Don't mess with a winning formula. [edited for typos]
Chapter Description: The entire story.
[quote][quote][quote][size=2]A smattering of obligatory applause from the camera crew marked the end of rehearsal. Studios lights dimmed and the actors broke off into their usual chatty cliques.
"Good show, people, good show," the director said, patting one of the production assistants on the back.
The hit sitcom Short Stuff would celebrate the taping of its two-hundredth episode tomorrow and, for the most part, the cast remained excited and fully committed to the show. Ten million dollar contracts had a way of keeping everyone bright-eyed and interested. Aside from being a reliable ratings grabber, the show had launched the careers of its four main stars. All hired as virtual unknowns, the actors won instant acclaim as the Cramer family, a dysfunctional but endearing collection of East Coast misfits. Chris Caslin and Michelle Roberts played the parents with expert deadpan delivery, while Cameron Rhodes excelled in the stereotypical self-absorbed teenager role. But the standout, and many would argue the reason for the show’s success, was nine-year-old Cory Seaver.
"Hey munchkin," Cameron chirped, gliding past the diminutive actor. "Got a hot date tonight?"
"What do you think?" Cory replied, barely acknowledging her presence.
"I think I saw some girls with signs outside the studio earlier. Just sayin’..."
"Yeah, thanks, I’ll get right on that," he shot back, unamused. "Not like there’s time anyway. That contract meeting is tonight."
"Oh shit!" the buxom 19-year-old moaned, shoulders drooping. "I was supposed to meet Ryan tonight at Skybar. Fuck! What time?"
"Six I think. Not sure."
"Not sure? I thought you were always on top of everything, Mr. Big Shot," Cameron snorted.
"I can’t come. Doctor’s appointment."
"A little late for the doctor, isn’t it?" Cameron asked, only to answer her own question. "Oh, it’s that doctor. Well, you have fun. Hope they give you a sucker afterward."
She reached out and tweaked his nose before rejoining the adults.
Again doing his best to ignore her, Cory continued gathering up the loose pages of his script and collected them in a binder. He couldn’t help but feel like an elementary school student organizing a Trapper Keeper. Around him producers, wardrobe people, writers, and extras darted about, all towering above him. His status as the de facto star of the show earned him plenty of positive press and a shelf lined with awards but surprisingly little clout on the set. No matter how many magazine covers he graced, he always found himself seated squarely at the kids’ table. Immensely talented, likeable, and professional, yes – but still a child.
Suddenly Cory detected a sharp sting just above his left ear.
He glanced down at the ground and spotted a cork. Ever the partiers, his castmates had popped open a bottle of champagne and sent the stopper flying like a wooden bullet across the room.
"Whoa, sorry Cory!" Chris yelled. "OK?" Cameron failed to contain a chuckle.
"Yeah, I’m fine," he answered, mumbling "shithead" underneath his breath. He smiled. The actors returned to their regular gossiping and flirting. Even if Cory had wanted to join the fun, he couldn’t. A reporter from Entertainment Tonight waited in his dressing room for a one-on-one interview about the show’s upcoming milestone. The sit downs used to make him nervous; now they merely annoyed. Get interviewed often enough and the same predictable questions start popping up with such regularity that one tended to tune them out. More recently, he discovered himself mentally wandering off in the middle of an answer, mindlessly stringing together stock phrases he’d accumulated over the years.
Cory opened the dressing room door.
On the other side, a willowy brunette with abundant cleavage spilling from her jacket turned from her conversation with the cameraman and feigned excitement.
"Cory! So nice to meet you. I’m Kaitlin," she announced, holding out her tanned, slender hand. "Entertainment Tonight. How are you doing?"
"All right," Cory sighed, wearing a tired but polite expression. Ah yes, the Edward R. Murrow of the entertainment beat... Kaitlin. The last thing he needed today was another pair of attractive breasts staring back at him as he struggled to sound upbeat about a job he’d grown thoroughly disenchanted with.
"Are you good to get started?"
"Sure," he replied, situating himself in a makeup chair.
