“There you are!” Abby gushed from behind the cash register when Will stepped cautiously inside the café. He shrank beneath the amused glances of those seated at the counter, not knowing what he should do with himself until his adoptive mother sent him on his way. “Liam’s already set up in the corner booth, could you please see if he needs any help with his homework before starting on your own?”
The woman gave this directive before returning to caring for her customers, clearly having no doubts that Will would do as she asked. Though the boy hated to do so, he slipped across the dining room to join his foster brother on the other side, shaking off the knowing smiles that followed him as he went. Liam looked up shyly but said nothing when Will sat down heavily across from him, the eight-year-old scribbling at his second-grade worksheet – adjective exercises, Will noticed, a list of sentences completed by the student penciling in the appropriate word. Will bit back a wince when he saw the clumsiness with which Liam had scribbled happy, delicious, beautiful, amazing, the younger boy either unaware or unconcerned that his handwriting was indistinguishable from that of an actual eight-year-old.
“Hey.” Will began, determined to push past the awkwardness between them. “How was your day?”
Liam’s pencil suddenly stopped, the younger boy staring at the older as though he’d asked a very stupid question. Indeed, Will instantly felt silly for opening with such a banal query, the preteen stammering for something cooler to say until Liam cut him off with a giggle.
“Sorry, I just didn’t expect that.” Liam piped. “My day was awful. School was boring and Damon was being a jerk at recess and I had to eat that gross mango GoGurt at lunch.”
“...uh-huh.” Will said after a moment, disturbed by the genuine childishness of his answer. “And your session with Jane? How did that go?”
“Pretty good, I guess.” The boy broke into a wistful smile. “You know she actually has a DS in there? Killed half the session playing Pokémon.”
Will pursed his lips together anxiously, suddenly fearing that his young companion might be even more far gone than he had first suspected. “Liam, are you…feeling okay?” He ventured, getting up and leaning a little across the table to scan the boy’s amber eyes like a concerned optometrist.
“Yeah, bro.” The younger boy answered – flinching back a little at the unwanted intrusion into his personal space. “Stop being weird.”
Liam let out a frustrated tut. “So what? It’s fun – and I was just trying to kill time.”
“But you remember that you used to be an adult, right?” The older boy continued to probe.
Will relaxed a little, settling back into his seat, but he maintained his rigid anxious posture – continuing to eye the younger boy with a skeptical frown.
“You shouldn’t have played it.” He lectured. “That’s gotta be how they make people forget right? Get you to do little kid stuff ‘til it feels normal.”
Liam just shook his head. “What can you do?” He said resignedly, doodling a few random shapes on the edge of his worksheet.
“Not play along! Keep thinking like an adult!”
“Oh yeah?” Liam retorted, slightly amused by his friend’s theory. “So what did you do with Jane?”
Will winced, a little embarrassed to reveal that he’d passed his own session in the even more childish pursuit of hHidden pPictures.
The younger boy snorted. “Real mature.”
“Like from that kid’s magazine?” Liam continued incredulously, suppressing a laugh.
Will gave a sheepish frown. “Yeah – Highlights. I used to get a subscription.”
“Wow, you were a real dork.” Liam teased, sticking out his tongue mischievously.
“Shuddup!” Will repeated a little more forcefully. He felt a strange childish urge to give the boy a good thump on the shoulder – but he suppressed it, trying to return to his point. “What I’m trying to say is, how did she know that? I used to be crazy about that magazine. It was like…the exact thing to make me start thinking like a kid again.”
“Probably just a coincidence.”
“There’s more to it. I saw – she had this whole file on me!” Will persisted as he shook his head. “If I was meant to be an accident, if I’m only here ‘cause I found you, then what’s in that file?”
Liam gave an exasperated sigh, locking eyes with his foster brother. “All I know is you shouldn’t try to find out. If they catch us sneaking around, things will only get worse. I’m lucky I didn’t get bumped down to Kindergarten for that stunt yesterday.”
As badly as Will wanted to shoot off a retort to the defeatist proposal, he was caught off-guard by the sudden reminder of what had taken place just the day before. There was an awkward silence as the two boys considered how much things had changed since then.
