Gymboree was bustling with children and their carers when they walked in. They spotted Joy and Amanda immediately, waving at them from middle of the play area. Sue was creeping on her tummy at their feet, mouthing a big soft been-bag. Danny was apparently practising standing, Joy holding both his hands while he stood with bowed knees and in-turned toes babbling with delight at his new-found ability to be upright.
“Look Rachel, it’s your brother and he’s standing up!” Sara told the girl in the stroller.
Sara brought them inside the play centre and Brian couldn’t help but look about with some wonder. There were just so many bright colours, oversized bouncy balls, slides, ramps and toys it was a lot to take in. Meggy was beside herself, slack-jawed with awe as she took in the room through an infant’s eyes. The reception area was separated from the rest of the room by a low barrier. The welcome desk and a row of chairs for visitors and parents sat along the wall. There was a tall cabinet by the entry for people to slide their shoes into before going into the main play area.
A plump older woman with dyed blonde hair and thick glasses welcomed them to Gymboree. “I’m Edna, can I ask how old your little ones are and what programme you’re here for?”
Sara jostled Brian on her hip and replied, “Well these little ones are all twenty-one and they’re here for the pre-walking play group.”
“Lovely, you’re right on time!” Edna declared, then looked at Brian, giving him an exaggerated smile and cooing, “Well hello there buddy!”
“Did you hear that Brian?” Sara said to him. “The nice lady said hello. Can you say hi back to her?”
“Hi,” Brian mumbled, not amused by their condescension. Though it only got worse when Mama grabbed his wrist and made him wave his hand like he was too thick to do so himself.
“What a bright little guy,” Edna told Sara.
“Yes, he’s quite advanced for his age, almost speaks in full sentences already,” she bragged.
“Oh that’s brilliant, you’re a lucky mommy.”
Sara nodded and pecked a kiss on her boy’s cheek.
“Okay, just leave your shoes in the bin and I’ll help you get the little ones into the play area.”
As Mama carried Brian in he watched the kids playing around him. Several young men were tip-toeing down a balance beam raised a foot off the ground. A group about their age was crawling through a tube on the floor, a multi-coloured tunnel. Others were swimming about in a sort of ball-pit filled with soft shapes. Everyone seemed to be having a good time.
Brian was set down on the floor with his Mama sitting behind him. She pulled him back into her lap and he saw that other mothers were sitting with college-aged men and women in their laps all in a circle. Edna set Meggy and Rachel down on either side of them, showing off incredible strength as she easily carried the two adult women across the room and lowered them to the floor as though it were nothing.
In front of them was what Brian recognised as a parachute. It covered a large section of the floor and their circle of moms and babies was formed around it. Edna had left but another carer who introduced herself as Claire cheerily directed the mothers to each grab a corner of the parachute and to lift it high in the air on her mark. Mama places her mouth right by Brian’s ear and whispered, “Okay baby, when Mama lifts the pretty blanket up, you get over to the other side just as fast as you can. Mama will give you a special juice ba-ba afterwards.”
“Okay mommies, lift!” Claire yelled, and the parachute went up.
With all the cheers of encouragement Brian couldn’t help but get caught up in the spirit of the thing. He forced himself forward, immediately dropping to his hands and knees and crawling forward. The parachute’s primary colours filtered the lights on the ceiling, casting a bright rainbow of light across the floor and the other babies. A young man in a Big Bird romper was creeping faster than Brian, and his competitive streak made him force his hands and legs to move faster.
Halfway across and the parachute was coming down, threatening to collapse on them and trap them. With a pounding heartbeat Brian didn’t think how silly that idea was, he just pushed faster. The parachute sprang upwards again just as it seemed ready to touch their heads. Happy with the reprieve Brian decided to try and walk the rest of the way. Surely with all this adrenaline flowing he could force his muscles to work correctly. He rose to his knees but it was impossible to get a foot on the floor without something to pull himself up on. A confused looking Rachel reached his side, also on her hands and knees. Without a word he grabbed her shoulders and used the girl to push himself up. She glared at him and called out in surprise. But he didn’t care, his knees had straightened and he could feel the carpet under his bare soles. He was standing!
With wide, halting steps he moved forward. He could hear Mama shouting her praises as he took step after step. Mamas on the other side of the circle were nodding and smiling at him and that made him feel all good and warm inside. He made it a full six steps upright before his ankle rolled and he dropped heavily to his hands and knees again. But at least he’d made it all the way to the other side. Just as he reached the mama on that side, the silky material of the parachute brushed over his head and neck as it dropped to the floor.
Brian smiled up at her, proud he’d made it in time. She knelt before him and tickled him under the chin. “What a cutie-pie you are,” she said.
Brian was starting to feel like a puppy, on his hands and knees being petted. He pulled back and looked around for his Mama. She wasn’t where he’d left her anymore. Immediately he started to panic. He needed Mama so much! She did everything for him because he couldn’t do anything for himself anymore. If she disappeared, what would become of him? He wanted Mama now!