"Great." The intrepid reporter leaned the long wind-screened microphone in his direction. "Your show, Short Stuff, has been on the air now for 10 years. You’re about to film your two-hundredth episode. Did you ever expect it to be such a big hit?
Cory summoned all his acting skills and attempted to answer with the energy of a child actor still thrilled by the prospect of being on TV. "No, I had no idea. It was a shock really, that people reacted so positively. I figured we would get canceled after a season or two. That’s the way these things normally go. We’ve been really lucky."
"How’s everybody holding up? Some of your castmates have talked about making the transition to movies. Given that any thought?"
"Not yet. I’m just happy to be here," he said, lying with every ounce of his talent. "Everybody’s been great. We’re all like a family at this point."
"Well, that brings us to the next obvious question..." Cory knew exactly what would follow those words. It was the question that appeared like clockwork in every interview, the perennial fascination that wove itself into every conversation about the show. There was no escaping it.
The year Short Stuff debuted, an anti-aging drug called Telomeride hit the market. The price remained prohibitive for most apart from the super wealthy, but network executives keen on keeping the sitcom on top for years to come saw a unique way of putting it to use. The show relied heavily on the appeal of Cory’s irresistible portrayal of the sarcastic, prodigious fourth-grader, Robbie. And like all programs featuring popular child actors, the timer was always ticking. About nine months into the show’s run, producers, fearing puberty might spell the end of the show’s charm, had approached the two younger stars about undergoing Telomeride treatment, which would effectively halt their growth and keep the cast looking roughly the same ages. After a couple weeks of salary negotiations, Cameron agreed, on the assurance that full drinking rights would indeed be granted to her on her 21st birthday.
Eager to keep their child in the limelight (and bringing home the bank), Cory’s parents quickly gave their approval, on the condition that their son felt safe. It took a month of prodding from executives and doctors before he relented. The initial contract lasted three years, during which Cory would take the annual prescribed dosage and undergo regular checkups to make sure his body was reacting well to the medication.
"... you were nine back when the show started. It’s been a decade now. You turned 19 last September. What’s it been like, well... being a kid all this time?"
And so it began. Shifting nervously in his seat, Cory endeavored to remain casual and relaxed, even though the discussion made him visibly uneasy. During the first few years of the treatment, while Cory was by every measure an actual child, the questions barely fazed him. But the longer the show lasted, the more embarrassment set in. Being an 11-year-old who looked 9 was one thing; forgoing puberty at 19 was another.
"Well, you know, it’s been difficult," Cory said in a low mumble, always subconsciously trying to conceal his prepubescent voice. "Watching your friends grow up, everyone else getting older..."
"While you’re still a little boy?"
"Yeah," he said, hardly masking his contempt for the subject.
"Do you get tired of being young, or is it fun for you?" Kaitlin asked, now adopting a mock serious tone. "I know I’d kill to look younger."
"It’s OK I guess. You get used to it after awhile. My friends tease me about it, of course. My family understands, and the paychecks are great, but it does get boring sometimes."
"What about girls? Is it hard having relationships?"
"Impossible really," Cory admitted. "I mean, I understand. Who wants to go out with a nine-year-old, you know?"
"There were rumors about Kelly Parker..."
"Yeah, we’re still good friends. Met about five years ago on the set. She was 12 then though, so I’m kinda behind." Cory worked up an unconvincing laugh. "I think she’s into taller guys now."
"Do people treat you like a kid?"
"Occasionally. If I go out and no one recognizes me. But I have a lot of fans too, so usually someone wants an autograph or something like that. I’ve gotten a few marriage proposals even."
"Proposals?" Kaitlin seemed genuinely surprised.
"Well, for when I grow up," he clarified, clearing his throat. "I mean, when my body catches up."
The interviewer continued working the same vein for the next five minutes, obviously angling for a soundbite to splash across that evening’s broadcast. Not trusting himself to truly elaborate on his situation without cursing at the reporter, Cory maintained a stoic demeanor for the remainder of their chat. The media attention that used to provide him with a healthy ego boost now only served to hammer home the hopelessly awkward nature of his existence. Cory slid from his perch in the makeup chair and shook Kaitlin’s hand again, hoping none of the sweat rubbed off.