“I’m sorry.” Liam eventually whispered. “I…I just don’t want things to get any worse for you. It’s better if we just…leave it. Focus on our homework.”
Much as Will wished to push the matter, he knew that there was no point in being direct as long as Liam had his defenses up. For a few minutes the boy did just as his foster brother suggested, pulling out a crisp thin paperback to start on his assigned reading for the evening. Their tiny quiet bubble felt all the stranger for the flurry of joyous activity around them, Abby playing both chef and waitress to the smattering of friendly townsfolk that chatted and laughed over their homemade meals. Feeling smothered by the silence – and bored to tears by the simplicity of the story he was reading – Will eventually cleared his throat as Liam warily looked up.
“I’ll understand if you don’t want to talk about it, but...” The older boy carefully ventured. “...would you be willing to tell me why this happened to you?”
“...you go first.” Liam mumbled, then reddened. “I mean, I heard about the lawyer thing and why you were driving up here, but I don’t know anything else about you.”
“Okay.” Will sat up straight, figuring that was fair enough. “What would you like to know?”
“Well...” Liam faltered, suddenly shy. “For starters...why you were so eager to help some kid you never met.”
“That was nothing special.” Will shrugged, not wanting to let Liam know that the boy’s terrified, pleading eyes had been seared into his consciousness. “Anyone could’ve seen that you were in trouble.”
“Yeah, but not everybody would’ve done something about it. So why?”
“...the last place I worked was at a summer camp.” Will began, smiling at a frowning Liam to assure the boy he was going somewhere with this. “It was a seasonal gig and the pay was lousy, but that job was the best I’ve ever had – partly because it felt good to be there for kids who were being bullied, feeling homesick, or just needed someone to talk to. You don’t have to tell me that not everybody who sees a person in need does something about it – I worked with enough lousy counselors to know that for a fact. There’s just something in me that won’t let me turn away, for better or worse.”
“...for worse, in this case.”
“Maybe.” Will smiled, glad to at least get the younger boy speaking again. “All right, now it’s your turn. Why’d they pick you for this?”
“...when I was a grown-up...I mean, an adult...” Liam reddened as he stole a shy glance from his foster brother. “I didn’t have what they called a ‘real job’. They didn’t think I was contributing to the town by getting people to donate while I played games on Twitch and stuff.”
“You mean you were a streamer? Cool!” Liam managed a tiny smile when Will gave his enthusiastic endorsement of the boy’s former career. “And you were making enough money to live off of?”
“Yeah!” Liam cried, as though just now remembering the indignity of it all. “I wasn’t, like, rich or anything but I could pay for my food and rent and stuff. One day I’m in my own place, only to wake up the next in Abby’s house as an eight-year-old. They didn’t even give me a chance to quit streaming and do something else.”
“What would you have done if they had?”
“Leave forever.” Liam huffed as he slouched in his seat. “I always thought that the way things were done here was weird but I was too chicken to ever say anything about it. Probably ‘cause I really did enjoy living in Viridia right up until a couple days ago. And I guess I will again once I forget that I used to be a grown-up.”
“What about your real parents?” Will asked. “Don’t they live in Viridia too?”
“No.” The younger boy answered matter-of-factly. “They died.”
Will looked apologetic, realizing he’d put his foot in his mouth. “I’m so sorry – “
“It’s fine.” Liam interrupted. “It was a long time ago. Long before this.”
Will didn’t know what to say – so he simply nodded and stayed silent, furrowing his eyebrows in sympathy as the melancholy little boy across from him picked back up his pencil and finished the last few exercises on his worksheet. He was saddened by how completely Liam seemed to have accepted his fate, but who could really blame him? Exhausted as he was by all the roadblocks he’d run up against during the day – the hopeless plans, the telling-off, the condescending smugness of his captors – the deep dark pit of oblivion over which he was hovering seemed almost inviting to Will.
He turned his face towards the wall, thinking about his own mother. When had they last spoken properly? Four years ago? Five? Even if he wanted to, he wouldn’t know where to contact her. He was certain she’d hadn’t used the cell number he had for her in years. She moved around a lot. Even when he was a kid, their housing situation hadn’t exactly been stable. He’d moved schools a dozen times. He was always the new boy, never sticking around anywhere, never making any real long-lasting friends.
