The car ride was boisterous to say the least. While Hank, Joanne and Christie sat in the front - the girl randomly pressing at the buttons on the dashboard and stereo and squealing in delight at the myriad results - the boys were all piled in the back, playfully tussling with one another and going on and on about how much fun the party would be. Charles, for his part, looked completely at place in the scene, goofing around and babbling and producing rude noises with just as much proclivity as Ollie or JJ. It was a splendid performance - it had damn well better be for how much Charles had riding on it. In the moments following his unintentional defecation the young man was mere millimeters away from plummeting of the edge, the unspeakable shame that came from not only sitting bare-assed on the potty but actually using it nearly enough to send him spiraling into the dark recesses of insanity, the foul dripping cloisters of the mind that few were lucky enough to escape. But he was strong - he could still fight. And once he pulled himself back from the brink he realized that he needed to attack his problem in a different way. If Hank and Joanne wanted him to be a silly, empty-headed little boy, he’d be more than happy to play the part - and at all times keep an eye out for a chance to escape the nightmare he had found himself in.
That moment, he hoped, was rapidly approaching, for he reasoned that there must be someone at the party that could help him. Charles pretended that he was excited for the same reason the boys were, the “slip slide” that all three of them had been dressed in baggy swim trunks for. But what he was really looking forward to - what made him tremble in anticipation - was finding someone that could bring him back to respectable maturity, that could rescue him from the world of shortall-wearing, lollipop-sucking, potty-squatting toddlerhood.
“Here we are!” Hank declared as he parked the car. “It’s party time!”
The man stepped out and opened the back door and as soon as he did so Ollie and JJ burst giggling from the backseat. Charles did his best to copy their enthusiasm, but, try as he might, he couldn’t help but be struck by the horror of the scene that was stretched out before him. Though there were a good number of adults scattered among the front yard, chatting and socializing as they nibbled on Ritz crackers and cheese of middling quality…there were just as many shouting, drooling, hollow-eyed young men and women, none of them looking a day above twenty-one, screaming and laughing as they rumbled around on the grass and made awkward tumbling dives on the water logged stretch of glassy yellow plastic. Their ages - for lack of a better term - ranged from diaper-clad infants, bouncing on their parent’s knee as pacifiers bobbed between their lips, to rowdy, incorrigible, mostly naked preschoolers who refused to keep still for even an instant.
Charles wanted to cry out. He wanted to claw at his cheeks and scream until no sound would come. But somehow the young man managed to swallow his fears - and the one instant of knee-buckling terror only bolstered his resolve, seeing the consequences for his failure displayed before him only making his determination stronger than ever. That one instant, though, was long enough to create separation between him, Ollie and JJ - but if Hank and Joanne noticed his hesitation they made no sign of it, leaving the young man by himself as they each took Christie by the hand and strolled with her into the grown-up area. While the guests fawned over the little girl and welcomed her parents Ollie and JJ seamlessly integrated themselves into the childish reverie, immediately stripping off their bathing suits and joining a few other boys in an awkward ear-piercing game of tag. Charles was at a loss for what to do - he was confident in his ability to blend in with the rest of the children, but to what end? As far as he could tell, all of the grown-ups were just like Hank and Joanne. He wouldn’t get any help here. He wouldn’t -
“There’s no use in pretending.”
Charles jumped and looked up to see a slim young man with dark wavy hair sidle up beside him, crossing his arms and regarding the young man with a sober look on his face.
“Your eyes give you away.” The man said as he sighed and looked out over the melee. “When you look at those poor souls it’s obvious that there’s nothing left of the men and women that they used to be - that they might as well be babies for what’s left of their minds.”
He turned to Charles and lowered his voice.
“But you…” He whispered. “I can see the glimmer in your eyes. The spark of intelligence. There’s still something left to be saved.”
Charles trembled and licked his lips.
“Who…who are you?”
“Me? I’m just the guy who paints the kids’ faces.” He said, holding up the paint kit that hung from his shoulder. Charles looked out at the crowd and noticed for the first time that many of the children had been done up to resemble the sort of fantastic beasts that little kids love to imitate. “I’m the only person in the area that does this sort of work, so these people bring me in whenever they have a party.”
He shuddered and spat.
“Makes me sick to my stomach. The only reason I keep coming back is because I thought that one day I’d find someone I could help, someone whose mind hadn’t yet been turned to mush by these sickos. But I’ve yet to find a single man or woman who had even the slightest bit of their old intelligence left.”
He turned to Charles and grinned.
“Until now.” He said. “You…you, I can help.”
It wasn’t until he had ran the words over in his head - made himself completely sure that he had heard him correctly - that Charles grabbed at the man’s arm and started babbling in gratitude, his heart soaring, tears streaming from his eyes.