"Thanks for your time," Kaitlin said, while her cameraman shot some b-roll behind them.
"No problem," he replied. He had given her nothing new, just the same cut and dried responses he had regurgitated for the past month. Us Weekly, People, Vanity Fair – all received nothing but canned answers designed not to burn any bridges or betray his growing resentment.
So far the plan was working.
The ride to Dr. Brenner’s office that evening dragged on like a funeral procession. His parents hit every red light in L.A, stopping twice for gas and fast food. Cory sat in the back seat, meanwhile, fiddling with the endless features on his Blackberry. Fame certainly had its perks, though they felt rather pointless to someone stuck at such a restrictive age.
"OK back there?" his mom asked every five minutes.
A monotone reply would follow: "Yes, Mom." The indignity of being driven everywhere by his parents and friends never failed to further sour his mood.
In order to avoid crowds, Dr. Brenner’s practice saw celebrity clients after hours. A leading specialist in Telomeride, the Hollywood physician had been among the first to tout its benefits and downplay widespread worries about side effects. To her credit Telomeride had proven remarkably safe, prompting only a handful of court cases, all of which were dismissed or decided in favor of the manufacturer. Even her office exuded a certain showbiz confidence. Stylized furniture, futuristic shapes, iPads, and the like. The waiting room resembled a trendy club more than a medical facility.
After a brief wait the receptionist announced, "The doctor will see you now, Mr. Seaver."
Cory piled his jacket into the seat and slumped toward the door where a nurse waited with a clipboard. The addition of "Mr. Seaver" always felt unnatural and phony to him, a formality engaged in only to maintain the illusion of his maturity.
The routine commenced. Cory’s weight registered as 61.3 lbs, his height 3’ 11", slightly below average. Blood pressure checked out. As did his cholesterol.
Once inside the examination room, he was instructed to remove his shirt and wait for Dr. Brenner. Legs swinging from the edge of the table, he peered around the room at the posters and pamphlets. Only one or two mentioned Telomeride, as few could afford the drug. Even well-known stars with less than stellar credit histories couldn’t manage the heavy price tag. Consequently, Dr. Brenner’s patients consisted mostly of aging actresses desperate for movie roles and wealthy socialites uninterested in philanthropy. Still, Telomeride was far from the fabled fountain of youth. The drug’s effects were temporary, typically lasting exactly a year for each treatment. Potency determined the desired age, while the number of capsules taken determined the duration of the effects. One 20-Y, as they were called, might reduce the user to 20 years of age, but only for a few months. Cory’s regimen consisted of six pills taken once a year over the course of a week. Six 9-Ys insured that he would stay nine years old for a year. The initial dose sometimes produced stomach cramps and nausea, but only for those undergoing physical regression. Cory had been spared those inconveniences, however, since the drug had merely held his age in check.
Lulled into a vague trance, the sudden entrance of Dr. Brenner gave Cory a start.
"Hi there," the labcoated 35-year-old greeted him. "How are we doing?"
"Oh fine, I guess."
Dr. Brenner was a petite woman with an olive complexion and a youthful ponytail. Cory never knew her exact ethnicity, but he always assumed it was something vaguely exotic. Every once in a while a foreign accent would creep into her words and then right back out again.
"Good. How’s the show? I hear you guys might be renewed for another two seasons." All aboard the chit chat train, he thought. [I]Here we go.
"Maybe. They’re in talks tonight with the actors."
"Hope you’re not missing anything important."
"Well, can’t exactly miss these appointments."
"Guess not!" the perpetually cheery physician said, placing the cold stethoscope on his smooth young chest. "Breath in and out for me, slowly please."
Cory complied, his stomach gently rising and falling, ribs visible through his pale chest, as she moved to his back.
"You’re turning 20 soon, right?"
"Any big plans?"
"Not really. I’m kinda getting tired of balloons and cake," he tried his best to match her lighthearted banter with his own sad attempt at a joke.