Still, as a kid, he’d always been able to rely on his mother – but he’d forced himself to cut the apron strings when he entered adulthood. He’d moved across the country, used the time zone difference as an excuse to let the calls dwindle, even stopped coming home for Christmas. Will was too busy, after all – going to law school, making something of himself. He could have made an effort to stay in contact, it wouldn’t have been such a burden, but he just hadn’t. In fact, he’d actively fled from the responsibility; treating his mother as just another old relic of childhood he could safely pack away – like an old coat he’d outgrown. He’d gotten by just fine without her before. His life had been on track, he had a well-paying job lined up, but now…
“Are you alright?” Liam’s voice cut through his thoughts. It was only then that Will realized he was sobbing. He turned away from the wall, revealing the wreckage of snot and tears that had coagulated on his face to the younger boy. Liam shuffled hurriedly out of his side of the booth, cuddling up beside Will and wordlessly enveloping him in his skinny arms.
Will backed away from the gesture, burying his face into the fabric of the bench. “I’m fine!” He tried to insist, going to mop up his tears with the collar of his shirt polo – but for some reason they simply wouldn’t stop flowing. He felt very ashamed, imagining that everyone in the café was staring at him as he continued to heave out a series of hiccupping gulps. “It’s nothing.”
The smaller boy didn’t judge – simply laying his soot-black hair against the blubbering preteen’s side and patting his hand patiently on his leg to the rhythm of his quivering breath. After a while, Will’s sense of panic began to subside, and he finally worked up the courage to unstick his face from the bench. His stomach twisted, however, as he saw the concerned face of Abby hovering over the booth.
“Will? Are you okay, sweetie?” Abby asked as she ran a comforting hand through the sandy hair of the trembling boy. “What’s the matter?”
“Like you care.” Will spat, too humiliated by his public bawling to show Abby the slightest bit of patience. Despite this, the woman remained warm and worried, looking first at her older boy and then at her younger child, who squirmed in embarrassment at being caught cuddling his foster brother. To Will’s surprise, the woman merely squeezed his skinny shoulder and smiled sympathetically at the boy.
“The two of you are lucky to have each other.”
The woman left without another word, leaving a befuddled Will to sniff and wipe his eyes of the last of his tears. Both boys blushed when their eyes met, scooting apart before Liam awkwardly returned to his side of the table.
“...thanks.” Will managed as he cast about for something else to discuss. “Do you, um, need any help with your homework?”
“Nah. This stuff’s easy.” Liam declared, though Will couldn’t tell that if he was speaking from typical boyish bravado or from what remained of his adult faculties.
“Yeah.” Will echoed as he set aside his book, realizing that he had been acting very silly for even caring whether he got his homework done. “If you’re finished, then what should we do now?”
“Not much to do.” Liam shrugged as he doodled in the corners of a worksheet. “The café doesn’t close for another couple hours, so we’re stuck here until then.”
“Maybe...” Will narrowed his eyes. “But maybe not. C’mon.”
The older boy grabbed the hand of the startled younger, pulling him out of the booth and up to the counter where Abby was holding court. Much as it pained Will to say the word – especially with a handful of patrons there looking on in amusement – he knew he had to play along to get what he wanted.
“Mom? Liam and I did our homework, is it okay if we go for a walk?” Will asked with all the boyish deference of a real preteen. Abby chewed on her lower lip as she regarded her foster sons, urged on by the playful comments of her patrons.
“Go on, Ab, let the boys have some fun.”
“They won’t cause any trouble, will you?”
“There’s still plenty of daylight left, they won’t be in any danger.”
Abby, seemingly swayed by these arguments, gave Will her permission but with one condition.
“You and Liam are to be back here before it gets dark, understand?” She instructed. “You shouldn’t be wandering the streets at night and I need your help closing up besides.”
“Sure thing!” Will readily agreed. Much as he hated to be bound to her deference – to stand there and be subject to the adoring comments of the cafégoers at the counter as she pondered their fate – he was willing to suffer through that indignation to earn some time for himself and Liam away from the prying eyes of the conspiring adults. He grabbed Liam’s hand again and pulled him out the front door, releasing it with a blush once he and the younger boy were out on the sidewalk.
