Chapter Description: Clark takes his torment to new levels, weaponizing it against an unsuspecting classmate.
I was in line right behind Tommy, already belted into the line leash. Clutching Lion in my arms, I stared at the back of his head. Tommy had just been given a haircut that weekend and I could still see hints of pale flesh irritated pink by the morning’s chill wind.
Everyone was relatively covered up that day and no one’s great padded shame was uncovered. It was the first time since getting shoved into a bug zapper that I had something covering up my socks. Even Ivy had been dressed in leggings.
Granted, no passerby would mistake us for anything other than ‘baby’ Littles: The cut, style, and palette of everyone’s clothes still screamed of infancy and toddlerhood. All the pants had elastic waistbands and even a dry Monkeez still gave that signature puff around the target area. Everyone still crinkled when they walked and had pacifiers clipped to their collars.
Monday wasn’t quite cold enough to see our breath. Fall was weird in Oakshire. Instead of gradually decreasing temperatures, it would be cold for a couple days, but then the front would pass, and the temperature would crank back up and things would fluctuate back and forth and it wouldn’t really get cold until late November. Sometimes the leaves wouldn’t change colors until a week before winter proper. As it stood, I’d have bet even money that Chaz would just be back to a t-shirt or onesie by the end of the week.
Staring at the back of Tommy’s head I felt the slightest pang of jealousy. As a boy I didn’t have to worry about pigtails and ribbons in my hair and all of the bullshit that my lady classmates had to go through. If I’d been allowed to dress myself, my bush of curly red hair would have made me look unkempt more than childish. Paired with the bright red one-piece sweat suit, I looked too immature to even go to my old classroom, which was very likely the point. I would have yanked the hoodie up over my head if it didn’t have stupid teddybear ears on top.
Tommy, by contrast, seemed ages above me. Heavy denim and a long sleeved navy blue t-shirt. It didn’t matter that the t-shirt had fire engines all over it, or that his light up sneakers were identical to mine. From a glimpse from far away, and disassociated from the rest of us, Tommy might pass as a Little who hadn’t yet had his life ruined.
Maybe that’s why I started what I started.
I waited till Zoge plopped down Annie and Billy. Like good Little children they took their places, practically buckling themselves into our tethered chain gang. Zoge went back into the bus to get the next two, and Beouf took a knee to make sure everything was secure and to hand them their stuffies. Ivy was chatting Mandy and Shauna up.
All eyes were off me. Casually, almost lazily, I leaned forward and-
“Ow!” Tommy rubbed his earlobe like a mosquito bit it. He looked to his outside for the attack and then glanced over his shoulder at me. “What was that?”
I blinked and jostled my head as if lost in thought, and Tommy’s voice just barely roused me from my waking slumber. “Hm?”
“Something just bit my ear.” He rubbed it again. “Did you see a bug or something?”
The poor man wrinkled his nose in irritation. “Or something.” He looked up to the cloudy morning sky as though that might provide answers. Nothing.
My heart didn’t race. My pulse didn’t quicken. I didn’t even feel the sadistic urge to flick his ear the moment he turned his head back around. I was going to get through this day with a nice slow burn, I’d decided.
Breakfast went uneventfully: Grilled cheese sandwiches cut into tiny Little sized portions. The cafeteria tended to favor finger foods, especially for breakfast; enough so that it counted grilled cheese as breakfast food.
My stomach gave a warning rumble. Nothing urgent, but it was like having a rock in my gut. Quietly, I contemplated on whether or not I should poop here and inconvenience the Amazons to change me at breakfast or wait until just after Circle Time when everyone had just been changed.
“How was your weekend?” I called over to Billy on the other side of the table.
Billy shrugged. “It was okay,” he said back. “You know.” Our tiff on the playground was all but forgotten. I yelled at them. He gave me a polite ‘fuck you’ and the matter was settled. That was all the way back last week.
“How’d you do on your progress report?”
My friend/henchman cocked an eyebrow. “Progress report?”
“The paper in the folder,” I said. “With all our work underneath”
Billy gave another shrug. “I dunno.” He punctuated by popping another square of cheese and bread into his maw. “I don’t read it.”