"Aww, come on. Being a kid can’t be too bad. It’s a blessing, you know. Most people grow up way too fast and find themselves wishing they could be young again. All that energy and -"
"That’s easy for you to say."
Dr. Brenner leaned around his shoulder and gave him a cajoling smirk. "You should enjoy it while it lasts. The network is spending a pretty penny on you. Don’t worry. You’ll get to be one of us boring, stressed out, neurotic adults eventually. Then you’ll be back in my office begging for some more."
Unconvinced, Cory let out a wistful sigh.
"OK, you know what’s next..." Dr. Brenner pronounced, circling around to face him.
An anvil dropped into his stomach; he’d forgotten about this part. Despite having been under Telomeride’s spell for years, Cory’s body could still reject the medication, a rare condition that resulted in small but detectable rashes and other irregularities. If left untreated, the patient’s body might begin to re-age unpredictably. The danger was negligible for those older than 18, but preadolescents ran the risk of undergoing a kind of haphazard puberty. This could be extremely harmful to the body. Of course, the symptoms of rejection only appeared in certain unfortunate areas.
Biting his lip, Cory crawled off the table and grudgingly lowered his pants, then his underwear. A chill raced down his back. For two uninterrupted minutes he would stand totally naked in front of Dr. Brenner in all his undeveloped glory, as she crouched down and examined him thoroughly for signs of trouble.
The media consensus held that Cory would grow into an attractive teenager. A cute specimen at nine, every indication pointed to his flourishing as a young heartthrob once given the chance. His dark brown hair naturally lent itself to a stylish faux-hawk of sorts while his features were reminiscent of a young Edward Furlong. The hopes were puberty would be kinder to Cory than it was to Edward. One tabloid magazine had even commissioned some age progressed images of him. For now, though, the only words that followed him around were "loveable," "precocious," and "promising."
"Notice anything different at all?" the doctor asked, lightly squeezing his meager boyhood between her thumb and forefinger.
"What do you mean?"
"No, everything’s the same," he assured her. Regrettably.
"Raise your arms."
He lifted his spindly appendages above his head while Dr. Brenner ran her hands under his armpits, causing him to flinch.
"Tickish?" she inquired with a smile that showed her sparkling white teeth.
"OK, just double checking," she said, returning to the sink to wash her hands. "Everything looks great. You’re a healthy nine-year-old going on twenty."
"Great," Cory pouted.
Still amused by her patient’s obstinance, Dr. Brenner grinned and produced a white bottle with a metallic cap from her pocket. He knew the design well. For security reasons, capsules of Telomeride were kept in ultra-secure containers designed to impede intruders and track them down if necessary. A GPS chip in the lid helped law enforcement locate lost or stolen prescriptions.
Dr. Brenner sat the bottle on the counter and turned toward the door. "I just need to finish up some paperwork on your treatment. I’ll be back in a minute." The door closed.
Cory reflexively clenched his teeth as he stared at it. That tiny bottle contained more than six little blue capsules; it housed another Easter at his grandparents’ house being pestered by his young cousins to play tag in the backyard, another litany of failed romantic attempts, another season of taunts and condescension from his castmates, another summer spent eying bikini-clad girls from across the street – in short, another year of humiliation. And all for what? His parents’ greed? A fat paycheck? Fame? A well of anger stirred within him. Palms sweating again, Cory sat motionless on the exam table, contemplating just what had landed him in this strange, neverending Groundhog Day-like loop of eternal youth. He recalled the elation on his parents’ faces when they first approached him with the good news, how the network not only renewed the show but agreed to foot the bill for his extended childhood. Thrilled, vicariously as always, they had lured him with promises of more Christmas presents, more vacations, more of everything except what every nine-year-old boy wants: to grow up. Cory couldn’t blame his younger self for giving in. The incentives far outweighed the negatives. Signing that first contract seemed like a wise decision, and maybe it was, but no one anticipated the show’s incredible run of good luck. Over time he found himself locked into an inescapable holding pattern, signing agreement after agreement, always with the assurance that it couldn’t last much longer. But the more accolades the show garnered, the more the status quo beckoned. "Why mess with a winning formula?" the show’s obese, cigar-chomping producer would say.
