Chapter Description: Will fights off Abby's smothering affection and struggles to maintain his mental maturity during a quiet night at home.
As they burst out onto the road beside the café, Will came to an uneasy stop – resting his hands on his knees as he panted breathlessly. Liam collapsed down on the soft grass beside him, looking up with concern at the both physically and emotionally exhausted older boy.
Will let out a few more gasps before he broke into a relieved grin. “Yeah. That was close, huh?”
Liam smiled weakly, getting to his feet to snuggle comfortingly around Will’s waist. “Some plan, big brother,.” he teased.
“It totally would have worked!” Will protested. “How was I supposed to know his dad’s judge, jury and executioner around here? Guess it explains why everyone seems so afraid of him, though.”
“Yeah.” Liam agreed. “He’s just some tub of lard. I bet you could totally beat him up – if you wanted.”
“I don’t know about that, but thanks for saving my ass.” The older boy said warmly, returning Liam’s hug. “Any way I can pay you back? Maybe with that kid you said was bothering you?”
“Oh, he’s nothing – just some little twerp.”
“What did he do?” Will pursued.
“Nothing much.” Liam shrugged. “He was just making fun ‘cause I spilled some juice on my shorts.”
“Tell you what,” the older boy said slyly. “How ‘bout tomorrow me and you get him behind the bike shed at recess. I bet you he’d pee his pants for real!”
Liam gave a childish giggle at the image but punched his foster brother weakly on the arm. “Stop being silly.”
“What? His parents aren’t on some fancy council, are they?”
“No.” Liam admitted. “Not as far as I know. But he’s not that bad. Nothing I can’t handle.”
“If you say so.” Will relented. “But I’m still gonna talk to him. I owe you.”
He stood up straight, finally having recovered enough to walk the last few yards back towards the café. Though there was still an hour or so until the official closing time, the place looked pretty empty. Abby was standing behind the counter, and she gave the boys a disapproving glare as they traipsed their way over the threshold.
“Look at you two!” She scolded. “Did you decide to roll around in a pigsty?”
“No…” Liam squeaked out, but it was true that they were both a mess. Their playful tickling match had left its mark, with grass stains on both their shirts and Liam’s bare knees caked with mud. Will could even see a stray leaf poking out of the back of his brother’s collar!
“Sorry.” The older boy smirked. “We got a bit carried away.”
“I’ll say!” Abby chided as she folded her arms. “Both of you are in sorry need of a bath, I think. At least wash your hands so I can bring you boys some food.”
Though the pair shared an unsettled look at the mention of a bath, they seemed to agree as their eyes met to not worry about that until they had to. It didn't hurt that both were ravenously hungry, Will especially so as he hadn't eaten since his meager lunch. Liam led the older boy to the sink in the kitchen, an industrial basin wide enough for them to wash all four of their grimy hands. When they returned it was to find two steaming bowls of beef stew waiting for them, each serving paired with a tall cool glass of lemonade. Abby shot her sons an encouraging smile as they climbed onto their seats, putting things in order behind the counter while the boys took their first tenuous bites of the piping-hot meal.
“...this is really good.” Will said after a moment. “Thanks.”
“You're very welcome, sweetie. How did you boys get so dirty, anyway?”
“We were wrestling in the forest,” Liam piped. “I won.”
“You did not!” Will's relief at the boy telling only the partial truth immediately giving way to indignation at the bold-faced lie he told in the next instant. “I had you crying uncle so loud everyone in town heard it!”
“Maybe, but that wasn't wrestling.” Liam matter-of-factly countered. “It's only wrestling when you're fighting on the ground, and I had you pinned.”
“Only because you cheated by tickling.” Though Will was ready to escalate the friendly if childish argument, neither boy seemed interested in continuing when they noticed Abby giving them adoring looks as she cleaned. The pair blushed and quietly returned to their dinner, neither so much as making a peep until their bowls were empty.
“All done?” Abby asked as she swept their dishes away. “Doesn't look like there's anybody else coming by tonight, so I think it'd be okay if we close up a little early. Could you guys please wipe down the tables and pull the chairs up? I should be finished back here by the time you’re done.”
The woman produced a small pail of soapy water without waiting for an answer, smiling gratefully at her sons before disappearing into the kitchen.