“Shh!” The man chided him as he stole a glance at the adult partygoers. “You can’t let them know that you’re not little, not even for an instant. Keep quiet and come with me.”
Charles nodded vigorously, wiped the tears away, and took the man’s hand, allowing the painter to lead him over to a secluded part of the lawn, to a spot behind the bushes where prying eyes couldn’t reach. Moving quickly, the man dropped to his knees, bade Charles to sit Indian style in front of him, and then pulled the paint kit off his shoulder.
“What’s your name?” He asked.
“Char-Charwels.” The young man responded, his mouth all but refusing to make the second syllable.
“Bill. It’s good to meet you, Charles.” He said as he set the kit on the grass and let out a short, incredulous laugh. “I was beginning to think I’d never get to use these.”
He reached into the kit and pulled out three squat silver vials that just barely fit in the palm of his hand.
“I swiped these from one of the parents when they weren’t looking.” He whispered. “They’re a cocktail of topical drugs - the antidote.”
Charles trembled and stared at Bill’s palm as though he held the sun itself in his hand.
“The drugs should be able to reverse what’s happened to you…but they need to be applied very precisely, so you’re going to have to close your eyes and stay perfectly still while I put them on, okay?”
The young man stared at the vials for another moment before turning his awed eyes up to Bill’s, giving the painter a nod and a slow, shivering smile. Bill grinned and squeezed his shoulder.
“All right then. Close your eyes and I’ll get to work.”
Charles did as he was asked and almost immediately felt the cool cream against his skin, spread over his cheeks by a delicate brush that sent little tingling tickles down his spine with every stroke. Bill seemed to be working with the utmost efficiency, obviously wanting to get the job done before any of the partygoers realized they were missing. The only thing that slowed him down was the fact that he had to remind the young man more than once to keep his mouth closed - for Charles couldn’t help but grin at his good luck. He had found the one person who truly wanted to help him, who saw his situation for the waking horror that it was, who would take him away from this place and these people and have him back to being a grown-up in no time flat.
The young man opened his eyes and blinked, familiarizing himself with the feel of the cream on his skin.
“Well?” Bill asked, his head tilted. “How do you feel?”
Charles opened his mouth to answer - but as he did so he was struck by a sort of itching that broke out over his face, an itching that turned to a thick penetrating numbness that made him feel as though he had been jabbed with anesthetic in six different places. Without warning the sensation changed once more, feeling as though a million little wriggling worms were burrowing through his skin, twisting through the sinus maze, reaching and penetrating the fleshy walls of his brain. In any other situation it would have been a peculiar and extremely worrying phenomenon - but as it unfolded all Charles could do was bounce on his hips and grin from ear to ear, knowing that the drugs were working, that he was seconds away from returning to normal. Once every one of the worms was inside, a moment of nothingness passed - and then it was as though they all bit down at once, light exploding behind Charles’ eyes as his mind screamed in agony. Then - just as quickly as it had come - the sensation was gone.
And he was back.
Charles was back. The mature, intelligent young man that had nearly tumbled headlong into toddlerhood had regained full command of his thoughts, could concentrate without the slightest hint of the thick soupy fog that had penetrated the deepest recesses of his mind. He was back.
And he didn’t have the slightest bit of control.
The young man wanted to celebrate his return to sanity, wanted to leap to his feet and give Bill the biggest hug he had ever given anyone in his entire life - and he didn’t have the capability to so much as blink. His exultation slipped away in an instant as he fired commands to every inch of his body, ordering himself to speak, to snap his fingers, to do something, anything.
Bill leaned in front of Charles, filling the young man’s field of vision with his smiling face.
“Anybody in there?” He laughed as he gave the young man’s forehead a couple gentle knocks. “I’m sure you are. After all, I haven’t had these drugs fail on me, not even once. Developed them myself, y’know.”
Charles screamed at his body to move, cursed at the lifeless marionette that sat drooling and unblinking on the grass while Bill took hold of the foot that had been folded beneath it and pulled it out onto the grass.
“I’m sure you’re mad at me for lying to you, but hey, is it any worse than you pretending to be little?” The painter grinned. “Besides, it’s not like it was all lies - painting’s a hobby of mine and those kids out in the yard were just delighted with the work I did for them. ‘Course, they didn’t need any special paint today - their minds went bye-bye a long time ago.”
He reached into his kit and pulled out a mirror.
“And in a few moments…you’ll be just like them.”
Bill turned the glass towards Charles, the mind-bound prisoner choking in horror at the image that swung in front of him, at the sight of his of his face painted to resemble that of a ferocious Bengal tiger. The stripes, the shadowing, the little black dots sprinkled above his lip to create the illusion of a muzzle…it was perfect.