Before her knew it, his knuckles were white from gripping the lip of the table. The bottle, unmoved, stared back at him. His friendly nemesis.
"Fuck," he muttered under his breath. The small gesture of defiance only increased his frustration. No one could curse effectively with such a high-pitched voice. Telomeride had stolen even his ability to strike a convincingly angry pose.
Still brooding with uncharacteristic intensity, Cory hardly said spoke another word to Dr. Brenner for the rest of their session. He went home that night with the pills rattling in his pocket.
The big day arrived with some fanfare. A handful of camera crews from various entertainment outlets dotted the studio. The audience buzzed with a bit more anticipation than usual. The routine hustle and bustle seemed livelier. But despite the veneer of excitement about the two-hundredth episode, everyone knew the real reason people tuned in. Passing within earshot of one reporter from a local news station, Cory overheard her lead.
"Thanks, John. It’s one of the first things anyone who’s watched the older seasons of Short Stuff notices; that the cast looks the same. That’s because the younger actors have a unique contract with the network, not only to stay on the show, but to stay the same ages they were when it started..."
This isn’t a TV show, Cory thought, making his way to the stage. This is a freak show.
"Places, everybody," the director yelled called out. The studio immediately quieted down as everyone not involved with filming gathered their things and exited. Every episode began with a cold open. This one featured Cory and Cameron in the living room watching TV as Chris and Michelle entered from the front door.
The Cramer parents, Charles and Linda, entered flustered, just returning home from a wedding, their dialogue starting in mid-conversation.
"Yeah, I know that," Chris complained. "But who the hell picked out the music?"
"It was their wedding, Charles," Michelle answered. "Not everyone can be as classy as we were."
"There’s nothing wrong with the Starlight Vocal Band!"
Laughter and applause followed.
"Kids, your father and I have had a long day. Wanna make some room on the couch?"
More forced laughter.
"Well, unless you want your father to sit on top of you, I recommend scooting over," Michelle instructed, adding her coat to the hanger.
"Better do it," Cory advised Cameron. "Dad sat on a piece of coal last week and it turned into a diamond."
The crowd whistled at Cory’s first line, delivered with that adorable, snarky voice everyone had come to love. The actors settled into their roles with ease. But Cory’s heart was beating like a kickdrum and he appeared vaguely preoccupied. Not enough to distract him from his lines, but just enough to give his acting a nervous edge.
The scene flowed smoothly for another three minutes, spurred on by a supportive crowd. The audience reacted eagerly to every punchline, making the script sound much funnier than it actually was. All the pieces were coming together well. Until Michelle missed a line.
The scene halted and everyone focused on the 44-year-old actress, who was holding her hand to her forehead and swaying back and forth.
"Michelle? Are you OK?" Chris asked, walking over from his mark in the kitchen.
"I don’t know... I..." the actress sputtered. "I’m OK. I just need to sit down."
Leading her over to the kitchen table, Chris pulled out the chair like a gentlemen. Of course, an entire crowd was watching. No pranks allowed.
A low murmur emanated from the audience. People could be seen whispering quietly to one another. The director approached and asked if Michelle felt sick, to which she replied, "Just a little dizzy."
After a brief five-minute break, the actors reassembled as the director blocked the scene again. Slightly lightheaded but full of assurances, Michelle smiled and resumed her position. Though neither of them spoke up, Chris and Cameron had both detected hints of vertigo themselves. Nothing serious, they told themselves. Just their nerves catching up to them.
But half way through the scene, the action paused yet again as Michelle stumbled over another line.
"What’s wrong?" Cameron said, growing more annoyed.
"Cameron?" Michelle said, glaring peculiarly at her co-star.
"You look... different," she said, almost cocking her head sideways.
All eyes turned toward the young actress. Chris drew closer, studying her face as if with a magnifying glass. [I]Wait a second, he thought. She does look different. Meanwhile, Cameron backed away like an animal suddenly frightened by all the attention.
"What is it?" she demanded, pawing at her cheeks. "What are you guys staring at?"
