Chapter Description: Now nothing but a barefoot school-boy, Liam finds himself in trouble with an old lady who has a passion for busting truants.
Emerging onto the street from the driveway Liam felt the sun beating down on him again. It was definitely higher in the sky now, but without a watch Liam had no idea what time it was. The cement footpath was much hotter than the shady driveway but Liam didn’t dare walk in the grass lest he get more prickles. Instead he reverted to a way of walking he hadn’t used since primary school, stepping on the sides of his soles and the heels to keep the toes and arches off the scorching pavement. Although back then he’d only needed to do it on the hottest of days on black asphalt.
He’d only made it about ten awkward steps down the scorching footpath before he was halted by a voice behind him.
“And just where do you think you’re going young man?” bellowed the piercing voice.
Liam stopped where he was, though that only increased the burning on his soles, and turned around to see who was yelling at him. It was an older woman, probably retired but not yet elderly. She wore too much make-up, her clearly dyed blonde hair puffed out in an ugly hairdo. She was well dressed with several glistening bracelets on her wrists and gaudy rings on her fingers. She looked familiar but it took Liam a moment to place her. Last time he’d seen her she’d seemed small and weak to him. Now though she appeared large and imposing, towering above him as she walked closer. It was Anna Derbyshire, the neighbourhood’s self-appointed guardian.
“I’m sorry?” Liam replied, trying to look innocent.
“You heard me boy, don’t pretend to be deaf,” she spat. “What are you doing here and not in school?”
Liam gulped. He had no idea how to get rid of her. She’d always seemed silly and paranoid when he met her at neighbourhood gatherings. She’d ramble on about the local hoodlums, about the media and the falling standards of morality corrupting today’s youth. Mostly he just nodded and tried to get away from her when she tried to talk with him. Now though she appeared powerful and dangerous, a serious threat to his plans.
“I... I’m sorry Anna, I just...”
“Excuse me but that’s Mrs. Derbyshire to you! How dare you presume to use my first name? Didn’t your parents ever teach you to treat adults with respect?” she interrupted.
Liam pulled back a step as she leaned over him. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d been spoken to like that, like a second-class citizen who had to treat grown-ups with the utmost respect simply because they were born earlier than him and not because they’d done anything to earn it. Even when he was a kid that had pissed him off, but now it enraged him. He wanted to shout back at the old witch, tell her who she was talking to. But he knew that would get him nowhere. As embarrassing as it was, he knew he needed to act the part of an innocent kid if he wanted to get out of this.
“I’m sorry Mrs. Derbyshire,” he forced himself to say, his voice dripping with fake sorrow. “My mum and dad aren’t around too much y’know. Mum’s always at the casino and dad just spends all his time watchin’ TV,” he told her, knowing that would feed right into her crusade against lazy parents.
The old hag’s angry scowl faded momentarily and she seemed to look at Liam with less hatred and more pity. “Of course they’re too busy, bloody slack parents these days,” she rambled more to herself than to Liam. She looked him over more carefully and then asked, “How old are you boy? Because I know you certainly aren’t sixteen.”
“Um... I just turned thirteen,” Liam lied.
The bitter old woman shook her head miserably. “Thirteen? Look at the size of you boy! Your parents have probably been feeding you nothing but junk, McDonald’s and KFC for dinner every night I bet,” she spat as though the names of the restaurants actually hurt her to pronounce. “It’s no wonder you look more like a ten year old.”
Liam’s eyes widened, was he getting younger again? Or was it just that he’d always looked younger than he was until he hit puberty? He couldn’t be sure but it concerned him. He needed to manipulate his way out of this conversation, he needed her fully on his side. He frowned hard and told her, “I’m the littlest kid in my class, but I still gotta wear my big brother’s stuff when he doesn’t need it anymore. Mum won’t buy me new clothes or nothin’.”
Mrs. Derbyshire clucked her tongue and shook her head. “What a shame. Do you even have shoes dear? A boy your age needs a good pair of shoes.”
“Only my brother’s and they’re too big for me, hurts to wear ‘em,” Liam lied, finding it easier when he weaved in a bit of the truth.
“That is awful dear, but having no shoes is no reason to wag school. I’m sure the nurse can find you a pair of second-hand shoes or sandals.”
“Yeah, you’re right, I should’ve thought of that,” Liam declared, trying to seem grateful, sincere. “I’ll hurry back right now!” he assured her.
But Mrs. Derbyshire wasn’t that easy to trick. “Hold it right there boy,” she growled. “Just because your mum and dad are useless parents who haven’t taught you proper respect doesn’t mean you get a free pass to do what you like. I know you have no intention of heading back to school now. You think I was born yesterday?”
Liam wanted very badly to make a retort to the effect that he knew he wasn’t born yesterday but he was wondering what the dinosaurs looked like when she was a girl. But he knew that would get him nowhere. He forced himself to look contrite and mumbled, “No, m’am.”
“Good, well then you come with me and I’ll see that you get back to school,” she declared suddenly stepping forward and grasping Liam’s hand with her cold, bony fingers.
Liam pulled back, surprised by this incursion, but her grip was vice-like. “I’m not supposed to go anywhere with strangers!” Liam called out, trying to play the part of frightened child.
“But I’m not a stranger dear, you even knew my first name. Come to think of it, what’s your name?”