“Mama!” he called out, tears forming in his eyes. “Where Mama!”
A hand on his shoulder and the scent of Mama immediately soothed him. “Shh sweetie, Mama’s right here baby,” she assured, pulling him into a much needed cuddle.
Brian slowed down his rapid breathing as he cuddled in her arms. He had to remind himself that he was being silly, that Mama would never abandon him. He was her baby and she loved him so much. No, she’d never leave him.
Once he’d calmed down a bit Mama produced a nice big ba-ba filled with apple juice. It looked so appealing, he grabbed for it right away, though he had trouble holding it at first. After dropping it to the floor once Mama helped him to grip it with both hands. He took the rubber nipple in his mouth and began to suckle. The juice was nice and sweet, quenching his thirst and tasting good. He sucked greedily, downing half the bottle in a matter of moments.
“What a thirsty little man,” Mama commented.
Brian took the nipple out of him mouth long enough to declare, “Yummy!”
“I’m glad you like your ba-ba honey.”
It seemed all too soon the ba-ba was empty. Mama took it away and Brian saw that the others had disappeared. He spotted Rachel across the parachute, now sat in a big baby walker like at Meggy’s house. This one was a bit more basic, just a white walker with mesh seat and a tray.
Rachel wasn’t happy about being in the contraption. She hadn’t even tried to walk since the day before. She was happy to stay on the ground, where she was at least free to roam. This thing kept her all cooped up, unable to reach anything beyond the tray. Her bowed legs felt funny dangling like that and it was strange pushing the thing about with toes just brushing the carpet. Rachel had been a bit jealous of Brian when he’d been placed in one the night before, but now she knew that was stupid.
She was getting right into a good sulk when an idea popped into her head. She looked over at Sara, standing near Brian, fitting his empty bottle back into her overfilled bag. The bag that was sitting precariously on the edge of a chair. With all her strength Rachel dug her toes into the carpet and pushed off in Sara’s direction. Her floppy legs did the best they could and she picked up speed, aiming right for the mother’s butt.
Brian wasn’t sure what his friend was doing. She had a look of insane determination as she flailed her legs within the saucer and scooted faster and faster towards him and Mama. As she got closer he realised she wasn’t going to stop. “What the hell?” he thought. But there was no time to warn Mama, for Rachel had given one last thrust and then careened into her.
“Yow!” Sara cried out as the walker slammed into her heel and hip.
“Oopsie!” Rachel called out innocently, a wicked smile on her face as Sara collapsed in a heap and the bag toppled onto the floor, spilling its contents everywhere.
The bottles, clean diapers, make-up, wipes, all of it was spilled across the carpet. And right in the middle of the pile, the book. The only problem was Rachel couldn’t reach it. Once again she was trapped in a baby’s toy her salvation just out of grasp. Sara was already recovering, so Rachel knew there was only one solution. She gave Brian a desperate look then pushed aside her pride and cried out.
“Waah! Ahh...ahhh!” she wailed, forcing snot out of her nose, shaking her head and making like she was crying her eyes out.
Sara’s attention went from the spilled bag to the distraught baby and she immediately was at the girl’s side, trying to comfort her.
While Rachel was being cuddled and assured it was okay by Mama, Brian crept over to the pile and found the book, snatching it up and crawling away as quickly as he could. The sound of Rachel wailing got more distant as he made a bee-line for one of the tunnels. He didn’t dare look back as he crawled in behind a slightly older man in bright red overalls. Keeping his hands just behind the man’s wiggling bare feet Brian silently willed him to hurry it up. Finally they reached the other side of the tunnel and with no one behind him, Brian was alone and hidden.
Brian held the book in his hand and thought carefully about what to do. He decided there was no point trying to make it turn him grown-up again. He would just try to get a bit older, then he could fix things more easily. So he spoke softly to the book, saying “Bein’ a gwown up was bad. I wike bein’ more widdle. But not a baby! Wanna be a widdle boy, go ta school and pway. Pwease, make me widdle boy.”
Nothing happened, so Brian tried a new tack. “Okay, I stay baby, but not my fwends. Make ‘em big ‘gain. You gots me. Jus’ let ‘em go,” he offered, hoping that once they were older his friends could find a way to save him too. If the book demanded a victim maybe it would be satisfied with just him.
There were no wavy lines of energy, no eerie glow emanating from the book. It didn’t do a damned thing. Brian felt a lost, he’d given it his all and had nothing to show for it. He felt his rage at the stupid book grow by the second.
“C’mon stupid book, do somethin’!” he roared.
“I hate you! You maked evewything bad!” he yelled, slamming the book onto the floor and hitting it.
What happened next wasn’t at all what he’d been expecting. The book didn’t start to glow, there was no slow change. Instead there was a blinding flash of light and a wave of searing heat from the cursed book.