The more time ticked by, the clearer the changes became. Uncertain at first but now confident his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him, Chris finally answered the panicking actress. "You’re getting younger."
Cameron nearly erupted into a seizure. "I’m what??"
"It’s true," Michelle confirmed. "Take a look at yourself."
Shaking with confusion, Cameron searched frantically for a mirror, eventually remembering the prop mirror on the dining room set. Stumbling in her already oversized tank top and baggy pants, she scrambled toward the mirror and gasped at the reflection. A wide-eyed teenager no older than 15 gazed back at her. She instantly recognized the return of her button nose, sprinkled with light brown freckles. Every second the number increased, soon leaving a dusting of them across her face and on her cheeks.
"Oh my god!" she panted, taking in breaths faster than she could expel them. "What’s happening to -" She turned to see Chris and Michelle coming toward her. But something was wrong with them. Why did Michelle’s wrinkles appear to be melting away? Did Chris look younger too? "Guys, um, we’re all getting younger!"
The two actors immediately swung their heads around to face one another.
"Jesus, Michelle, she’s right. You look 25!"
"Chris, what is this?" The dizziness was back.
While the hysteria spread, Cory wandered out of the fray to the edge of the set. He knew perfectly well what was happening. [I]A little justice, he reasoned. Cory thought of the bottle – that damned thing – now empty in his pocket. Each of his three co-stars had earned their reward with years of snide remarks, disrespect, and jealousy. It wouldn’t take long for everyone to figure out just how two capsules of Telomeride made their way into his castmates’ pre-show drinks. But none of that mattered right now. For the moment, Cory would savor their embarrassment.
By now the medication’s effects were in full swing, thrusting Chris, Michelle, and Cameron back into the past with phenomenal speed, especially the latter, who was probably closing in on 12 or 13. Some audience members snapped pictures with their cell phones while others talked loudly and pointed.
Cory watched with a glint of satisfaction as his chief tormenter emerged from the tangle of concerned stage workers looking awkward and unmistakably adolescent. He’d always envisioned Cameron as one of those snobbish, first-with-breasts types in middle school, the girl everyone loved to hate. She was attractive, undoubtedly, but in a way that only served to inflate her already undeserved sense of self. Seeing her argument-winning cleavage dissolve into her chest was glorious, Cory thought, like witnessing the collapse of an evil empire. By now Cameron’s attire, strung over her slinky frame, offered little modesty. The straps from her tank top and bra slipped from her thinning shoulders and now mingled around her upper arms while her once taut jeans pooled at her ankles. The transition through puberty pared her height down considerably and eroded her shapely hips until she resembled a weedy fifth-grader – that is, until she caught sight of Cory.
She hoisted her floppy jeans up to her waist. "You!" the teary actress yelled, stamping across the set in full diva mode. "You did this!"
Cognizant of his Miranda rights, Cory zipped his lips and took the brunt of the buck-toothed girl’s rage in silence. Hampered by her puffy red cheeks and girlish falsetto, Cameron’s delivery only registered as comical.
"A little girl! You fucking turned me into a little girl!" she screamed, now standing eye-to-eye with Cory, her once short bangs now covering her entire forehead. Even with the stream of epithets being hurled at him, he could only manage a grin. It was all too perfect: Cameron Rhodes, the primetime sex symbol, reduced to a whimpering, moon-faced nine-year-old. In front of a live audience. Bet she won’t have too many dates with Ryan for the next couple months, he thought. It would do her good, being a child for a little while. Without her most treasured assets, maybe she would think twice about how she treated those less fortunate in the body department and not take those spectacular boobs for granted.
"Sorry, Camy," Cory said, tweaking her nose. "On the upside, you’ll probably be on more magazine covers tomorrow."
She responded with a gutteral growl and tiny balled fists. It was too cute by half. The Telomeride effects finally stabilized, Cameron could only muster the passion of a fourth-grader. For a second Cory was sure she would hit him, but instead she simply stood there and pulsed with anger. The only thing keeping her tantrum at bay was the audience of onlookers snapping photos of the pair. Eventually the paralyzed actress spun on her heels and marched off set, turning around once to yell, "You’re dead, munchkin! You hear me? Dead!"