“Sorry if I surprised you,” Will mumbled. “I just had to get out of there.”
“No, it’s okay.” Liam shrugged, kicking at the ground as he and his foster brother started walking nowhere in particular. “I know how you feel.”
The older boy nodded solemnly at the realization that, indeed, Liam was the only other person on the planet who could know how he was feeling right now. Determined as he was to pull his foster brother from his defeatist mindset, he found himself just re-litigating the same arguments he’d made to Liam earlier in the day.
“...it really is beautiful here,” Will said quietly after a few moments, staring off at a misty row of firs clinging tenaciously to a rocky incline.
“Yeah…” Liam agreed, glancing up at his older foster brother. Will’s wistful thousand-yard stare might have come across as solemn and brooding were he still an adult, but with his innocent eleven-year-old features he looked adorably dopey. The younger boy smirked, suppressing a giggle at the sight of Will’s mouth hanging open as he beheld the expansive breath-taking landscape. “Race ya!” Liam suddenly declared, darting off down a narrow path amongst a sea of gnarled pine trees.
“Huh?” Will exclaimed stupidly, only realizing that his smaller companion had disappeared when he was already fifty paces down the trail. “No fair!” he declared, barreling after him. “Wait up!”
He was surprised at how energetic he felt as he zipped his way through the trees, dodging through branches, hopping over fallen logs, and thundering across the uneven ground at a pace that would have laid him out in his old body. Will soon caught up to Liam, but the younger boy had won the race by a mile. He was standing proudly in the middle of a private little clearing, a patch of vibrant green grass sticking out boldly amidst the muddy browns and oranges of the fallen leaves in the forest proper.
“Took you long enough, slow poke!” Liam teased, sticking out his tongue.
Will didn’t know what it was, but as he jogged the last few paces, he felt an overwhelming burst of playful brotherly competitiveness. Barging forward, he wrapped the smaller boy in his arms and bundled him easily down onto the soft spongy ground.
“You might be faster, but I’m still stronger!” He boasted as he shot his hands under Liam’s t-shirt and began to tickle him mercilessly on his soft little tummy. As the boy broke into peels of infectious giggles, Will gave a broad smile – looking down adoringly at the way the smaller boy twisted and turned in vain as he tried to escape his expert grip.
“Sto-oh-ohp!” The little boy finally begged, kicking his legs wildly around as the larger boy kept him pinned to the ground.
Will stopped momentarily at the sound of his pleas, a little concerned that, in his enthusiasm, he might have accidentally hurt the younger boy. As Liam got to his knees however, he soon realized that he’d been duped. His foster brother bit his lip mischievously before springing forward like a Bengal tiger, launching his own tickle attack. Will tried to fight him off, but as the boy’s fingers infiltrated behind his shirt and danced across his belly, he couldn’t do anything but giggle dumbly and wiggle around on the ground like a helpless infant – taken entirely unawares not only by Liam’s counter attack, but also by his new body’s terribly ticklish sensitivities.
“You...little...brat!” Will gasped between peals of laughter, amazed at how little his size advantage mattered while Liam expertly assailed his most ticklish spots. Having not been tickled in well over fifteen years, the older boy was initially more than happy to lose himself to the exhilaration of being unable to stop the giggles that bubbled up endlessly within him, of his small body reflexively curling and twisting to dodge Liam’s tiny darting fingers. Will’s boyish sense of competitiveness, however, wouldn’t allow him to let Liam remain in control for long. Eventually he rolled away from the smaller boy and scrambled to his feet – and though Liam leapt at him again, Will managed to dodge and catch his foster brother in a side headlock. The older boy grinned at the younger’s playful howling, knowing that he wasn’t applying the hold tightly enough to cause Liam any real distress.
“Lemme goooo!” The eight-year-old laugh-cried as he struggled and squirmed beneath Will’s comparatively massive strength. Liam may not have been in any actual danger but he sure was fighting as though he were, the older boy having to exercise every bit of his superior power to keep the younger anchored.
“Never!” Liam shouted as he pushed at the skinny arms of his captor with all his might.