“...I can put the chairs up if you wanna do the cleaning.” Will suggested, figuring that was an even division of work given his larger size. Liam agreed with a shrug, taking charge of the pail and applying the soaked rag within to the surface of the nearest table. The pair worked in silence until Will - first checking to see that Abby wasn't listening - spoke softly to the younger boy. “So...what else do you know about the council?”
“What's to know?” Liam grumbled. “If it wasn't for the gas they'd be just like any other town council, when they're not deciding who to shrink they make laws and name streets and stuff.”
“And how do they decide who serves?”
“There's elections but no one ever runs against them – last time someone did, he was in diapers before the ink on his application was dry. And when somebody steps down, they choose who gets their spot instead of letting it go to the polls.”
Will scowled as he absorbed this, disgusted to learn just how deep the corruption in this town ran. He'd encountered no shortage of petty dictators during his law school days, professors who had gone all but mad with power after decades of enjoying their privileged positions. If Liam was to be believed, however, the members of the council were worlds worse – not only did they reduce adults to children on a whim, they wielded that mighty power to keep tight their stranglehold on the town. Will chewed on his new understanding of Viridia as he and Liam finished their work, the bigger boy putting the last chair up just as Abby approached them.
“Great job, guys.” Abby declared. “Grab your stuff and let's get going.”
The pair nodded meekly, cutting off their conspiratorial conference, and easily slipping back into the role of obedient – if not occasionally mischievous – little boys. Abby ushered them outside, leading them towards a large four-by-four Will recognized from the morning that was waiting in a nearby parking space. The little town was easily walkable, but it seemed that their adopted mother preferred to drive her short regular commute to the café.
Will – more out of habit that anything else – made for the passenger door, but reconsidered as his hands brushed against the handle. At eleven, he might just be old enough for Abby to allow it – but it was certainly no guarantee. Despite all the humiliations of the day, the prospect of being summarily demoted to the back seat by his new mother still made Will shudder. Besides, he preferred to stay close to Liam. He clambered into the back just as his foster brother was doing the same, feeling a pang of second-hand embarrassment at the sight of the worn-down old dinosaur themed booster seat in the younger boy’s place. He took comfort in the fact that his preteen status allowed him to maintain some degree of grown-up dignity – for now.
“Need some help, honey?” Abby asked sweetly, hovering helpfully over her younger son.
“I’m not a baby.” Liam declared haughtily, strapping in the seat belt before his mother had the chance to offer any unwanted assistance.
“Alright, sweetie. No need to get testy.” She scolded, the hint of firmness in her voice warning that he very much could be a baby – depending on his attitude. “You can sit up front if you like, Will. Since you’ve been so good today.”
The older boy momentarily felt flattered at the offer, before the implication that sitting in the front was some kind of special privilege made him feel horribly childish once more. “It’s fine.” He insisted, offering Liam a weak smile. “I’ll hang back here with my little bro.”
“You boys are so sweet together.” Abby cooed, ruffling Liam’s jet-black hair. The boy broke into a private pout as soon as she had shut the door, careful that his adopted mother shouldn’t see his sour expression. Will comforted him with a sympathetic look, although he was once again glad that he was still the elder of the two brothers. Being the baby of the family certainly had its drawbacks.
As the car pulled out into the road and began to cruise down the peaceful evening streets, Will soon found himself gazing absentmindedly out of the window – taking in the pretty rustic cottages flying by. Just a day earlier, he would have let out a wistful sigh at the seemingly idyllic sight: kids running around rambunctiously in well-kept lawns…parents watching proudly from picturesque porches…babies burbling happily, bundled up in adoring arms. Now however, the happy scene had an aura of bizarre horror. Will couldn’t help but find himself wondering how many adult dreams had been smothered in the stupefying haze the regression gas produced – how many embarrassing outcasts adjusted into biddable little boys and girls, how many inconvenient dissidents reduced to thoughtless, indifferent infants.
“Last stop,” Abby declared, jarring Will from his daydream as she pulled into her driveway. “Everybody out.”
The boys reluctantly left the truck and sulked their way up the path to the front door, which Abby held open with a broad smile that held not even a hint of impatience. Though there was likely no one in Viridia who would aid them in their plight, neither Liam nor Will was eager to be alone with Abby in her home – neither could keep from shivering when she closed the door behind them.
