn’t moved from my spot on the floor. She was definitely up to something. I braced myself for a long morning.
My ex-friend poured hand sanitizer into her palms and rubbed them together. She held it down to my eye level, close enough that I could see it, but still out of reach. “Do you want some hand sanitizer?”
I gave nothing. She might as well have been speaking to me in Yamatoan.
Her hand did not budge. Her voice did not waver. “Do you want some hand sanitizer?” She asked. “Yes or no?” I made no move. “Yes or no?”
She preempted my stillness by grabbing my hands and squirting the sterilizing fluid into my hands and forcing them to rub together. The cool feeling of the alcohol evaporating up to my wrists contrasted with the heat burning in my ears. I hadn’t immediately considered the game of limiting my answers to yes or no but still remaining motionless- that could have been funny- and by the time it happened Janet had literally forced my hand.
So much for that.
Janet finished washing my hands for me and picked up the powder and the wipes from off the floor. She looked backwards into the kitchen and whispered something to herself. Then she looked.down to me. Then back to the kitchen. Then down to me. The wheels in her head were turning. Huh. So that’s what it looked like from the outside.
Ten seconds later two hardback books thumped on the carpet. She went to the kitchen and returned with an enormous stack of papers. Her long peacock colored skirt pooled around her legs as she sat down cross legged on the floor in front of me. I tensed my body, preparing myself to be scooped up and deposited in the nest between her legs. One of the books took that spot, instead. “Do you want to help me grade papers?”
I said nothing, same as before. In this instance, my insides weren’t steeled with spite and petulance. They felt like jelly that had been stirred by confusion. Grading papers? It was arguably the most adult task I’d been offered in over a fortnight.
It was definitely the most adult task I’d been offered in over a fornight.
“Do you want to help me grade papers?” Janet repeated. “Yes or no?”
She was already digging out a red tipped felt pen, that bitch. “Because I think it’s important that we spend quality time together. Even if it’s not big and flashy like a trip to the zoo. That and it’s something I know you’re good at, so I thought you might enjoy it.”
Fuck me. Fuck me sideways.
“But I’m a…” I stopped and gritted my teeth. “But you think I’m a baby.”
“Yes,” she admitted. “It’s like your pediatrician said: A thirty-two year old baby. I’m not a doctor but I think thirty-two is old enough to grade some spelling tests.” She peeled off some loose leaf sheets from the stack and set it on the second book she’d tossed. “The word family is silent letters.”
“What if I refuse?”
My captor seemed thoughtful, but not overly concerned. “Then I’ll grade them all by myself. You can go back to playing with Lion and your other stuffie friends or whatever it was you were doing before I came in. Or do something different, I just wanted to give you the choice.”
“I...I…” Papers. Grading papers. Never in a million years did I think I’d miss grading papers.
Janet held out the grading pen. “Do you want to help me grade papers?” She didn’t even call herself ‘Mommy’ and I had been the one to bring up the b-word. I had next to no fresh fuel to stoke my anger. On top of all that, this was as close to how we’d been that school year before as I was likely to get.
I missed that time.
I had so little else.
“Yes or no?”
I took the pen from her and waddled over to the stack. “Yes.”
“Well, alright then.”
Sitting down on my knees I started organizing the stack to my liking. I mentally designated the papers I placed to my right as the pile I needed to grade, I’d use the book as a hard surface, and I’d shuffle them to the left after grading. Simple but effective. I took the first test, slapped it down on the textbook…
A lot can happen in a single breath. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted in that moment to do something just awful: I could scribble on the tests. I could grade them wrong on purpose. I could tear them all up in a flurry of confetti and toss them in the air.
I wasn’t going to do that. Besides pragmatic matters like knowing I wouldn’t get to pull such a stunt twice and it might be used to justify even worse treatment, I still had a tiny bit of compassion left in me. These papers represented kids to me. They weren’t my students, but they were just kids all the same; dumb, stupid, silly, innocent kids. Amazon or not, why would I try to hurt or mess with the hard work of a bunch of eight year olds?
I took one more breath to center myself.
All of that, and Jeremy Merriwether was in fourth grade now. So what was the point?
I tuned out the world, and started grading. I began marking down the misspelled words, providing the correct spelling next to them where needed, then wrote the total correct as both a fraction and a percentage. I finished each one down at the bottom right corner and put my initials in cursive. ‘C.G.’ No reason. It just felt right.
On matters of right and wrong, about five papers in, I realized how wrong I was. These were my kids. A former student is always their teacher’s pupil, even after they’ve long since outgrown. I couldn’t remember their exact faces in my mind’s eye-they were likely a lot slimmer and a lot taller than they’d been four to five years prior. It’s still super hard to spend a one to two years with a kid, constantly shouting, calling, and praising their names and not have those memories stored back somewhere in your brain.
I slowed my grading and read each test, appreciating the names that I recognized, and tried to pull back images and memories from long ago and gossip around campus.