“I’m Jim,” Liam lied, telling her the first name that came to his head.
“Well Jimmy, where is it that you live?”
The use of the diminutive form of the name he’d given her seemed to rob him of what little adult dignity he had left. “I’m not telling you that!” he yelled at her, letting his temper get the best of him.
“Don’t talk back to your elders!” she roared back, leaning close and wagging a finger in his face. “I will not put up with a cheeky child, you understand me?”
She was so close now Liam could smell her cheap perfume and the mint of her breath. She looked massive, like a monster. Liam hadn’t had anyone so much bigger than him lean over him or man-handle him in over a decade. It was a shock to his system to be so easily manipulated. For a second he’d really thought she was going to slap him and there would have been nothing he could have done about it. Liam couldn’t even whisper a come-back, he just cowered in fear and shame.
“If you won’t tell me where you live, we’ll just have to go to my place and call the truancy officer from there. I’m not wasting my whole day babysitting you to the school and then walking all the way back. C’mon!”
With that Liam found himself being led by the hand along the footpath the opposite direction to the way he needed to go. He pulled hard trying to free himself, but she was too strong for him. His skinny arms weren’t enough to stop her. He could kick her but in bare feet it would hurt him more than her. He knew she’d have to let go sometime, but this was costing him precious minutes he didn’t have to spare.
“This is kidnapping!” Liam yelled.
“Huh! That’s a good one. I’m the head of the neighbourhood watch, a pillar of this community and you’re a truant, the cheeky little boy of useless parents. Who do you think the truant officer will side with?”
Cars passed by but there was no one on the streets to witness the old lady dragging the squalling angry twelve-year old along the footpath. Since all houses facing the street put up fences to close in their front yards and give them more privacy and less noise it was also impossible for them to see the footpath. Liam now knew no one was going to intervene.
Soon enough though she was turning up a driveway and leading him to the second house back. It was a typical square little box of a house, single-storey red brick with a green metal roof, a massive TV aerial jutting out from it. Without releasing his hand she led him inside and slammed the door shut behind her. Before he could do anything she’d locked and dead-bolted the door.
“Wipe your feet!” she suddenly commanded, pointing to the mat by the door.
“Wipe off those dirty feet Jimmy. Your parents may not mind you tracking mud and dirt into their house but I certainly do.”
Liam did as she told him, looking around the room for an escape route. The house was spotless, looking more like a museum exhibit on how people live than an actual home. There was even plastic covering the couch and rocking chair.
“Don’t touch a thing with those grubby fingers of yours. I’m just going to call the truant officer and we’ll have you back where you belong.”
“You know I could just slip off the grounds again as soon as they leave me back,” Liam told her, feeling daring in his anger.
“Won’t bother me one bit if you do my dear, because by that time whatever you had planned for today will be ruined already,” she told him, chuckling malevolently.
She disappeared into the kitchen and Liam could hear her picking up the phone and dialling. Now was his chance to get the hell out of here. But as he turned to the door he felt his shorts slip loose of his waist. He grabbed at them and pulled them back into place, though they barely felt able to stay up. Alarmed by this development Liam noticed there was a mirror placed above a piano on the other side of the room. He quietly walked over to it, climbed up onto the piano bench and looked himself over. The glasses on his face looked absolutely massive now, definitely worse than before. The cello tape was still holding them on only because it stuck to his nose. Then, as he watched, freckles began to appear all across his cheeks, popping into existence. His nose shortened and he had to grab the glasses with a free hand to hold them on. An instant later everything went blurry. For a second this really frightened him, his heart pounding into his throat as he worried he was going blind. Then he realised the problem, letting the glasses finally drop free. Instantly the blurriness was gone.
Liam knew just what that meant and it wasn’t good. He’d needed glasses since he was nine years old, when his vision had suddenly gone quite blurry. If he didn’t need them anymore it meant he was only nine again, if that. No sooner had he dropped the glasses than he felt something strange in his mouth, intense tingling in his gums. He opened wide and looked to see what was wrong as he tasted blood. Sure enough his teeth were popping out of his gums. Disgusted, he found himself spitting out teeth into his hands as though he’d been punched. But he wasn’t being left toothless like an old man. No, as his adult teeth fell out new baby teeth punched their way through the holes. In moments his mouth was a mixture of adult and baby teeth.
With his shorts held up only by his hand now and the t-shirt he wore draping down to just above his knees Liam knew he must have lost another six or seven inches of height. These clothes weren’t going to last much longer if this continued. He had to get out of here and it was now or never. He could hear Mrs. Derbyshire on the phone, talking to the police. He hopped off the bench, dropping his adult teeth on the floor and leaving them. He hurried across the carpet to the front door, undid the locks and slipped it open a crack, trying not to let in the outside light.
“Hold on a second,” he heard her say from the kitchen.
Liam didn’t wait to see if she was on to him, he bolted, sprinting down the driveway and emerging into the bright daylight again, then racing down the footpath away from the house. He needed to put as much distance between him and that crazy old hag as was possible. Only when he’d turned another corner and his lungs were burning did he slow down. As he slowed and the adrenaline rush wore off he noticed that his legs were burning from the exertion as well. He was really puffed, to the point that he had to stop and catch his breath.