“I've got to take care of a few things in my office before I can hang out with you guys,” Abby explained as she put down her things and visibly relaxed after a long day at work. “Will, could you please hop in the shower while Liam takes his bath?”
“You mean, at the same time?” The older boy asked as his freckled cheeks reddened. “Can't we take turns?”
“No can do, kiddo. There's only so much hot water and your little brother will use every last drop if we let him.” Abby chuckled, Liam growing even redder as his eyes fell to the floor. “He loves playing in the tub so much that he's more prune than boy when I can finally drag him out.”
“I do not!” Liam indignantly insisted. “I wanna take a shower too!”
“Liam, I'll let you do more big-boy things once you start acting mature enough to earn it.” Abby chided. “I'm not about to reward you for talking back to me all day. Will, can you please see to it that Liam gets in the tub and actually cleans himself?”
“He doesn't have to!” Liam balled his fists as he whine-shouted at his foster mother. “I can do it myself!”
“Do not raise your voice to me, young man, I'll march your smart little butt into that bathroom and scrub you down personally if you keep it up.”
“...it's okay, mom, I'll take care of it.” Will reluctantly intervened, drawing a look of gratitude from Abby and one of mortified shock from Liam. Though the older boy had stepped in to prevent the younger from melting down, he could tell that Liam was about to lash out all over again at being betrayed by his big brother. It took Will wrapping an arm around Liam's skinny shoulders and giving one a reassuring squeeze before the small boy could swallow the worst of his fury in a deep, shuddering breath. Seemingly satisfied that things were well in hand, Abby gave the boys a parting smile before disappearing down the hall - which is when Will released his grip on Liam and chuckled at the boy's confused pout.
“Sorry, I just had to do something before things got out of hand.” Will explained. “Obviously I'm not going to make you get in the tub...but, if you want, you're welcome to use the bath while I shower.”
“...might as well.” Liam mumbled. “One less thing for her to be mad about, I guess. But, um, is it okay if I go in first and, uh, get in the tub before you come in?”
“Of course.” Will assured him, all too understanding of Liam's desire to shield the more embarrassing elements of his small, immature form from sight. The younger boy managed a weak smile before sighing and striding grudgingly towards the bathroom. Alone for the first time since walking home from school, Will's knees wobbled beneath him as the exhaustion of fighting off mental regression and the machinations of local bullies finally caught up to the boy. He stared longingly at the front room's plush overstuffed sofa, knowing that he could collapse upon it right now and sleep for at least twelve hours. Will winced the instant he had the thought, however, rebuffed by a tiny voice that scolded him for even thinking of getting onto the furniture in such filthy clothes. More than a little dismayed by how automatically he chided himself, Will – hearing the water thundering into the tub from where he stood – welcomed the distraction by hurrying towards the bathroom and giving its door a knock to check before opening it that Liam was in the tub.
“Come in!” A little voice sounded from within. “But don’t look!”
Will shuffled inside the unfamiliar room, quickly averting his eyes as he got a glimpse of the tub.
“Hey!” Liam objected, the sound of water sloshing around urgently as he struggled to conceal himself.
“I didn’t do it deliberately, doofus!” Will retorted, feeling equally embarrassed.
Liam seemed to accept his excuse, watching with amusement as the older boy covered his eyes and pawed half blindly towards the white tiled shower cubicle in the corner. He eventually managed to shamble his way past the glass panel, feeling very grateful for the concealing frosting as he stripped off his clothes and lobbed them playfully over the top of the barrier. He let out a little sigh of frustration as he was once again confronted with his juvenile new form but put on a stoic frown as he turned on the shower.
His façade of fortitude was immediately shattered as he was bombarded with icy cold water. He urgently scrambled to turn the dial, but his enthusiasm was only rewarded with the opposite effect – the freezing pellets pelting his sensitive skin instantly replaced with boiling bullets of excruciating heat.
“Yow, ow, ow!” He exclaimed involuntarily in a high-pitched whine, fiddling desperately with the dial, and hopping around wildly in the confined space like a crazed marionette.
“Put it to seven!” Liam finally intervened. Will complied at once, greeted with a satisfying stream of tepid warm water.