I pursed my lips in thought. Not all Amazon parents gushed and shared the perceived progress of their Little’s mind fucking with them. Interesting. Interesting “Oh. Okay.” I left it at that.
When we were all herded back into Beouf’s classroom after breakfast, Tommy took a seat in the semi circle before I’d been unbuckled. There wasn’t assigned seating per se, but routines and habits tend to take hold quickly. I knew where Tommy would sit before he even sat down.
Casually, I walked to my spot on the far end, passed Tommy at the top of the arc and-
-kept on walking.
“Ow!” Tommy squealed. It had been the same ear and in damn near the same spot as I had earlier that hour. “Clark!” Like a good Little baby I sat down and ignored him. “Clark!”
I feigned ignorance. “What’s up?”
“Why did you do that?”
My face twisted into a confused mass of cheeks, lips and eyebrows.“Do what?”
“Flick my ear.”
My face melted and unscrunched itself. “I didn’t flick your ear.”
My target was still clutching the side of his head like he was holding back a torrent of blood. “Yes you did.”
“Hey Billy, Annie,” I said. “Who flicked Tommy’s ear?”
The prison couple disengaged from each other and looked at Tommy. “I don’t know,” Annie said. “Why?”
Tommy put his hand down and muttered to himself. “Whatever.”
I left him alone for a few hours. Correction: I didn’t flick him. I didn’t even touch him. But everytime he was close enough, like when we checked our visual schedules or during snack time, I’d start flicking my index fingers as hard as I could. Hard enough to make a sound and get his attention.
Then I’d stop. Until the next time.
The first few times, I’d stop as soon as I was sure Tommy had reacted to the sounds. Tommy would flinch or turn his head and look at me, and I’d stop. He’d look at me and open his mouth to say something, but then would stop himself.
A few rotations in I became a bit more brazen. I wouldn’t make eye contact but I’d keep flicking even after he started staring at me, as if I didn’t know it was bothering him and I’d just developed a very specific nervous tic.
When we went back into our whole group so that we could get yet another rendition of Amazon mind pablum in the form of story time, my index finger whizzed right past Tommy’s ear drum.
He tensed up like it had been a bullet whizzing past instead of my index finger.“Quit it!” He hissed.
I played innocent. “Quit what?”
I made sure to be behind him in the leash order while everyone was getting ready for lunch. “Mrs. B. Can I get another spot in line?”
Beouf was busy buckling Littles into the group walking leash. Combined with pre-lunch checks and changes, they’d already managed to shave the transition routine down to about ten minutes give or take. If we’d been actual toddlers it would have been genuinely impressive. Buckling us all in was still more time consuming than having us hold hands. For all the hassle that Beouf and Zoge had been saved from keeping us from tipping ourselves over in used highchairs, they’d made extra work for themselves all over again by tying and untying us in colorful rope.
She finished snapping Ivy in before so much as looking at Tommy. “We’ve got to get going to Lunch, baby. Not everybody can be right where they want to be every time.”
“Clark flicked me in the ear.” His face paled as the accusation tumbled out. Even as he said it, Tommy looked mildly ashamed. Littles did not tell on other Littles. Not unless they’d gone full native. Not unless they’d all but forgotten that they were adults against their will or were trying to be a good Little Helper.
“I did not” I gasped as though I’d been accused of murder. Everyone save Zoge froze and stared at us, now acutely aware of the building drama. “Why would I flick you? How immature is that?”
“I was right here,” Beouf said gently. “Clark hasn’t touched you.”
“I meant this morning,” Tommy said. “I don’t want him to do it again.”
I stamped my foot in defiance. “Tommy! No!” I started huffing and puffing, making my face almost match my hair with how much blood was rushing. “I! Did! Not!” Beneath the hurricane of emotions I was projecting, I felt nothing other than a light, scornful amusement. I was just cranky and sleep deprived enough that I was able to force a hint of tears to threaten to burst forth. Not my best performance but it was working.
Beouf ignored my faux tantrum. “When did he flick you?” she asked Tommy.
“This morning. In the bus loop.” Every word was sounding like he was trying to whisper but was afraid to lower his voice. Tommy knew how this was looking.
“Why didn’t you tell me then?” Beouf asked. The statute of limitations was unsurprisingly short for things like schoolyard ear flicking.