“Alright then, you asked for it.” Will kept Liam’s head trapped with one arm as he delivered a devastating noogie to the crown of the younger boy, who squealed as though he were being drawn and quartered. “How about now?”
“Okay! Okay!” Liam yipped, snickering even as he suffered through the excruciating attack. “I give!”
Liam squeaked when Will, as opposed to letting him go, instead used the grip to pull the small boy into one last tumble. Their shouts and laughter echoed throughout the clearing as they rolled onto their backs, red-faced and grinning, their scrawny chests rising and falling as they admired what little of the high clear sky they could see through the thick choke of pine needles. Neither moved or said a word for several moments – when a wide-eyed Will sat up and frowned.
“What’s the matter?” Liam asked, concerned. Will held up a hand to quiet the boy, who donned a frown of his own when he heard the nearby snap of a stepped-upon branch and the growing buzz of indistinct chatter.
“Someone’s coming.” Will sighed as he stood and helped Liam to his feet. “C’mon, let’s duck behind a tree and let them go by – I really don’t feel like dealing with anyone right now.”
Liam was happy to follow Will off the path and behind a slender redwood, the tree just thick enough for the pair to curl up side by side with their backs against it. They shared an uncertain look, however, when the voices grew close enough for them to realize that they belonged to young boys – three of them, it sounded like.
“Are you sure it came from over here?”
“Positive. One of the voices I didn’t recognize, but I know for a fact the other belonged to that weirdo new kid.”
“Do you know those guys?” Liam asked a paling Will when the trio of preteens stepped into the clearing. “It sounds like the biggest one is talking about you.”
“You could say that.” Will grimaced. “We had a run-in during recess and they basically threatened to kick my ass the next time we met.”
“WE KNOW YOU’RE OUT HERE, NEW KID!” The pair jumped and clamped their hands over their mouths to cover their yips when Lucas suddenly shouted out. His voice, thin and reedy as it may have been, carried weight for the vicious glee in his tone as it rang out across the hills. “COME OUT NOW AND WE’LL TAKE IT EASY ON YOU!”
There were a few beats of horrible suspense as the two brothers stayed deathly still. The only thing which broke the silence was their low synchronized breaths, the occasional shuffling of leaves, and a cacophony of incomprehensible murmuring coming from the bullies exchanging low conspiratorial whispers just a dozen or so yards away. As the voices echoed quieter and quieter through the forest, Will thought briefly that they might have gotten away with it – but just then Lucas’ sneering tone cut through the peaceful forest ambience once again.
“Billy boy…” he cooed. “Come out, come out wherever you are…”
He was close, very close – perhaps just a few feet from their hiding place. Will raised a questioning eyebrow to Liam, as if to ask permission to show himself, but the younger boy shook his head – eyes filled with terror.
“Aww, are da widdle babies scared?” He mocked, clearly confident that his victims were somewhere nearby.
Will gritted his teeth, all too easily riled up by Lucas’ lame attempt at teasing. He moved to get up, but Liam once again held him back – entreating him with a pair of pleading puppy dog eyes.
“Come on new kid!” Lucas bellowed. “Come out now, and maybe I’ll still let you run home to mommy with your face intact!
The mention of his mother was what finally did it. Will gave an aggressive grunt and rose purposefully to his feet, giving a final apologetic glance to Liam.
“Run home.” He instructed in a low whisper. “I’ve got a plan.”
He didn’t hang around to listen to the younger boy’s protests, slinking out from behind the redwood tree and walking boldly into the clearing. Lucas was standing there alone, his arms crossed and facing the other direction. He turned around as he heard the sound of twigs snapping beneath Will’s feet, contorting his fat face into a gloating smirk.
“There you are.” He purred contentedly. “Where’s your friend?”
“Where are your goons?” Will countered.
“Looking for you.” The bigger boy explained. “But seriously, where’s the other kid?”
“There’s no one else here.”
Lucas shook his head skeptically. “Don’t lie. There was another voice.”
“Maybe I was just talking to myself.”
“Whatever, freak.” Lucas conceded. It was clear he had found his real target anyway. He pounded his fists together cartoonishly as he approached his victim. “I’m gonna have fun with this.”
Will held up a warding hand, maintaining a stoic grimace.