“No problem.” The younger boy smirked, squeezing a dollop of shampoo into his palm.
Meanwhile, Will got to work doing the same thing – washing his hair before grabbing a loofah hanging from the shower head and mechanically going over every inch of his body. It wasn’t as if he enjoyed the all-too hands-on reminder of his regressed state, but he wanted to make sure he was thorough. At his age, he thought it unlikely that Abby would levy the same threat she’d used against Liam – but it would be humiliating enough to be sent back to try again. He had to get every inch – even behind the ears, as his real mom used to so regularly remind him. Eventually he finished up, the gurgle of water draining down the plug hole informing him that Liam was also done.
“Can you grab me a towel?”
“I left one on the floor!” The younger boy’s voice echoed back, a stampede of tiny feet confirming that he had left the room.
Finally shutting off the water, Will stepped confidently out from behind the glass panel – but a towel was nowhere to be seen. He stared dumbly at the empty floor for a few beats before he looked up in surprise to see that the door was wide open! Hair dripping and a baby blue towel tied around his waist, Liam was standing in the hallway, smirking broadly at the sight, and displaying another red towel tantalizingly at his side.
“You little - !” Will declared, charging from the room, and making a grab for the coveted covering – but Liam pulled it swiftly out of his grasp like a matador before tossing it neatly over his shoulder, way across to the opposite end of the room. Still exposed and unwilling to make the long traipse back across the bathroom, Will resorted to a dirtier tactic – tackling his much littler brother heavily to the ground and swiftly seizing up the blue towel. Liam was giggling uncontrollably as he wrestled desperately to steal back the stolen prize, but the impromptu fight was soon interrupted as a stern disapproving voice rang out from the floor below.
Will sprang up at once, tying the blue towel quickly around his waist. “Sorry mom!” He shouted back, although he couldn’t hide the amusement in his voice as he watched Liam scuttle quickly back into the bathroom to retrieve the other towel.
“Can't do anything fun without her butting in.” Liam complained as he emerged from the bathroom. “That's twice I would've beaten you at wrestling if she hadn't interrupted.”
“Whatever you say, shrimp.” Will snickered as he followed the smaller boy down the hall, the two of them parting when it came time to enter their respective rooms. He was beyond relieved when he discovered that one of his drawers was stuffed with sweatpants and comfy old shirts, the preteen fearing that he'd be forced to choose among the least childish of his jammies – a choice that had obviously been thrust upon poor little Liam. Will could tell as much when he and his foster brother emerged from their rooms at the same time, the blushing second-grader avoiding the bigger boy's eyes as he sympathetically studied the navy blue pajamas with the stars and planets motif.
“...those are pretty cool.” Will offered after a moment, Liam looking up to shoot him a wilting and disbelieving glare. “I'm serious. Better than whatever cartoon jammies she put in there, at least.”
“I guess.” Liam shrugged, pouting less even if he still didn't look particularly pleased. He and Will tromped their way down the stairs as Abby emerged from her office, the woman beaming at her bashful boys as she met them at the landing and judged the job they'd done getting ready for bed.
“Not bad, not bad at all.” She mused, hands on her hips as Will and Liam frowned and fought the urge to squirm beneath her appraising gaze. “So, what would you guys like to do before bed? We've got just enough time for a movie if that sounds good.”
“Uh, would it be okay if we just hung out by ourselves?” Will asked, hiding his annoyance at having to ask permission and his anger when Abby shook her head and clicked her teeth.
“No chance, I've been waiting all day to spend time with you two.” The woman insisted. “Come on now, hop up on the couch and get comfy while I find the remote and pick something out.”
She turned and disappeared into the living room without waiting for a response, the boys sharing a sad sigh before they reluctantly followed her inside. Abby flitted through the offerings of a family-friendly streaming service while the pair hopped up onto the sofa, Will's feet barely reaching the floor while Liam's tiny toes dangled just above the hardwood. Both suppressed a groan when she selected an appropriately-aged animated musical, not too infantile but not exactly maturity-affirming either. The opening credits rolled as Abby took a seat between them, the woman chuckling as both boys not-so-subtly scooted away from her. Instead of pulling them closer, she simply laid against the cushions and let her arms unfurl over the back of the couch, her body language indicating that Will and Liam were welcome to snuggle up against her whenever they pleased.