Annie butted in. “You told me he’d done it during Circle Time!”
“Yeah,” Shauna said. I buried my face in Lion’s mane and bit into my tongue so I didn’t accidentally grin. Annie was already a known accomplice of mine. Shauna was just a patsy and a bystander that circumstance was providing me. I hadn’t even known she’d been listening in on the exchange. “That’s when I saw you grabbing your ear.”
“He did it both times!”
I looked up from my stuffie. “Did not!”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Beouf repeated herself, asking Tommy.
Sadly for Tommy, ‘snitches get stitches’ was not a viable excuse in Beouf’s world. “We were busy!” Tommy said, sounding indignant. “And I didn’t want to bother you.”
“Such a good Little boy,” Chaz spat. “Such a Helper.”
“Then why are you telling her now?” Annie asked. Then she piled on with, “I’m hungry. Can we go to lunch?” This got more than a bit of support from the surrounding peanut gallery.
If Beouf had not invested in the mass toddler leashes, I wouldn’t have gotten away with it. Getting me away from Tommy would have been as easy as moving him to the back of the line and plopping me in front with Ivy and her iron grasp.
“Mrs. B,” I whined. “I didn’t do it! I swear! Tommy’s my friend!” Straight faced and pleading I looked Tommy right in the eye. “My first day you were one of the first people to be nice to me. We climbed up on the tunnel together, remember? You’re my best friend!”
I saw the doubt take root in Tommy’s mind. I saw him second guessing himself and questioning his own memory. “I..I..I..I..” he stuttered.
Real bullies aren’t the nasty thugs you grew up watching on T.V. who pound you up against your locker and demand your lunch money. Those idiots get weeded out quickly. Real bullies are abusive in different ways. They aren’t outright mean all the time. They’ll buy your forgiveness again and again and again even as they continue to find ways to hurt you. They use societal norms and implied threats against you to give themselves plausible deniability. They pretend they’re offering you chocolates or are just following the letter of the law.
“I thought you said a bug bit you,” I said.
“I did,” Tommy got defensive. “But then you flicked me again. And you’ve been flicking all day.
In my most reasonable tone I flicked the air in front of my face. “You mean this?”
“It makes me feel good. How am I hurting you by snapping my fingers to myself? I don’t complain about the crinkle when you rock in your seat.”
Pressed for time and with nine people staring him down- eleven if you counted the teachers- Tommy started shaking. “I…I…I…” he stuttered.
“Clark…” If the Little causing this drama had been anyone but me they wouldn’t have gotten away with it. No chance. Beouf would have picked them up and carried them to lunch on her hip. Problem solved. Littles in a squabble separated.
“Can we go now?” Chaz called from his cheap umbrella stroller. “I’m hungry!”
I ignored them as though this insignificant spat was the center of my universe. “Mrs. B. I swear! I didn’t do it! Keep your hands to yourself is a big super important rule! And Tommy is my friend?”
With all that I could read behind Beouf’s glasses, I felt like I had super powers. I saw her reliving ten years of friendships and wrestling with her own training. Ten years of being each other’s confidants wrestling against a lifetime of cultural propaganda. The giantess broke eye contact and looked up at the clock. We weren’t late…yet. She still had time to wrestle with herself.
“It’s okay,” I said straight to Tommy’s unblinking eyes. “I forgive you for the misunderstanding. You’re still my friend.”
I held out my hand offering it out as some sort of symbolic gesture of peace. Meekly, Tommy took it and shook. He turned around away from me and cuddled his stuffie. Grasping Lion to my chest I gave two quick little thumping snaps as I flicked the air again. The way Tommy tensed up was completely and utterly gratifying.
“Yes ma’am!” I said. “Sorry! Just nervous!”
On the way over to the cafeteria, Beouf kept glancing back over her shoulder, not quite trusting herself. I kept my head on a swivel, like I always did, but made sure my hands were in plain sight every time. My eyes never left Tommy’s feet. Looking around was just more plausibility for what came next.
With all the precision of a mosquito threading a needle, I stepped on the back heel of Tommy’s right sneaker. He stutter stumbled forward and away from me, almost bumping into Jesse in front of him.