“Not bad, huh?” Bill chuckled. “Of course, that’s only the first step…the final trigger’s a little different for each child. Your mommy and daddy were kind enough to tell me what yours is.”
Charles screamed. He howled. He pounded at his skull as though he could break through and tear his consciousness from his body.
“Hank and Joanne gave us our family.” Bill said, his tone growing somber. “And you’re going to be part of it. You’re going to be the newest, cutest little member of our clan.”
He took Charles’ big toe in his hand.
“Watch it wiggle.” He said. “Watch it wiggle. Wiggle. Wiggle. Wiggle.”
There was nothing the young man could do. His dead, unblinking eyes were focused right on his foot, right on the big toe that Bill kept wiggling back and forth as his serpentine song slithered between his ears. Charles cowered in the depths of his ego, curling into a tight little ball as Bill leaned in close and gave him a brilliant smile.
“Just like your brothers.” He whispered. “You’re gonna be just like your brothers.”
As the words wormed into his ears a sort of effervescence grew within him, a growing, popping cluster of bright white bubbles that shot up his throat like shook-up soda pop and burst through his lips.
He giggled and squirmed and clumsily clapped with delight at the sight of the silly man wiggling his little piggy back and forth. Bill grinned, let go of the boy’s toe and took him beneath the arms, pulling him to his feet and turning him towards the party.
“Go on now.” He chuckled. “Go and show everybody what a scary tiger you are.”
“Yeah!” The boy shouted. “Scawy tiguh!”
“Oh, and before you go…” Bill chuckled as he took hold of his trunks. “Let me help you with these.”
The painter yanked it down to his ankles, the boy’s mouth agape with joy as he kicked off his swimsuit and hopped up and down in exultation.
“Nakie!” He giggled. “’m nakie!”
“You sure are, buddy.”
The painter gave him a pat on the bottom to send him on his way, the boy laughing with every step as he scampered into the yard. It wasn’t until he was in the middle of the party - until he was surrounded by screaming overgrown toddlers that paid him no mind and adults that cast bemused sidelong glances in his direction - that the boy looked down and noticed how silly his pee-pee was being, how funny it was that it bounced and bobbed and wiggled with the slightest movement of his hips. Utterly amused, the boy plopped onto his bottom and took the appendage in his hands, giggling and drumming his heels as he slapped it against his tummy and his thighs and the warm tickly grass. His amusement turned to wonder and then to a nice tingly sensation that he couldn’t quite name as it grew in his palms, as he realized that he could get more of the nice tingles if his hands went up and down as opposed to side to side. Some of the adults had caught sight of the display, chuckling and diverting the attention of others to the middle of the yard, to the overgrown little boy with the face like a tiger who was unashamedly playing with himself.
It was then - for a few brief, fleeting moments - that Charles resurfaced, when his consciousness burst through the happy popping bubbles it had been buried beneath. He was completely lucid - and he still had no control, still condemned to being a prisoner in his own mind. He saw what the boy saw, unable to do nothing more than look on as the empty-headed toddler that had taken control of his body clumsily masturbated in the middle of a crowded party. Charles blubbered. He pleaded. He experienced the thoroughly bizarre sensation of vomiting without having the physical capability to do so.
When the boy reached climax it was as though a great wave came roaring through him, a crashing, thundering breaker that made him shudder and shake as his eyes rolled back in his head and he opened his mouth to release a long soundless note of ecstasy. When the wave came rolling through it effortlessly plucked Charles up and swept him screaming from his own mind, dragging him into the void the way the tide would pull a man out to sea, his cries becoming smaller and smaller until they were indistinguishable from those of the scavenging seagulls that circled above.
Charles was gone. Charlie was all that was left.
It wasn’t until the boy came down from his high - until the last of the wonderful little shivers left his body - that he realized there was a long shadow cast across his shoulders. He raised his head to see Hank looking down at him, his head tilted and a little smile on his face.
“Charles?” He asked. “What are you doing?”
The boy snarled and curled his hands into claws.
“’m a tiguh!” He growled. “Scawy tiguh, daddy!”
Hank blinked twice before laughing, pulling a rag from his back pocket, and lowering himself to one knee.
“Yes you are.” He chuckled as he cleaned Charlie’s body of its release. “You’re a big scary tiger, and we’re very happy to have you.”
Hank tickled the bottom of Charlie’s foot and the boy squealed in delight, grabbing it with both hands and yanking it away from the man, popping the big toe in his mouth and sucking on it contentedly as his daddy lovingly patted him dry.