Obviously, neither was initially interested in the offer. Will, for his part, was determined to only pay enough attention to the movie to keep Abby from becoming suspicious. A glance at Liam revealed that the smaller boy seemed similarly single-minded, crossing his arms and pointedly not looking at the screen in a scene that was as adorable to Will as it was encouraging. As the film unfolded, however, Will found his eyes drifting its way more and more often, the bright colors and show-stopping songs dragging the older boy out of his dogged disinterest. He looked to Liam for courage only to bite back a gasp when he saw his foster brother watching the amusing animated antics with wide, awestruck eyes. What's worse, his little head was resting against Abby's side and her big strong arm was wrapped around his bony shoulders – and when the woman caught Will looking, she smiled at the older boy and patted the seat beside her.
Will shivered apprehensively but shuffled a few inches closer – not wanting to risk upsetting the woman. He was taken unawares however as she enveloped his tiny form completely in her other arm, constricting him closer and closer against her side until he was confined in a warm cuddly caress. He fidgeted fussily as his head was cushioned against her side, letting out a few whines of complaint, but Abby was quick to pacify him.
“Quiet down, honey.” She instructed, planting an adoring kiss on his sandy brown hair.
“Let me up.” He mumbled unhappily, but Abby only pulled him in closer – rubbing at his soft cotton-clad shoulders.
“You’re not too old for a cuddle with mommy.”
Abby hushed him, leaving Will to sulk. As he sat brooding in the darkness, he felt very uncomfortable despite the embrace – realizing that his whiny objections had sounded just like any other moody preteen’s pouty protests. He’d even called her mom again. He’d used that word a few times now, but only ever in a deliberate effort to appease the strange woman who insisted that he was now her son. That time however it’d just popped out, flowing casually off of his tongue as if it was the most natural thing in the world. He suddenly felt very ashamed, dirty even – his very words seeming to betray his old self, his old life, his old mother.
Still, there was nothing he could do but snuggle up against Abby’s comfortably plump arms as the kaleidoscopic display flashing across the TV screen continued in its hypnotizing swirl, accompanied by an intoxicating rhythm tinkling out through the speakers. Just as the final climatic song burst into a closing credits sequence, Will let out a huge involuntary yawn – the feeling of Abby’s calloused hands on his bedraggled mop of drip-dried hair rousing him suddenly out of his semi-conscious state.
“Sweetie?” She cooed, curling one of his silky locks playfully around her finger. “The film’s over. Are you awake?”
“I’m awake!” Will insisted, springing into an upright position – although he couldn’t resist another yawn as he stretched his arms out over his head.
Abby smiled adoringly at the sight. “Thought I was going to have to carry you both to bed for a moment. Your brother’s out like a light.” She gestured to Liam, who appeared to be completely catatonic. His body was contorted into a bizarre shape on the couch with his head nestled comfortably in Abby’s lap, snoring softly with his mouth hanging open. Abby collected him gently in her arms.
“What a sweetheart.” She commented, securing the snoozing boy snugly under his bottom and tight against her hip. “It’s hard to believe that he’s eight, sometimes. He’s just like a toddler when he's all tuckered out.”
Will gave the woman an admonishing stare. “You can’t mean…”
“Don’t be silly.” Abby reassured. “I like him just the way he is. My little Liam’s just a late bloomer, that’s all.”
The older boy nodded, but he wasn’t entirely convinced of the woman’s innocent intentions. He began to make his way blearily towards the door, feeling very uneasy. He reasoned that he must have fallen asleep briefly at some point – his head felt so hazy! He just hoped Abby hadn’t noticed. Still, at least he’d avoided Liam’s infantile fate. As he passed the pair, he noticed that the would-be mother was actually rocking the sleeping little boy gently in her arms, as if he were no more than a restless baby.
“I’ll come up and tuck you in in a moment.” Abby reassured as he marched drowsily up the stairs. “Do you want me to bring you a bed time drink? Water? Malted milk? Hot chocolate?”
“...I'm okay, thanks.” Will managed. “And you don't need to tuck me in.”
“Maybe not, but there's no way you're going to bed without me seeing you off to sleepytime.” Abby chuckled as she nudged open the door to Liam's room, the small boy's murmuring and shifting silenced by a tender kiss to the cheek. “Go ahead and get comfy, sweetie, I'll be just a second.”