He didn’t even get a chance to protest before I blurted out, “Sorry Tommy! Sorry! Sorry!”
“It’s okay…” he grumbled, not even believing himself from the sound of it.
“Clark!” Beouf let out a warning bellow. Beginning of the week and I was already getting so many more warnings than I legitimately deserved.
Bullies are more than master manipulators of their peers and subordinates, but their superiors too. This early in the week and Beouf was picking her battles. Janet would hear about this for sure. I could live with that.
“I said I was sorry!” I insisted. “It was an accident!” My own bullshit pleas were cut off by the overhead blow fan and the wails of the cafeteria. Obviously, Tommy and I were seated at different tables, much to his visible relief. We got buckled into opposite ends of the leash on the way back, too.
“What’s with you and Tommy today?” Billy asked behind the tree at recess. “You’ve been bugging him all day.”
I sat with my friends, Lion between my legs. “A few bumps in line doesn’t count as all day,” I said.
“Yeah,” Chaz said. “But you’re doing it on purpose. I can tell.”
Chaz rolled from the seated position to all fours. “Yeah. I saw you do it in Circle Time. You just walked up and flicked him and kept going.”
Absentmindedly, I petted Lion’s hair. “I’ve got my reasons.” I stood up; something Chaz could no longer do without help.
“Like what?” Chaz asked.
“You’ll see,” I said. “Just trust me.” I didn’t wait for Chaz to reply. “I just thought of a new game. Wanna come play it with me?” I spoke directly to Annie and Billy, barely looking at Chaz. The pair cast doubtful glances at one another and back to their crawling third wheel. “It’ll bug Beouf,” I promised.
That was enough. “Okay,” they said.
“How do you play?” Chaz asked.
“See how we’re all covered up?” I asked. “Perfect for battle tag.” I took their silence as consent to go on. “It’s like regular tag but instead of tagging it’s okay to give somebody a little push.” The shove I gave Annie’s shoulder was gentle. “Or a smack!” The muted thud against Billy’s back would have stung like anything if he’d had a sunburn.
“Okay…” Billy was getting on board.
Annie wasn’t. “But why?”
“So that it’s more convincing when we fall down,” I said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “In regular tag, you tag somebody and they stop and then start chasing you right back. It sucks.”
“Tag backs are the worst,” Annie nodded.
“In battle tag, when you get tagged you die and then you’re it.” I got no reaction. I was trying to teach algebra to sharks. “Billy, tag me. Clothes only. No fa-”
As hard as I’d thudded Billy, the son of a bitch thudded me back harder. It was no Amazon spanking but I felt it. “OOOOOOH!” I called out. “YOU GOT ME!” I threw myself straight to the ground and started flopping like a fish. “OH AGONY! AGONY! GAAAAAH!” I took a deep breath and went limp. “Dead.”
“Clark?” In my exuberance, I’d flopped out and made a hell of a lot more noise than I usually did this time of the day. Beouf was standing up from the bench. “Are you okay, buddy?”
I jumped up like an acrobat and spread my arms out in a kind of ‘ta-da’ pose like I was a birthday party magician who’d just done some sort of lame trick. “I’m fine, ma’am!” I hollered back; my voice loud but calm. “We’re just playing a game!”
Beouf adjusted her glasses and sat back down. “Okay…”
I turned to face my posse. “And now I’m it. Any questions?”
“I get it,” Billy said. “Make it look more dangerous and give the grown-...” he stopped himself and corrected. “We make Beouf worry about us.”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s all about toeing the line of horseplay. That and it’s a good excuse to get clothes dirty.” I received some appreciative nods. “And the more people we get in on it, the harder it’ll be to stop.” I was completely ignoring the data of my first Why Day and using peer pressure as a selling point.
“Even Ivy?” Annie asked.
“Especially Ivy. She’s our plausible deniability.” I told them. I took a few tentative steps and motioned for them to follow. “Come on, let’s play!”
“How is this more mature or adult or whatever?” Chaz broke in. “Or are we not doing that anymore?”
My nostrils flared. “You’ll see.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Chaz said. “I can’t run.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath as if I was summoning monumental patience. “You can watch the stuffies. I pointed to our cotton boned menagerie. “Make sure they don’t get stepped on while we’re playing.”