Penelope always did have good handwriting. Very detail oriented, that one.
Huh. Someone had taught Lydia M (not to be confused with Lydia Z) how to spell! I wished I could take credit for that, but I couldn’t. Somebody must have worked wonders on her with sight words or something.
How was Torrence Thomas still writing his name with lower case “t’s”? He knew how to capitalize letters. He had to be doing it on purpose now. A quick scan of his paper revealed that he had capitalized the first letter in every word. Every word but ‘tomb’ . That cheeky little shit!
Princeton’s test came pre-marked. Someone had circled select letters in pencil but not a word was misspelled. In the right hand corner where I would have put my initials, in miniscule print read: “See back for joke.”
I flipped it over. In the boy’s jagged, sloppy handwriting was written:
“If you take the W in ansWer, the H in gHost, the extra A in aArdvark, and the t in casTle; you could make WHAT but no one would hear it because all the letters are SILENT!”
An actual, factual, stupidly mirthful grin etched itself beneath my nose and I pivoted on the floor to tell Janet. “Hey Ja-!” Oh no! What was I doing?! For a few precious moments I had forgotten where I was. For a bare handful of minutes I’d allowed myself to tune out my bare legs or how thick my underwear was; how it technically wasn’t even underwear and my shirt wasn’t really a shirt. I’d let myself forget that my classroom wasn’t my classroom and that Janet wasn’t my coworker. Joking and showing off what bits of cute stupidity and even more adorable cleverness was something that teachers did with each other.
For just a few minutes, I’d allowed myself to pretend I was still a teacher. The fantasy was more intoxicating to me than the fantasy of escape; more gratifying than a thousand tiny revenge plays enacted by stuffed animals. Waking up from that daydream felt like running face first into a brick wall.
“Yes?” Janet asked, oblivious to the pain I’d just caused myself.
“Nothing,” I lied. I pivoted back and started staring down at the stack of papers. I should have torn them all up and tossed them to the ceiling. Then Janet would never dare tempt me with this again. I didn’t.
“Are you sure?” Janet asked. She had that cossetting look in her eye. If I didn’t say the right thing, I would end up in her lap. I wanted to be left alone. I needed to use her own preconceptions against her.
I reached out towards my stuffed cellmate. “Lion.” I said. “Give me Lion.”
“You want Lion?”
With her longer reach it was nothing for Janet to lean over pick up the leo and hand it to over. “Here you go. Anything else?”
I bowed my head and pretended to be preoccupied with Lion, positioning him, just so, propping him up so that he’d be guarding the front of my makeshift work surface. Having no bones he’d be a slumped over drunken guard, but a guard nonetheless. “No.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m. Fine.Janet.” I slammed my eyes shut and did my best to steady myself. I couldn’t let her see me like this. I couldn’t let her see me so close to breaking down. If I was going to cry, it’d be on my terms and no one else’s. It would be because I’d decided to be a jackass and scream at the world, not because I was overwhelmed by anything in particular.
“Why do you call me that?” she asked. My eyes opened. “Why do you call me Janet?”
Finally. Something to use to sharpen myself; steel myself from more complex thoughts. Something to be angry at! “What do you mean?” I said. “We’re alone. There’s no pressure or expectation that I talk about you in a certain way. That was the deal. Or did that deal only apply to my first day in Beouf’s?”
“It’s still valid,” Janet said. “But why do you call me that? Why ‘Janet’?”
I raised my eyebrow in challenge. I sure as hell wasn’t calling her ‘Mommy’. “What would you prefer?”
She held out the palm of her hand as a soft, non-threatening gesture. “Nothing,” she said. “Janet’s fine. It’s just...why ‘Janet’?” I had no idea what she was talking about and it must have shown. “Like, unless you’re really mad and saying their whole name, you tend to call Amazons by our last names. Why am I ‘Janet’?”
My temples started to buzz. Was that true? I hadn’t consciously noticed before. I’d called her Grange before, hadn’t I? When we first met? “No...?”
“Like, I think you sometimes used to call Forrest ‘Raine’, but this feels different.”
It did. It was. “No…?”
“Why is that?”
Inside my own mind, I felt like the walls were closing in. I was naked. Vulnerable. “Because you used to be my friend.”
It didn’t have the effect I was aiming for. “Mrs. Beouf used to be your friend, too. You always called her Beouf.”
A little glass tube was being constructed around me and a giant hand was shoving me back down all over again. “I don’t...I mean...I didn’t...I don’t…” Reaching in and taking away my wedding ring. “No…?”
“It’s fine. I like it. I like ‘Mommy’ better,” she blushed, “but calling me ‘Janet’ is fine, too.”
My tongue was a desert. “Okay…” I stopped talking again. I finished grading the spelling test, then accepted some basic algebra worksheets from her. The weekend seemed even longer after that.