Will frowned at Abby's syrupy condescension as she and Liam disappeared into his bedroom. That frown deepened when their soft murmurs floated up the stairs, and though the preteen was unable to make out what they were saying, his sleepy giggles and her adoring laughter rang as clear as bells from where Will had frozen on the second floor landing. Though the expected discomfort and indignation bubbled up within him upon overhearing Liam's childish bedtime routine, Will was more than a little alarmed to feel his throat knot with anger as his scrawny chest tightened with envy. Though the boy assured himself that the babyish treatment Liam was receiving was nothing to be jealous of, that didn't stop his frown from turning a bit pouty as Abby lovingly sent her youngest son off to dreamland.
The older boy realized he had to move when the pair went quiet, scurrying the rest of the way to his bed in hopes that Abby wouldn't catch him snooping. Such was his hurry that he didn't even glance around his room until he was under the covers, the promise of being tucked in feeling all the more infantilizing for the preteen boy decor that surrounded him. It had been easier to shrug off the toys and the videogame posters that morning, when he'd been blissfully ignorant of just how deeply he'd been ensnared. But as the stairs groaned under Abby's approach, Will couldn't look in any direction without being served with a reminder of the reality that was becoming truer and truer with each passing moment.
“Your brother is such a sweet little snugglemuffin.” Abby chuckled as she appeared in the doorway, glass of water in hand. Will scooted away and scrunched himself up against the headboard as she set the glass on his side table and patted the edge of his mattress. “Do you mind if I sit here for a bit?”
“Would you leave if I said no?”
“Oh, Will...” Abby sighed as she took a seat without waiting for a proper answer. “Believe it or not, it's not my goal to make you completely miserable. That's just how it feels when you're swimming constantly upstream - it feels like the whole world is against you.”
“It might as well be for how few my options are.” Will shot back. “There isn't a single person on this planet who can help me right now.”
“Well, darling, you're operating from a faulty premise there.” Abby grinned. “You're still thinking of yourself as someone who needs help instead of accepting who you actually are - a bright, brave fifth-grader with a loving mother and a beautiful little brother who thinks the world of you. There isn't anything you can do to change that, so why torture yourself until you've forgotten why you were upset in the first place?”
“I don't believe you.” Will insisted despite the tremor in his quiet soprano. “There's no way you wouldn't have something around to reverse this in case of an accident.”
“We don't make accidents, Will.” Abby declared with chilling cheerfulness. “There's always a reason for someone ending up in Viridia's care, even if that reason might not seem clear to others. You learn to accept these things when growing up here, sweetheart. Haven't you wondered how this place has remained a secret?”
“Turning anyone who tries to escape into a toddler?”
“No, silly. It's because we love this town and know that none of us would be happier anywhere else.”
“Really? I know at least one person who's been miserable since being turned into a kid.”
“Oh? What's his name?”
“...I didn't learn it.” Will mumbled, cursing himself for getting so worked up that he almost clued Abby in to Julio's plight. “We only talked for a few minutes.”
“You know, my mother used to say not to trust any silly thoughts that get into your head after the sun goes down.” Abby said sagely, bringing up an intrusive finger to bop Will playfully on the nose. “You’ve been such a good boy this evening, don’t ruin it now just because your sleepy, frazzled little brain’s making you all cranky.”
“I’m not cranky.” Will contradicted, folding his arms in an adorable immature facsimile of lawyerly disapproval. “I’m upset. I’ve got a right to be.”
Abby just shook her head and pulled him close for a final kiss on the head.
“Go to sleep, sweetie.” She whispered. “You’ll feel better in the morning.”
With that, she glided from the room – blessedly abstaining from any further humiliating bed time rituals. She flicked the overhead light switch off on the way out, plunging Will’s juvenile den into darkness. The boy lay motionless for a while, listening to the sound of Abby’s footsteps creep steadily away. Ensconced in his warm cocoon of blankets, Will let his mind wander, turning over the stressful events of the day in his mind. Mr. Byrd, Julio, that asshole Lucas and his goons – all of their faces tumbled around in a disorientating churn as he felt his heavy breathing ease and his mind slowly but surely power-down out of consciousness.