“That doesn’t sound very fun,” a hint of a pout was starting to form on his mug.
I scowled and scoffed. “Fun? This isn’t for fun. This is for agitating Amazons. Do you really think I want to play a dumb baby game if it didn’t mess with Beouf and Zoge?”
“Yeah,” Billy chuckled. “Clark just being Clark.” I preferred ‘Gibson’, but I’d take it.
“But what am I supposed to do?” Chaz repeated himself. “How can I help? I wanna help, too!”
“Get other people to play,” Annie offered. “Call them over and talk to them. They’ll listen to you.”
“Yeah,” I rubbed salt in the wound. “You’re the youngest. No way will they think you’re tricking them into fucking with the rules.”
The little shit turned his nose up and sniffed. “Fine. I’m in.”
“Who’s it?” Annie asked.
I grinned maniacally. “Five…four…three…” They took off across our tiny playground. “Two…one…” Sparing one last glance at Chaz I told him, “watch Beouf and Zoge like a hawk. They won’t suspect you either.”
That made Chaz perk up a bit. I couldn’t burn that bridge completely. Chaz just needed to know his place. “Okay. Deal! Go go go!”
I darted out from behind the tree and started chasing Annie and Billy. Billy was taller than me and more naturally athletic, the Monkeez wasn’t doing wonders for my stride either. Annie was the safer choice. “I’m gonna get you!” I called.
“Nuh-uh!” she called back.
We were being loud on purpose. Loudness attracted attention and potential players. “Get ready to die!”
I huffed and puffed until I finally, just barely nudged into Annie. “Gotcha!”
She’d only been barely poked, but Annie went down like a bribed prize fighter. “OOOH! YOU GOT ME! AGONY! PAIN! SO MUCH PAAAAAAIN!”
“Annie…?” Zoge called out.
My cohort raised her head. “I’m fine! It’s just pretend!”
“Okay…” It was the sound of a caregiver’s doubt that had yet to fully manifest. “Just be careful.”
“I will!” She took a deep breath and continued. “AGONY! PAIN! MY SPLEEN! MY THORAX! OOOOH MY THORAX! Dead.” I was close enough to see her tongue flop out of her mouth.
Mandy trotted out from the concrete crawling tunnel. “Annie, are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m dead,” she said.
“Oh cool. Can I be dead too?”
“Only if you get tagged,” I said. “Go to Chaz, he’ll explain the rules.”
Approximately ninety seconds later, Mandy was in the game and was the next to get tagged. .“OH NO!” She found a spot of especially worn grass and was all but making dirt angels. “DEEEEEEAD DEATH DEATH DEATH DEATH! Grah.”
The death rattle was accompanied by delighted morbid giggles. “Hey, Tommy!” I called out. “Wanna play battle tag?”
I must have given something away in my posture. Tommy stayed firmly where he was on teeter totter. Too bad for him Jesse wanted to play, too, leaving him stranded.
The game went on.
“Ivy’s playing!” Chaz called through cup hands. “Look out!”
I made sure to get hit. It didn’t hurt, but that was because I made sure to roll with it. The poor mindfucked doll literally didn’t know her own strength.
“Ivy! Too hard!” Beouf scolded. “Do you need to sit down?”
“No ma’am.” Ivy said, extremely contrite. “I’m sorry, Clark.”
I did Ivy a favor by going over the top with my ‘death’. I started convulsing on the ground, just flapping my cheeks and rolling around in a lop sided circle. I looked like I was having a seizure. I stopped, lifted my head, and said. “You’re fine, Ivy.” I flopped back down. “Dead.”
“Clark’s it again!”
I climbed to my feet and brushed myself off. I was tired, winded, and honestly too into the game to have it fulfill its original purpose. Speaking of original purpose, I saw Tommy playing on the balance beam, one foot in front of the other, away from the action pretending he was dancing on a high wire or something.
“Time out!” I yelled, making a T with my hands. “Time out!” I jerked my head and Billy jogged up to me.
“Let me tag you,” I whispered.
He snorted. “No way.”
“Come on. You’re the only one who can tag Ivy back for me. I’m tired.”
Billy smirked. “She’ll kill me. I’ll bounce right off of her.”