“What about tomorrow?” He asked. “What about when I show Abby, and Jane, and Mr. Byrd the bruises? What about when I tell them that it was you who did it? What about when I get Julio, and all the others, to back me up? What then? When you get a mouthful of the gas and wake up back in Kindergarten?”
Lucas gave a momentary scandalized gasp at the mention of the regression program, his piggish eyes bulging in their sockets. Will gave an animalistic snort and took a few bold steps forward, hoping to seal the deal and spook the boy into running off and leaving him alone. Unfortunately, it seemed that the bully was a little braver than he’d initially given him credit – or perhaps Will had simply made a very grave miscalculation. After a brief eyeing of the perimeter to ensure that no one else was nearby, Lucas soon regained his composure.
“I could have you back in diapers tomorrow if I wanted.” He bragged, an uneasy smile returning to his pudgy face.
“You don't say.” Will hoped his crossed arms and dry tone had hidden the shiver that went down his spine. “How, exactly?”
“My dad's the head of the town council.” Lucas's smugness gave way to annoyance at the new kid's puzzled look. “Are you actually so stupid that you don't know about the council?”
“I just got here yesterday, dumbass.” Will snapped back, hating and savoring that he'd again sunken to the bully's level. “Sorry if I missed the guided tour.”
“The council are the ones that decide who gets the gas and who their new parents will be if they need them.” Lucas impatiently explained. “And since my dad's the head of the whole thing, I can tell him that you were causing all sorts of trouble and blabbing to anyone who would listen about the program. So don't threaten ME with a trip to tiny town, kid, you're the one who has to worry if he'll wake up in a dry bed tomorrow morning.”
“...you're lying.” Will murmured, going a shade paler when Lucas' grin only widened in response.
“Not so brave now, huh tough guy?” Lucas snickered as he jabbed Will in the chest, his pointed finger sending the bullied boy stumbling back a step. “You're a real wuss for someone who was an adult just yesterday. Does it make you feel like a big man to be at the mercy of a fifth grader?”
“...what do you want, Lucas?”
“Oh, nothing much. Just for you and that freak Julio to do whatever I say until me and my buddies get bored. If the two of you are good little servants, I'll spare you both another dose of the shrinky stuff.”
“Leave Julio out of this.” Will sharply countered, the threat to his friend inspiring in him a bit of temerity. The boy's defiance gave way to confusion, however, when he thought harder about what Lucas had just said. “Wait...it wouldn't be another for him...would it?”
“God, you really are stupid.” Lucas rolled his eyes and cracked his knuckles. “Here's my first command, Jeeves. Stand right there and be quiet while I beat the dumb out of you.”
Though Will clenched his fists and flashed Lucas a rebellious look, the overwhelmed boy found it impossible to flee from his spot or raise one of those little fists in his own defense. He might've fought back if it were merely his own maturity on the line, but he just couldn't chance it with Julio at risk as well. Mind racing and body trembling as Lucas advanced, Will braced himself for the oncoming beating - only for the bully to freeze when a high, furious cry cut through the trees.
Will's jaw dropped as he looked over his shoulder to see Liam skittering down the hill behind him, the boy barely staying on his feet as he quickly rushed to his foster brother's side. The panting second-grader set his jaw as he put himself between Will and the bully, who let out an unimpressed sniff at Liam's glare.
“I knew I heard another kid out here.” Lucas grunted. “What's the matter, short stuff, you need a beating so bad that you're cutting in line?”
Lucas froze as the small boy huffed the words out.
“Abby. You know, the owner of the café and member of the council?” Liam scowled. “Tell your dad whatever you want –- we'll tell our mom the truth. Do you really wanna risk getting caught lying about all that stuff you just said?”
Lucas' fists shook and his chubby cheeks went crimson, furious at the smaller boy partly for talking back but mostly because he knew the runt was completely right.
“Heeeeyyyy, Lucas, you still where we left you?”
“...yeah! Yeah, I'm over here!” Lucas, at a loss for a moment, reflexively looked over his shoulder to call back to his friends. “Hurry up, I've got them right...”
The bully turned back around to see his prey dashing in the other direction, the foster brothers running as fast as they could back up the path they'd come down as an incensed Lucas screamed threats and curses after them.