Meanwhile, Chris and Michelle were coping with the drastic changes being wrought on their bodies. Michelle had dwindled into her early teens while Chris bid goodbye to his twenties. Both actors were in a state of shock, unable to process their sudden drop in status. They were accustomed to small doses of Telomeride knockoffs and makeup jobs that concealed their true ages, but nothing like this.
"When will it stop? It’s not stopping!" Michelle panted, as the medication began erasing puberty’s artistry. First to go were her broad, athletic shoulders, followed by her well-defined chin and nose. In their place fleshy deposits of baby fat transformed her into a surprisingly plain 14-year-old. Next in line were her breasts, which gradually surrendered to her flat chest, leaving nothing protruding beneath her massive blouse but giant folds of material.
"I don’t know!" Chris answered, himself barely a lad of 16.
"Someone call an ambulance!"
The circus showed no signs of letting up. The Telomeride worked its magic efficiently. Cory had read that taking two pills at once sped up the process dramatically. According to his calculations, the "treatment" would leave all parties involved nine-year-olds for the next two months. Surely during that time they might learn some manners.
Catching his first glimpse at Chris since the regressions commenced, Cory almost didn’t recognize him. As the crowd cleared a path, a portly grade-schooler drenched in a sport coat drunkenly emerged without pants. The chiseled face and ever-present five o’clock shadow dutifully disposed of, Chris stood a good two and a half feet shorter than usual. Every remnant of his former middle-aged self had vanished, apart from the indelible eyebrows, which had apparently been with him all his life. The result was an interesting reconfiguration: his penetrating eyes became doe-like and pitiful, once sensible ears stood out from his head like flaps, and his toned abs gave way to a bulging round belly.
A blushing young girl trying hysterically to balance her old clothes on her shrunken body tiptoed carefully behind him. Unlike Chris, Michelle retained many of her adult facial features, though the journey back through time had blunted them. Neither probably had any desire to revisit their yearbook photos, however.
"Give them some room!" a wardrobe coordinator yelled, corralling one side of the room with outstretched arms. "Back up."
For a moment Cory locked eyes with the diminished pair. They knew. Of course they did.
Paramedics were no doubt on their way, even though the diagnosis was a foregone conclusion. No other drug on the market could produce such effects. The only question would be who was responsible and how the drug wandered into their beverages. It wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to discover who had the motive and the means. As for the show, Cory’s stunt would undoubtedly throw a huge wrench into the entire production, shutting it down for several months at least, if not permanently. A cast comprised of nine-year-olds might work on Sesame Street, but not in primetime. The only show Chris, Michelle, and Cameron might end up on was Oprah – to recount the trauma of regressing in front of a live studio audience.
Part of him couldn’t believe he’d actually gone through with it, cutting his harassers down to size. Cory rationalized his deeds as only temporary. The show needed to end, wanted to end, he told himself. He merely put Short Stuff out of its misery, giving it an appropriately childish finale.
And while the freshly minted kids were herded off set, Cory could feel something rustling inside him, something new. Like a tonic slowly snaking through his veins. It wasn’t a strong feeling, threatening to make him nauseous or dizzy, just a barely perceptible shift occurring somewhere deep inside. Without hurrying or calling undue attention to himself, Cory wove through the remaining technicians on the set as if in a dream. A sensation spread across his chest, waist, and thighs – like belts being tightened around them. Rounding the corner into the virtually abandoned hallway leading to his dressing room, he tugged off his shirt and loosened his pants.
Once safely inside, Cory flipped on the lights and allowed himself to drift toward the makeup mirror. Leaning close, he sighed with relief, a long-awaited relief. He leaned closer still, anxious to observe every fresh new detail. The feeling grew more intense, sending a flight of pins and needles down his arms. It was really happening, he reminded himself.
Studying his reflection like a detective, Cory noticed a patch of fine brown hair filling in the area of above his lip. He brushed the wispy beginnings of his mustache with his finger.
It was totally worth it.