“And if she does she’ll get in trouble. Just don’t whack her and you’ll be fine.”
My crony held out his hand. “Fine. But only because you decided to be cool today.” I tagged him. He convulsed and did a somersault.
“Billy’s it!” I screamed. “Scatter!” I pulled my hoodie up, making me look like a cherry red teddy bear. It also cut off my peripheral vision. More plausible deniability for me.
As was tradition, everyone scattered the moment Billy hopped back up to his feet. Half a dozen Littles all scurrying around the same tiny playground. It’s a lot to keep track of. And I wasn’t it…
I charged straight for the balance beam. Boundaries hadn’t been established, but it was safe to say that the actual playground equipment was decidedly out of bounds. “Billy’s it!” I yelled. “Billy’s it!” I pretended to look over my shoulder. “Billy’s it! Billy’s it!” I course corrected. “Billy’s it! BILLY’S IT!” One…two… “BILL-”
I plowed directly into Tommy knocking him to the ground with me pretending to trip as an excuse to land right on top of him. I felt the meaty thump and heard the pained gasp as Tommy got the wind knocked out of him.
I lifted myself into a pushup position. “Tommy!” I whispered, sounding surprised. “Dude are you okay?”
“Clark! Tommy!” Both Beouf and Zoge had managed to see the spill. Damn. Not surprising, but damn. Hopefully.
“I am so sorry!” I said, rolling off of him and stepping away like he was made of brittle porcelain.
“What the fu-?” Tommy cut himself off. Either that or he didn’t have enough wind in him to finish the swear.
The loose ground practically shook at the teachers’ approach. A pair of giant arms lifted us off the ground and turned us over, checking for scratches and bruises. “Are you okay? What happened? Does anything hurt?”
A river of false apologies shot out from me. “TommyI’msosorryIdidn’tmeantoIwasrunningawayfromBillycausehewasitandIwasn’tlookingwhereIwasgoingareyouokayIhopeIdidn’thurtyou.”
“Tommy are you okay?” Beouf asked.
My target was a few pants away from crying, I could tell, but he held it in like a champ. “Yeah,” he choked out. “Just…surprised.”
I repeated my entire apology again. Much slower but with just as many lies.
“I think that’s enough tag for now,” Zoge said.
“Battle Tag,” I corrected. “It’s called battle tag.”
“That’s enough Battle Tag.”
I sat down on the balance beam and looked Tommy dead in the eyes. “I’m sorry,” I fake apologized.
I don’t know that either of us meant it. He probably did.
“I swear it was an accident.”
“We’re going to get ready to go back inside and get ready to go home in just a couple minutes,” Beouf said.
“Yes ma’am,” Tommy and I said in unison.
You might be wondering why I decided to pick on Tommy that day and the days that followed. Did I have a grand master plan? Some way to reunite and empower the A.L.L. and strike back at the Amazons through reverse psychology? Was I helping Tommy in some way? Toughening him up to keep him from regressing? Getting vengeance for some unseen slight perhaps?
Yes. Exactly. Those were precisely the kind of excuses I gave to Chaz, Billy, and Annie the next day. They bought it too; even supplied answers I didn’t have on accident. Of course I was showing them how they could run interference for each other and act as distractions. Of course Tommy, who was so close to us yet so far away was in danger of losing himself unless he remembered what it was like to be a grown-ass man instead of a toddler boy. Of course I planned on giving Zoge and Beouf a thousand tiny heart attacks with plain reckless behavior.
Really though? The unabashed truth was that I needed another win, and I was all out of wins against Amazons. So I took a day off. Played the game on easy mode. I picked Tommy because he was nice and considerate and empathetic and patient but didn’t have the support system to back him up like some of the others did.
I needed a win.
Tommy sat down and panted next to me, seeming exhausted. Poor, innocent, trusting Tommy. In some ways more naive than even Ivy. I waited till the teachers were more than halfway across the playground and back to their bench. I steadied myself, counted their steps. Annie ran up and tugged on Beouf’s pantleg, leaving less chance that she’d turn around. Billy did the same for Zoge.
Then with practiced ease I reached out and-
“Ow! Clark! What the fuck?!” Same ear. Same spot. I was three for three.
I blinked away pretend confusion. “Hm?”